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May 24, 2009

Food crisis whets East Africa’s appetite for gene-modified crops

by Charles Kazooba and Halima Abdallah

Worsening cereal production worldwide is swaying African countries to genetically modified crops.

Research concluded last December shows that in developing countries — excluding Brazil, China and India — cereal production has fallen by 1.6 per cent. This has worsened the global food prices and posted a deeper shock to world economies.

Many African countries are now switching from organic to GM crop production, which research says increases yields in a shorter period.

A survey by the International Food Policy Research Institute warns that prices of major cereals will increase significantly, possibly triggering a bigger food crisis.

Experts say in 2020, maize, wheat, and rice prices will be 27, 15 and 13 per cent higher, respectively. As a result of the recession, the poor are likely to have less food.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, per capita calorie consumption will be 10 per cent lower in 2020. Globally, 16 million more children will be malnourished in 2020,” the survey says.

In East Africa, the Uganda government approved use of biotechnology in 2008. Laboratory trials on cotton are going on at a national research centre in Soroti to develop pest resistant varieties and increase cotton volumes.

Farmers have embraced the idea and shown willingness to adopt the techniques for commercial production.

A household survey conducted recently shows that 151 producers, 35 in Lira and 116 in Kasese, approved the use of biotechnology.

“The government approached this technology cautiously, despite appreciating that it increases productivity. We are very cautious not to compromise local production,” says Minister for Animal Industry Bright Rwamirama. He was addressing the press in May after the opening of a biotechnology conference in Entebbe.

The conference brought together scientists from all over the world to discuss the implications of GM crops on African farmers.

Kenya has likewise said it will start commercial GM crop production in two years.

“We are in our fourth year of trials. The experiments are very positive. We are waiting for approval from the Kenya Agricultural Institute to go commercial,” said Kinyua M’Mbijjewe, the corporate affairs director (Africa) for Monsanto.

Both Kenya and Uganda are experiencing food shortages, especially of cereals which require scientific intervention to increase production. A study of 13 public institutions in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Egypt and South Africa shows that biotechnology has been applied on 21 crops, with good results. Advantages include increased production and pest resistance.

Burkina Faso, for instance, will plant 300,000 hectares of Bt cotton this year. Scientists say the country could be the largest exporter of cotton in Africa, beating Uganda which has been the leading exporter of organic cotton.

The food policy institute says developing countries and investors should maintain agricultural productivity even under the current recession to avoid the negative effects of slower growth.

In 2008, with the onset of the food and financial crises, growth slowed and projections were scaled down. Low economic growth will have negative effects on investment and productivity.

Most of the plant biotechnology research in Africa is being carried out in South Africa, Egypt, Uganda and Kenya. Uganda begins laboratory trials on drought resistant maize next month. A similar trial will start in South Africa, Kenya and Malawi.

At the University of Cape Town, maize resistant to streak virus (MSV) and drought-tolerant varieties are being worked on, as well as vaccine production in tobacco.

The South African Sugar Experiment Station is developing herbicide-resistant sugarcane. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has engineered fungi-resistant maize and millet.

The Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute in Cairo has developed insect-resistant cotton and is carrying out field trails on other genetically modified crops. And the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute is conducting field trials on virus-resistant sweet potatoes.

The East African

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