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March 12, 2008

Africa urged to resist GM crops

African countries must resist pressure from powerful agro-business multinationals to introduce terminator technologies in the agricultural sector as this has serious implications on biodiversity, the environment and the livelihoods of farmers on the continent.

Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Africa Region programme co-ordinator Mr Patrick Kasasa told this to participants at a recent three-day workshop which was held in Maseru, Lesotho to examine the implications of emerging technologies, Economic Partnership Agreements and food aid on smallholder farmers.

"Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) will have damaging effects on Africa’s poor farmers. The technology is very expensive and farmers will become dependent on multinationals," said Mr Kasasa. "They (multinationals) want to recolonise Africa again using these new technologies, commonly referred to as terminator technologies. Every time farmers want seed, they will have to go to them. We become heavily dependent on multinationals."

He said powerful multinationals were investing heavily in various programmes to promote the use of genetically modified organisms with a view to clearing the way for the eventual introduction of terminator technologies.

Terminator or "suicide" seed, for example, refers to new genetically engineered seeds which are engineered to be sterile, forcing poor farmers to repurchase seed each year from multinationals who have patented these genetic use-restriction technologies.

Farmers using GM crops in some parts of Africa are forced to sign contracts with giant GMO companies where they agree not to share their seed, only use chemicals, buy new seed the following year and agree to set aside 25 percent of their land as a "refuge" area to control diseases. Some of the multinationals include Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and Syngenta, which dominate the global agro-chemical business as well as genetic engineering technologies.

Participants, made up of agronomists, policymakers, farmer groupings, policy analysts and civil organisations, felt strongly that terminator technologies would increase the dependency and indebtedness of smallholder farmers to multinationals eroding the communal rights, which entitled them to traditional crop varieties which they could share freely without added costs.

Said Mr Genene Gezu, an Ethiopian plant breeder: "Africa is the home of biodiversity. These new technologies are going to displace this huge biodiversity asset base. It will harm Africa’s seed security system. Multinationals have the power to do anything and we have to remain vigilant and guard Africa’s biodiversity. We have to remain strong and work with farmers to protect the continent’s biodiversity."

He said resource-poor farmers will never be able to afford technology fees and the chemicals to grow the GM seeds.

Experts say about 1,4 billion people depend on saved seed for their survival. They argue that genetic engineering in its present form and thrust cannot form part of the solution to the food crisis in Africa.

"We need to read more and keep abreast of new trends on emerging technologies. Let’s cultivate a reading culture among our people to understand the implications of these new technologies," said Mr Makhathe Moahloli, the director of Katleho Moho Association and CBDC Africa co-ordinator in Lesotho.

"Let’s make the farmers aware of these new technologies. Let’s be there at international forums. Let’s make noise together with farmers. Our challenge now is to take the message to the farmers, raise awareness and resist," said Mr Kasasa.

Mr William Chadza of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa-Malawi) said southern African countries needed robust policy and legal frameworks to help them adopt practical measures to safeguard human health and safety concerns .

"Governments must provide enough resources for skills and manpower to effectively manage GMO issues in the region," he said. "Farmers may abandon traditional farming methods and we need to raise our awareness among them, telling them the pros and cons of GMOs."

Raising awareness on GMO issues is still a challenge for Lesotho and most other countries in southern Africa.

"We are really not well-versed on GMO issues. We are against GMOs, but we still need to learn more from others so that we can fight for the rights of farmers," said Mr Makalo Motsoane of Matshobana Agricultural Development Foundation.

"The threat of GMOs is real, Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa which has embraced GM seeds. We are a market for South Africa and we need to understand the implications of these new technologies on the health of our people as well as our agricultural systems."

More than 65 million tonnes of beef was condemned recently in the United States and retailers were ordered to return the stocks following health concerns raised over the condition of the cattle. This has sparked fresh fears about the risk of GM meats on humans.

"What is really at stake is important to our lives and to future generations. The battle we are fighting is the battle for the ownership of life," said veteran Zimbabwe agronomist Mr Andrew Mushita, adding his voice on the GMO debate.

"We want to make sure that we in Africa are in control of our destiny and even that of the future generations. We need to create a critical mass, a critical mass that will fight for the African agenda on the global arena on an array of issues affecting African farmers."

Modern biotechnology has generated vigorous debate with proponents of biotechnology arguing it has benefits that include the development of vaccines that combat human and animal diseases, increased crop yields, plant resistance to pest diseases, reduction of environmental pollution, more effective use of fertilizer, uniform harvest and product quality.

On the other hand, the GM debate has been met with resistance with anti-GMO activists raising concerns over the issue of safety to human health and the environment.

Fears on GMO foods centre on the potential for allergic reactions, the possible introduction or increase in the production of toxic compounds as a result of GM technology and the use of antibiotic resistance markers in plant transformation.

There are also fears that giant multinationals and research institutes which hold patents and licensing agreements will refuse to share GM technology and restrict the poor farmers from propagating their own crops.

"Cross-contamination in the region is also a possibility. With terminator seed technology this could be devastating for the farmers," Mr Kevin Roussel, an anti-GMO campaigner with the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, once remarked in 2006.

"The region could lose centuries of practice which will be a major loss of indigenous knowledge systems. We should be wary of making the same mistakes that formed in the Green Revolution (of the 1960s)."

South Africa has embraced genetic engineering and is now producing GM maize, milk, cotton, canola, wheat, apples, potatoes, sugarcane and soya products.

The major actors in the GMO industry are the US, which is pro, and the European Union, which has largely opposed the wholesale spread of the GMOs.

Worldwide hectarage of GM crops grew from 1,7 million in 1996 to an estimated 60,7 million in 2002, showing the growing influence of multinational corporations.

In 2003, six principal countries grew 99 percent of the global transgenic crop area. The US grew 42,8 million ha, followed by Argentina with 13,9 million, Canada 4,4 million, Brazil 3 million, China 2,8 million and South Africa 0,4 million hectares. China and South Africa had the highest year-on-year increase with a 33 percent growth rate, according to AfricaBio.

China increased its Bt cotton area to 2,8 million hectares while South Africa increased its combined area of GM maize, soyabean and cotton to 0,4 million with particularly strong growth in white maize which has increased rapidly from 6 000 hectares in 2001 to 84 000 hectares in 2003.

It is also estimated that 30 000 field trials have been conducted with more than 50 GM crops in 45 countries.

In the wake of these statistics, it is imperative for African countries to strengthen their mechanisms to safeguard human health and agro-biodiversity in the region to maintain Africa’s biodiversity base critical to the survival of its farmers.

Political and financial support for biosafety boards that will draw up guidelines and have authority to enforce them in line with the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol and the African Union Biosafety Model Laws is critical for most African countries.

The Herald

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