Drought-Stricken Africa Takes A New Look At GMOs

By Dana Sanchez Published: January 8, 2016, 11:04 am
Dried-up river bed in Zimbabwe. Photo: geography.org.ukDried-up river bed in Zimbabwe. Photo: geography.org.uk

Southern African countries facing drought, crop failure and starving citizens may finally accept genetically modified crops to improve harvests and reduce grain imports, Reuters reported in the StLouisDispatch.

Many African countries have banned GMOs, arguing they could have long-term health effects for humans, will cross-contaminate other plants and pollute the environment.

South Africa is the top corn producer in Africa, and the only African country producing modified corn on a commercial scale. The drought has reduced its crop so much it may need to import up to 5 million tons of corn this year. Corn is a staple grown and consumed in most sub-Saharan countries.

Kenya is about to reverse its ban on GMOs, EcoWatch reported this week. The country banned GMO imports and planting since 2012 due to health concerns but could soon allow cultivation of GMO corn and cotton. If it does so, Kenya will become the fourth African country to allow the cultivation of GMO crops following South Africa, Bukina Faso and Sudan.

South African Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana said corn imports from the U.S. could begin as early as April, TheCitizen reported on Monday. South Africa has only had enough corn in stock for four or five months, Zokwana said at a media update on the status of negotiations for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which gives South Africa duty-free trade status for certain agricultural goods in the U.S.

The U.S., Brazil and India are the world’s largest growers of genetically modified crops.

Switzerland’s Syngenta and St. Louis, Missouri-based Agrichemical giant Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, will benefit from increased use of GMOs in Africa, Reuters reported. Monsanto conducted trials of genetically modified corn and cotton in some African countries including Zimbabwe between 2001 and 2005.

GMOs are a polarizing topic in Africa. Many think that the agriculture indigenous to the developing world — with small farmers growing traditional crops — is a tradition to be protected, food columnist Tamar Haspel wrote in the WashingtonPost. Chemical fertilizers and seeds that can’t be saved are the enemy of that tradition.

Historically, Africa has been slow to accept new agricultural technologies but perceptions about GMOs are changing in Africa, said Getachew Belay, an African GMO expert, Reuters reported. Burkina Faso and Sudan are growing genetically modified cotton commercially.

Zimbabwe does not accept imports of genetically modified corn. Emergency food aid shipments containing GM corn is milled under security watch. But 16 percent of Zimbabweans are expected to need food aid this year, Reuters reported. With its usual suppliers facing lower harvests in Zambia and Tanzania, Zimbabwe could end up receiving genetically modified corn after all.

Zambia rejected genetically modified corn in 2002 during a drought that left millions in need of food aid citing inadequate scientific information, Reuters reported.

In December, Zambian Higher Education Minister Michael Kaingu told parliament the country would embrace GMOs.

“We recognize that modern biotechnology has advanced worldwide and, as a nation, we cannot afford to ignore the benefits of this technology. We are alert and prepared to deal with possible adverse risks,” Kaingu said.

Ethiopia changed its biosafety laws to allow tests on genetically modified cotton after the textile industry pressured the government for cheaper cotton production, Belay said.

Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Swaziland, and Uganda have done trials on different genetically modified crops, Belay said.

China has developed GM rice but has not released it for production, Belay said. If China decides to grow GM rice, that could be a major factor influencing Africa to start growing GM corn, he said.

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