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Southern Africa

The GM crop dilemma

Due to lack of knowledge on the effects of Genetically Modified crops on the environment and humans, Southern African countries are faced with a serious dilemma regarding the introduction of such crops to their farmers.
Francis Rangoajane

“Genetically modified corn has been consumed safely around the world since 1995”. So claims the US Secretary of State Colin Powell in both his defense for US genetically modified corn donated to the Southern African countries faced with famine and his attack on those countries that rejected the corn, skeptical about the effect of such crops on humans. Although Secretary Powell did not make any effort to demonstrate or explain how safe genetically modified crops are, he would be pleased that David Stipp, writer for Fortune Magazine published in Netherlands, in his article “Chinese Biotech-the Shape of Biotech to come” which appeared in September issue of Fortune, shows the benefits brought by genetically modified crops in China. Stipp writes “In 1988, China became the first country to commercialize a bio-engineered crop: tobacco resistant to a plant virus…China’s bioengineers have tinkered with an extraordinary variety of plants-more than 50 species-adding genes for traits such as resistance to viruses and insects to everything from peanuts to papayas…Chinese farmers are already reaping major fiscal and public health gains. Those planting “Bt cotton,” which carries a gene for an insect-killing toxic, have cut their use of pesticides by about 80 per cent, reducing overall production costs by a whooping 28 per cent-the farmers’ saving in 1999 alone topped $330 million…Even better, their incidence of pesticide-related poisonings plummeted 79 per cent.”

As Stipp states in his article, genetically modified crops can be a solution or bring some sort of relief to many developing countries. For years, developing countries, especially those in arid regions and given the absence of irrigation schemes, have been battling to find crops that are drought resistant. However, instead of bio-engineered crops being received with enthusiasm, developing countries are rather skeptical about them due to lack of knowledge, understanding about the impact they can have on the environment, indigenous crops and the people themselves. During a press conference last month, the South African Minister of Trade and Industry, Alexander Irwin, said genetically modified crops are a giant step in agricultural development. However, he pointed out that there is so little information with regard to the process involved in developing seeds for such crops which leaves a lot of questions unanswered and consequently uncertainty surrounding them.

Fred Kalibwani, Director of Participatory Ecological Land Management Association (PELUM) which advocates for bottom-up system in Africa went even further to point out that seeds from some of the genetically modified crops do not germinate, which might result in further crop failure rather than improve crop production, consequently worsening the situation. Given the fact that some of the seeds do not germinate, Mr Kalibwani is also concerned, especially in the wake of anthrax scare, that terrorists organizations might use genetically modified seeds to spread famine around the world if such crops are allowed into the market.

Given this concern, it is then understandable why there are stern anti-genetically modified crops from activists such as Ms Vandana Shiva, a scientist and activist from India. She argues that there are better ways of feeding the world other than by contaminated crops and such seeds should not be made available to the farmers. Her campaign against genetically modified crops and their being made available to farmers has resulted in stern attacks from some farming groups and organizations such as Liberty Institute based in New Delhi, India. These groups see her action as campaigning for the spread and maintaining of poverty.

The question is, Kalibwani says, if enlightened people like South African Trade and Industry Minister, Irwin, know little or are skeptical about genetically modified crops, how much do local farmers especially those in rural and remote areas where they have neither magazines, newspapers and have limited access to radios let alone television know about them? Not many local farmers know about genetically modified crops or seeds, what some know are improved seeds which were encouraged by their governments through agricultural development officers that were meant to improve crop productions in the 70s and 80s. However, some have bad memories about those crops.

Mr Daniel Mohlaba, a local farmer, said those improved crops especially maize needed more rain than crops from the indigenous seeds. Furthermore, they were not resistant to worms and consequently farmers had to spend more money to buy insecticides. This led to crop failure rather than improve production. “With maize being staple food, this brought about a disaster”, he added. The other thing that Mr Mohlaba complained about with regard to those improved seeds was that they cost a lot of money. But if the improved seeds which governments encouraged in 70s and 80s cost money, how much will the genetically modified seeds cost? Will average native farmer whose life revolves around subsistence farming be able to afford them?

Even if genetically modified crops can be a solution to Africa’s food problems as demonstrated by the China’s success story, there are a couple of challenges with regard to them. According to Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Network [FANRPAN], which is SADC agricultural policy network, out of the estimated 200 million African population, 50 per cent is in rural areas where customs and traditions are still the order of the day. Consequently, the question of rituals cannot be left out. Almost everything in most societies involve rituals, including agriculture.

For instance, a feast is organized which might include slaughtering of a goat, sheep or beast and brewing of liquor. Seeds are then brought out before a gathering of the whole village. A little bit of liquor is spilled on the ground which symbolizes the people giving to the ancestors with the hope that the ancestors will give back in the form of blessing the seeds to be sown and ensuring that they yield accordingly. After such a feast, farmers can then go out and plough. And with seeds traditionally being passed from one generation to another the question is how the farmers will present these foreign seeds to their ancestors? This raises fear in some that such seeds might not be accepted by the spirits, resulting in crop failure and famine.

Besides that, even if genetically modified seeds are made available to native farmers, it is likely that they will have little effect since most natives are subsistence farmers, some not of their own volition but due to political history. As FANRPAN observes “In SADC land as a finite and highly contested resource has in many years led to wars, conflicts and perennial tension. For Southern Africa, in particular, the highly sensitive land ownership and access factors have been aggravated by colonialism and deficient post-independence linkages between food security and land access. Historically unequal ownership and access to land was largely based on race. Many Africans lost their God-given resource during colonialism. This was even worse in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe where even to date prime land and highly productive land is still in the hands of fewer people.”

Finally, there is a question of taste of the food from these genetically modified crops, as Mohlala observes, genetically modified crops do not taste like the indigenous crops. And with taste being paramount to food and crop production in many African societies the acceptability of genetically modified seeds hangs in the balance. However, all is not lost. There are still farmers like Joe Lanka who is not concerned about what type of crop he grows, whether improved or genetically modified. His main concern is to ensure that his family has something to eat and there will be stalks for his animals. This shows the desperate situation some people are faced with while others who are not so desperate are more concerned about other issues and not basic human needs.

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