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October 03, 2011

As GM technology gains in Africa, battle for and against it shifts

by Chido Makunike

Kenya has become Africa's latest acceptor of gene-modified maize for food after general continent-wide antipathy to GM technology. It joins a handful of other African countries, like South Africa, in giving the green light to technology which many argue is ill-suited to Africa's agriculture and food problems.

The immediate impetus for the controversial Kenyan GM maize importation decision is the severe drought in East Africa that has caused a particularly crippling shortage of maize, the region's main staple food. But the adoption of GM technology has been making steady gains in Kenya for at least a couple of years.  

Since the passing of biosafety law in 2009 (and perhaps since before) field trials of a number of GM crops has been taking place in Kenya despite the arguments of opponents. It will therefore not be long before Kenya no longer simply imports GM food from countries like South Africa and the US, but begins growing its own, including maize and cotton.  

The legalization of GM technology in Kenya has not quieted the voices of opponents, but there does not seem any serious prospect of a slowing of the adoption of this deeply contested science. Its safety, its efficacy, its costs, its morality are just some of the issues around which there is bitter debate which show no signs of abating.   

Kenya joins Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa in embracing GM technology. Because of the size of Kenya's economy and agriculture relative to all others in East Africa, its decision will inevitably have a huge impact on the region and beyond. Most countries in the region, as in Africa in general, remain opposed to or wary of GM technology. However, for surrounding countries feeding into and with strong links to Kenya, it will in the medium to long term not be realistic or even possible at all to avoid accepting GM food and/or crops cultivation.

With so much of the region's food originating in or passing through Kenya to get to its final country destination, that country's pro-GM food policy will have a big impact even on countries that may be yet unsure or opposed. As a result, Kenya's adoption of GM technology will have a much bigger African impact than may be immediately obvious.

Countries around GM-friendly South Africa find themselves in a similar situation. Zambia and Zimbabwe are among those that have been vociferously opposed to GM food imports and officially hostile to adoption of the technology (although there are rumors of quiet trials of GM maize and cotton in one or both countries.) This has meant that South Africa has failed to find markets for its GM maize in these two countries even when they have experienced maize deficits. They have preferred to procure the maize from non-GM sources further afield.

Yet it has been pointed out that Zambia and Zimbabwe, along with most other countries in southern Africa and beyond, import a lot of South African manufactured foods that are made with GM maize. While these countries for the time being are able to mostly stave off the importation of GM grain, a lot of GM product enters the food chain in other ways. Among examples are corn flakes and the many other food products using maize flour as an important ingredient, as well as livestock and poultry feeding concentrates.

Public acceptance GM foods and technology may be in its early stages in most of Africa. But lobbying/funding/diplomatic arm twisting of governments to make them more amenable to adopting GM has been quietly going on for many years, with the results only becoming recently obvious. For better or for worse, all the signs are that GM technology is on a slow roll in Africa, and that the momentous Kenyan decision will now quicken the pace.

With Kenya having absorbed so much of the negative heat for accepting GM food, other countries will likely be emboldened to follow suit, no matter how tentatively.  

These inroads may give some new life to anti-GM activist groups, but the fact of the matter is that they have long been outgunned, and not necessarily just in terms of access to money and resources. To have said to them as recently as two or so years ago that decisions like that of Kenya this year were now inevitable and just a matter of time in Africa was to risk getting your head chopped of, but the trend towards official acceptance of GM in many countries has been quite obvious for some time.

Of all the arguments against GM, in Africa the most compelling has been the threat 'teminator genes' pose to farmers long accustomed to own-saved, open-pollinated (OPV) seed varieties . With access to even non-GM hybrid seeds being costly beyond the means of many farmers, the prospect of forcing them to exclusively rely on  patented, non-reproducible GM seeds has been the most effective single issue in rallying African opposition to the technology.

However, recognizing the emotive power of the argument that 'GM technology is a plot by seed multinationals to control global seed supply and food,' the GM sector strategically retreated on this point, by saying terminator technology would not be used. GM technology would effectively be a 'gift' to poor African countries, and farmers would have the choice to buy the seeds while also retaining the option of OPV or hybrid, non-GM seeds.

African countries were assured that there would not be cases like the infamous one of the Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto for unintentionally, unknowingly propagating GM canola from seeds that had come onto his non-GM farm from a neighboring GM canola field. This story was one of the most effective in the efforts of GM opponents in Africa to sell the negatives of accepting the technology, in addition to the experiences of Indian farmers with GM cotton.    

The promise to drop terminator technology and the charging of royalties for GM seeds diffused the most furious and immediate opposition to GM technology in Africa. But GM seeds that are also reproducible also means much greater chances of cross-pollination with non-GM seeds, and this in countries with weak regulations and low capacity to effect attempts to keep GM and non-GM cultivation separate.   

With the huge potential African market for 'standardized' seed for grain such as maize, if much of the continent ever took up GM seed, as several countries have mainstreamed hybrid seed, it is questionable whether the industry would not seek to protect its interests as elsewhere, including by the later introduction of terminator technology and proprietary charges. While the immediate concerns about poor farmers' continued, age-old access to their own seed have been allayed, it is to merely postpone the concerns about what widespread reliance on GM seeds would mean to the main seed gene pool's biodiversity, and to the 'seed sovereignty' of Africa's mostly poor farmers. 

With the creeping acceptance of GM technology in Africa, the battle between promoters and opponents is significantly shifting. No longer is it about arguing for or preventing its introduction, but how to deal with it now that it has arrived.

In the US, where GM crops have been long established and whose government is part of aggressive efforts to promote uptake of the technology in Africa, IPS reports that opponents are not in retreat just because the crops are deeply embedded in the food chain.

It will be interesting to see what similarities and differences the pro/anti GM fight will have in the very different battle grounds of the US and Africa.

African Agriculture

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