Monday, November 2, 2009

Behind-the-Scenes Debate on GM Foods

Despite all the discussion concerning what to do about genetically modified (GM) foods in Africa, it is a relatively quiet debate about whether scientifically altered seeds have a place in achieving the long-awaited Green Revolution on the continent. Some are working to use science to speed up agricultural advancements in Africa, while other see this as the beginning of Africa’s doom.

I recently came across the following headline: “Bill Gates launches attack on Africa’s food production.” The article’s author, Ayesha Fleary, accuses the Microsoft founder with setting up an African agriculture organization “under the pretext of ensuring that small farmers get the funding needed that will enable them to feed themselves and their communities.” She writes that GM and hybrid seeds degrade the soil and inhibit the growth of any other type of seed for at least 10 years, even though she acknowledges that “no independent scientific research has been conducted” on GM products. Fleary blames the degradation of African soil on centuries-long denutritionalizing of soil by production of the same crops for export to Western countries and the byproducts of industrial waste and calls for natural techniques such as rain harvesting and community farming.

On the other hand, African organizations such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Nairobi, Kenya, are working to enable African countries to take advantage of existing technology, especially biotechnology, to advance the green revolution. “If money was not a constraint, we could achieve a green revolution through not necessarily biotechnology, but if we could put irrigation systems in place, if we could afford to purchase fertilizer, pesticides, we should be able to reach a green revolution as what happened in Asia,” said Daniel Mutaruka, director of AATF in an interview with Mutaruka went on to point out that an African living in a resource-poor environment today consumes less than what he or she would have 10 years ago. He calls for African governments to create enabling environments to stimulate research on GM foods.

Millions of Africans face death from malnutrition as I write this. For a variety of reasons, too many African nations are no longer able to meet their agricultural needs. Despite skepticism among European countries, the United States, China, India and several South American countries are forging ahead on with testing of GM crops. Several African countries also are in the process of testing biotechnology in agriculture, and South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Burkina Faso already have commercialized some GM crops.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between advocates and scientists about the utility and safety of GM agricultural products that stems from a lack of understanding of what these products are and what their short-term and long-term effects may be. GM crops are produced by seeds altered for a variety of purposes: pest resistance, disease resistance, herbicide resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition or added medicines and vaccines. It is simply not yet proven that GM foods are broadly hazardous to human health, although it is very likely that those with food allergies could be adversely affected by altered food products.

Those who don’t trust what they see as Big Science and capitalists believe GM agricultural products are “Frankenfood.” Those alarmed by the rise in both malnutrition and food prices a see a crisis that may be alleviated by using science to jump-start the Green Revolution in Africa. The problem is that there is not enough evidence that these products are either unjustifiably dangerous or completely safe. Africa’s brain drain doesn’t make this situation any easier since many of the scientists who could ensure that their homelands don’t use unsafe agricultural products or take advantage of existing technology to prevent starvation live and work in other countries.

So African governments are faced with heeding warnings by those who are suspicious of technology they acknowledge not understanding or accepting advice from those desperate to meet pressing needs despite potential risks in the future. The behind-the-scenes debate over GM foods needs to be brought into the open and examined carefully. Promoting products that may be dangerous is unacceptable. However, in the face of growing hunger in Africa, we owe it to the hungry to explore every possibility for meeting their needs while they still live.

Let the open debate begin!

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