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Synthesis/Regeneration 34   (Spring 2004)

Resistance to Genetic Engineering in Africa

by Raymond K. Bokor, Agro-Ecological Technician,
Agricultural Reform Movement, Ghana

Uptake of biotechnology in Africa is growing at an increasing rate as multinational corporations continue to flood it with genetic engineering technology. This uptake cannot go without negative impact on biodiversity, the environment, producers and consumers. The most significant impact is on the numerous resource poor farmers. Most farmers will never be able to afford technology fees and the chemicals to grow these new GE seeds. It is even possible now to genetically engineer plants to produce sterile seeds, stopping farmers from saving their seeds for replanting the next year.

About a third of humanity (1.4 billion people) depends on saved seed for their survival. Genetic engineering in its present form cannot be part of the solution of the food crisis in Africa. It is part of the problem. Most farmers in Africa lead egalitarian lives and are able to save, sell and exchange seeds freely, so biotechnology will dissolve these good values and prohibit farmers from such practices.

I would like to give you an overview of the key issues relating to resistance to genetic engineering in Africa. In the first place, the problem is a complex one and its solution is not clear or well articulated. Unfortunately, and miserably to say, the majority of Africans neither know of GE implications to health and the environment nor do they understand what genetic engineering is and for that matter what genetically modified foods are and the threat they pose to health and environment. Some of these problems are complicated for economic and political reasons. For instance, most of the information is hidden from the public and confined to the scientific environment and to the politicians. Africans become mere consumers of public goods and do not know where and what kind of food is available to them, especially when it comes to receiving and distributing of food aid.

Food aid comes as a result of the myth of hunger. Hunger in Africa is unevenly distributed and I must say that this is a result of inequitable economic systems, which deny the poor access to food and land—not merely inadequate supplies of food.

Many corporations—particularly the agribusiness giants—think Africa lacks technological expertise in meeting its food needs and therefore have lured governments to adopt genetic engineering technology as a panacea to end hunger as well as to bring economic and social relief to the masses.

Genetic engineering in its present form cannot be part of the solution of the food crisis in Africa. It is part of the problem.

Last year about 14.4 million people (according to the UN Food program) needed food aid in southern Africa due to grain shortages. The US government through the World Food Program (WFP) has donated a lot of genetically modified foods to some starving African countries, particularly in the south, as food aid with no option for the recipients/governments to make any choice. As a matter of fact, resistance to genetic engineering and genetically modified food aid in Africa has been gaining public support in recent times. A statement from Bread for the World Institute in April 2003 argued that “any potential benefits of crop biotechnology must be weighed against potential risks and considered within a broader African agricultural and economic development framework.”

This is an overview of GE resistance in some of the countries in Africa. In December 2000, Algeria banned the importation, distribution, commercialization and the utilization/cultivation of GMO foods and raw materials. Egypt has also banned the import of GE wheat as well as imports of canned tuna from Thailand in January 2000, believing them to be packed in genetically modified soybean oil.

In addition, many other countries have been trapped to accept GE food aid by pressure and the creation of artificial conditions to necessitate their acceptance. For instance, Malawi’s government was forced by IMF and the World Bank to sell off their 2001 food reserves for debt repayment in 2002 so that Malawi would have no choice but to accept GE foods. About 250,000 metric tons were shipped to Malawi during the drought in 2002. The government embarked on civic education to sensitize farmers about the dangers it could cause to the environment and the health risks of human consumption. Even though the government had asked them not to use relief maize for planting, farmers ignored this advice and planted the seeds. Government officials, some NGOs and civil society, spreading the resistance message in the famine-stricken targeted population not to accept the GM maize, on January 10 uprooted all the GM maize planted in Malawi. (Source: All Africa Global Media, January 10, 2003).

In March 2003, Gambia was poised to receive several metric tons of GM food from the US, which it believed would feed 300,000 people per month. Overwhelming opposition from concerned citizens, including consumers, cautioned the government not to accept the imposed offer.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have both rejected GMO grains offered by the US through the WFP last August as a result of famine in some part of the region. About three years ago, a Monsanto representative visited Ghana and tried to lure the government into bringing what he termed “golden corn” to end hunger. We resisted and published editorials advising the government against that. Kenya continues to be the resource pool for testing, research and development of GE crops.

…South Africa’s uptake of GE has been one of the fastest in the world.

South Africa

South Africa, as the gateway to southern Africa, is an attractive option for agribusiness. Its strong commercial seed market has made it easy to introduce new seed varieties, good agricultural infrastructure and, indeed, the privatization of public research institutions, and a highly vocal and active scientific lobby has led to the rapid expansion of GE in the country. Few local products have been developed in South Africa and approximately 100 million rands is spent on biotechnology research and development annually as against Nigeria’s 26 million. This goes a long way to burden the taxpayer. Over 600 biotechnology research projects exist at present in the following sectors: medical and pharmaceutical; agricultural/plant; environmental; food and beverage; chemical; veterinary; and biosafety.

