GM crops: African farmers are losing out

What you need to know:

  • Forty-seven countries occupy the continent of Africa, but only four — Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan — have permitted the commercialisation of GM crops.
  • These miracle plants are currently in field trials in Tanzania. If they go well, farmers and consumers across the region will benefit. In East Africa, this means many smallholder farmers will experience enhanced cassava production, and hence food security and incomes.
  • In the United States and elsewhere, GM crops have produced a bounty. This year, corn farmers in the Midwest are shattering all-time yield records, in large part because they can grow the best crops science can offer.

Cassava is an exotic crop that many around the world have never eaten. Or so they think.

Yet anybody who has tasted tapioca pudding has profited from this versatile plant. Tapioca is a starch that comes from cassava, a tropical shrub whose tuber is edible.

I don’t eat much cassava either. Farmers don’t grow it in my region. Yet it is a rich source of carbohydrates for millions of Africans.

In Tanzania, researchers have figured out how to improve the cassava through biotechnology. This progress comes at a good time because the cassava brown-streak virus has become the leading threat to food security in many parts of East Africa.

One study says that the disease can slash a farm’s productivity by as much as 70 per cent. When it strikes, many smallholder farmers simply abandon their fields — and each time that happens, Africa’s dire food problems grow worse.

Biotechnology offers a potential solution. Scientists have learned how to trigger the cassava’s immune-defence system, allowing the plant to fend off the virus.

MIRACLE PLANTS

These miracle plants are currently in field trials in Tanzania. If they go well, farmers and consumers across the region will benefit. In East Africa, this means many smallholder farmers will experience enhanced cassava production, and hence food security and incomes.

Yet that will happen only if politics doesn’t get in the way of science. In Africa, unfortunately, politics always seems to intrude. Too often, we turn over our public policies to special-interest groups that despise biotechnology for reasons of ideology. The result is a tragedy for Africa. Our continent routinely fails to feed itself.

In the United States and elsewhere, GM crops have produced a bounty. This year, corn farmers in the Midwest are shattering all-time yield records, in large part because they can grow the best crops science can offer. I wish we could enjoy similar levels of success.

The difference is technology. Americans have embraced it, and now they’re growing more food than ever before. In Africa, our governments have resisted GM crops and we continue to suffer hunger and malnutrition.

Forty-seven countries occupy the continent of Africa, but only four — Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan — have permitted the commercialisation of GM crops.

FARM TECHNOLOGIES

The rest of us must rely on farm technologies from the last century, even as we confront the 21st-century problems of climate change, environmental sustainability, and rapid population growth.

The cassava would be an excellent way to introduce more biotechnology into Africa. Most of its production goes straight into human bellies. It’s also an essential famine-reserve crop. When other staples struggle or fail due to disease or drought, many Africans turn to the cassava for basic sustenance.

If Tanzania were to permit the cultivation of GM cassava, consumers and farmers in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda would see the advantages and benefit in their food security strategies. Kenya, which shares a long border with Tanzania, might finally put an end to the delays that keep GM crops off our farms and abundant food off our plates.

Mr Bor, a small farmer, teaches Management and Marketing at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret. ([email protected])

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