Biotech in Africa
In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.
The first in the series “High hopes and high stakes” puts the United States government’s pro-biotech bias in perspective. He quotes former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as saying that Gates-sponsored Monsanto and biotech industry projects in Africa will help “knock down some the concerns that are expressed globally and domestically about biotechnology.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed similar views and both echo President Obama’s cheerleading efforts (which probably come more from the medical side of biotech).
Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?
Truly King Corn is worldwide in its influence. Yet corn (white corn, but Brasher does not differentiate) is a key staple for the poor African; 300 million Africans depend on it, some three times a day and so far Africa’s rate of corn production has lagged behind its rate of population increase. Clearly more corn and other staple production is needed. So the question is: How to go about increasing production?
Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.
At the BIGMAP symposium I attended before reading Brasher’s opus, it was painfully clear that a major barrier for many African countries is more fundamental than seeds: it is the lack of infrastructure. In addition, many do not have adapted seeds (open-pollinated and hybrid) to respond to inputs such as fertilizer, they lack rainfall to maximize yields (sometimes just to germinate the seed) and things are getting more dire with climate change. They lack plant breeders, seed distribution centers, lines of credit, and post-harvest storage. In other words, the challenges are much more than just yield.
The Gates-funded projects with Pioneer and Monsanto that we've previously written about hope to incorporate two major traits in the new corn seeds: drought tolerance (Monsanto) and increased nitrogen efficiency (Pioneer). The corn already contains the genetically engineered Bt trait for insect control. These seeds will need to produce higher yields that override the almost certain increased costs of the seed, the fertilizer and other production costs associated with GE crops. And remember that farmers in Africa don't have the abundance of government programs available to U.S. corn farmers if weather or the market impacts profitability.
Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.
Brasher's comparison of the acceptance of biotech in South Africa, the European Union and America was revealing. Essentially Europe still says no, driven by consumer resistance. But Brasher indicated that a report by USDA in Rome argued that consumer resistance in the EU was not as strong as believed and that an “education” (read propaganda) campaign targeted to Italy might be a good place to start turning things around. No doubt there are other stealth campaigns to try to get biotech crops into Europe.
The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.
Two agronomists have recently won the World Food Prize for work they have done in Africa. They have somewhat different views on how to improve African agriculture. Gebisa Ejata, who just won the World Food Prize in 2009, feels African farmers need basic knowledge about farming methods. In a recent paper in Science, he stated that Africa needs both strong internal leadership and external assistance, particularly in the areas of human and institutional capacity building. Pedro Sanchez, who won the World Food Prize in 2002, feels that increased access to markets and more fertilizer use could also help and that drought tolerance is essential to combat the threat of climate change.
In the end, no one can predict the correct path. Improved genetics certainly is part of the puzzle, but even more is the need for infrastructure. Infrastructure was an essential part of Norman Borlaug’s green revolution. Even Gates millions cannot create miracles. Only hard work by Africans and attention to African needs and climate will bring about the level of food production needed. And that may not be enough. The struggle against encroaching climate change, overwhelming population pressures and misguided government aid programs will only slow efforts.
The Brasher reports reflect these stark challenges. Unfortunately, they stride the political barbed wire fence by putting more emphasis on biotech than it can possibly deliver—without exploring the role of more needed alternatives.
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