Approximately 55 companies are involved in biotechnology and locally commercialized products, mostly in the plant and medical sectors. In fact, South Africa’s uptake of GE has been one of the fastest in the world.

In 1999, over 250,000 hectares of the country were planted with GE crops. In 2000, this figure increased by 100,000 hectares, a 50% increase in one year. At least 175 field trials are underway, and five commercial releases have been approved. The geographical extent of plantings is wide, involving 8 of South Africa’s 9 provinces. Already 28% of cotton and 6% of maize planted in South Africa is genetically engineered. Permits have been granted for field trials and experiments with cotton, maize, soybeans, apple, canola, wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, eucalyptus trees, grapes, and a host of micro-organisms. However, concern has been raised that the public was paying a high price for what was essentially an experiment that primarily benefited the developers of the technology. For instance, given that the Department of Agriculture has admitted its inability to properly monitor or inspect the growing of these crops, the maximum price for licensing of GE crops of only R8,000.00 was clearly inadequate. This is insufficient to finance clerical oversight of applications, let alone field inspections, public participation, technical testing and other costs.

During the 2001-2 seasons, GE white maize for human consumption was planted, the first GE food staple in the world, which holds profound implications for Africa’s poor.

In 1997, the South African Government promulgated the GMO Act that was intended to regulate the genetic engineering of agricultural products. In essence the legislation did little to address concerns at the likely negative implications of GE. In 1998 a network of concerned organizations and individuals convened to explore ways to address the threats raised by the state’s acceptance of GE.

A resource person from the UK “five-year freeze” was brought in to explore the possibility of a similar campaign in South Africa. The purpose was two-fold, to bring together the groups and individuals who wanted to challenge the unregulated introduction of GE into food crops in South Africa and, secondly, to establish a framework for a GE freeze campaign. The culmination of this visit was the establishment of a steering committee whose first task was to launch the campaign nationally. Seed funding was secured and a coordinator was appointed whose task was to launch the campaign nationally. In July 2000 SAFeAGE, the South African Freeze Alliance, was formally launched. The launch took place in Cape Town where the Coordinator was based. Launches also took place in other major centers, including Johannesburg and Durban. By August 2000, the campaign had set up the necessary infrastructure to support its activities.

To date, about a quarter of a million members and 120 organizations have pledged their support in South Africa. Over 100 international groups have signed onto this campaign, representing an additional half a million individuals. Recently, mass pressure from SAFeAGE’s work and liaisons led the government to hold a GMO conference in Stellenbosch near Cape Town on April 15–16, 2003. A promise was made that the government would soon ratify the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol (BSP) and thus bring the legislation into line with the BSP framework—the international agreement to regulate GE products. There was also a promise of greater transparency and public participation that has until now been completely lacking.

…unlike rich nations, those in Africa could not afford to start from scratch if GM turned out to be a mistake.

There is strong grassroots opposition to GMOs in the region. Industry is working hard to break this down and has already received the attention of the South African and other governments.

Closing thoughts

There are many reasons for the current and projected food crisis. Among the most important are lack of income to buy food, lack of infrastructure like roads to get products to market, trade policies that disadvantage farmers in the developing world, lack of inputs, lack of information, and unsustainable farming practices. More productive crops will do little to alleviate hunger if these deficiencies are not addressed as well. Resistance to GE in Africa must be viewed as fertile and must be widely supported. It is fertile and vital because, unlike Europe, where sub-zero temperatures could destroy GM organisms which escaped into the natural environment, Africa has a tropical or sub-tropical climate that would enable these organisms to survive. And unlike rich nations, those in Africa could not afford to start from scratch if GM turned out to be a mistake. It is true that the world has enough food but it is not acceptable that people lose or ignore the capacity to produce food just because others have it.

Shipment of GMO foods and the development of genetic biotechnology in Africa are not in the best interest of respect for humanity. If biotech corporations and international agencies want to feed the hungry, they must encourage sustainable land reform, which puts farmers back on the land, and push for wealth redistribution, which allows the poor to buy food of their choice. Finally, leadership on the continent must be worked at and leaders must focus on sustainable food sovereignty. Further, stronger anti-GMO movements, regional and global networks for information sharing to break up the power of multinational firms, and research centers in Africa are necessary.

It is imperative that an immediate freeze on genetic engineering in food and farming is declared throughout Africa until we have assessed and understood all the implications for consumers, farmers and the environment. Biotechnology may soon serve as a potential tool for biological weapons of mass destruction, especially in the sub-regional conflict, if not stopped now. We need your support in stimulating and promoting weapons of mass instruction on the African continent.

Biotechnology may soon serve as a potential tool for biological weapons of mass destruction, especially in the sub-regional conflict, if not stopped now.

This article is an edited version of the author’s presentation at Biodevastation 7, held May 16–18,2003 in St. Louis, Missouri.

[7 apr 04]

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