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October 14, 2009

Improved seeds for Africa: Blessing or curse?

by Piero Morandini and Ingo Potrykus

There is fear among the media, the public, as well as bishops, that new seed varieties will make African farmers economically dependent on seed companies. This possibility is applicable not only to seeds, but also to many products of biotechnology, as well as of several other technologies.

Most products nowadays are "black boxes." People have little understanding of what happens inside (think of cell phones, TV, engines, etc.) and have therefore little or no control to repair or alter them in any way. For older technologies it is easier, think for instance of a bicycle, because you see all the details and understand the function of each part; you can see the pedals and the wheel, see the chain connecting the two, you could disassemble the brake and the tires and remount them back again.

In one word, you have more control and understanding over this technology, although one must admit you could not create it by yourself. Things such as computers and seeds are much more complicated to understand, and as a result we are less able to either create them, or even repair them ourselves. This increased dependency may not be welcome, but it is quite irreversible and pervasive.

It should not be considered bad in itself, as it allows us to benefit from many technologies, even though we have less control over them. It is thus unjust to express concerns about dependency only with regard to seeds, and specifically to seeds produced through the methods of modern biotechnology (usually called genetically modified or GM seeds).

The sterility question

One of the myths circulating for more than a decade on these seeds reappeared recently in ZENIT in an article by Robert Moynihan. The myth is that seeds of crops produced through modern biotechnology are sterile. This is simply not true.

First, all breeding methods create and use genetic variability to obtain crops with improved characteristics (e.g. resistance to pathogens or pests, better yield, resistance to adverse conditions, such as drought or floods, or tolerant to herbicides) and therefore all crop varieties are significantly genetically modified. New varieties improved by modern biotechnology are thus better described as genetically engineered (GE) crops, because the genetic modification is more precise and predictable than the modifications made in the past.

Second and most importantly, no GE crop on sale to date has been made sterile to prevent farmers from reusing the seeds.

Third, most crops, especially in more developed countries, are grown from commercial seeds. Farmers buy seeds for several simple reasons. In some cases the biology itself dictates the choice: many crops (maize, sugar beet, rice, sunflowers, and most vegetables) are typically or often, depending on the species, grown as F1 hybrids. What that means is that the seeds used for planting are the outcome of a cross between two parents that are similar (usually different varieties, but same species), but distinct for several characters (height or yield, for instance).

The outcome of the cross is usually a vigorous plant, often much more vigorous than both parents, and yields are thus greatly increased.

The strongest example is maize, where yield can increase two to threefold compared to the non-hybrid parents. Unfortunately the vigor of the hybrid diminishes rapidly in subsequent generations.

This is the reason why 99% of the maize grown in developed countries is hybrid maize that is bought every year by farmers. They could well collect the harvested grain and use it for sowing next year's crop, but they know they will suffer a large decrease in yield if they do.

They are able to calculate the economic difference between the two choices (to replant seed or to buy new seed) and the great majority chooses to buy commercial seeds. For other crops, the situation is somewhat different: rice and rapeseed are only partly grown as hybrids, while soybean and wheat are very rarely grown as such.

Even if a crop is not a hybrid, farmers often buy commercial seed because they know seed quality is important. But producing a good seed is a tough job.

Seeds must be pure (free of weeds for example), should germinate promptly, in synchrony and with a high percentage of viability. They should also be free of pathogens (virus, bacteria, molds) and pests, have a good yield and withstand suboptimal or stressful conditions (little rain or too much heat).

If a seed batch lacks some or many of these characteristics, then harvest is at risk. Therefore, there are companies whose business is to produce high quality seeds so that both seed producer and farmer prosper.

Seeds that cost money to produce cannot be given away or the company will cease to exit. It is, however, up to the farmer to decide if the seeds are worth the price and if they will deliver good value. In this regard, farmers usually test new seeds on small plots in one or two growing seasons before buying large amounts for planting. They want to see first if the superior quality touted by the company is real.

If a new variety gains the favor of farmers, then you can be sure that the variety is good and the price is reasonable. The farmers -- the buyers of the seed -- are the ones who decide if a seed and the company that produces it will be successful.


Another myth is that the data is not yet clear on whether or not GE crops are safe for people or the environment.

We have now 15 years of commercial cultivation and more than 25 years of research on GE plants. The approximate number of total GE plants grown so far is around 200,000 billion plants on more than 2 billion acres. To date, this has occurred not only without causing any harm more than that caused by conventional crops, but also reducing it.

Several national and international academies (United States, India, Brazil, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, India, China, Mexico, Pontifical Academy of Science and the Third World Academy) have published positive statements on this technology.

They have particularly stressed well-documented benefits and the further potential to the world's poor farmers. Also numerous scientific societies and international organizations (WHO, FAO) have reviewed the issues and concluded on the basis of large accumulated experience and thousands of scientific publications, that GE crops present no new or different risks, and can (and in fact, do) reduce or ameliorate some of the negative impacts of conventional agriculture.

The fact that GE crops pose no new risks is exemplified as it follows. There are several herbicide-tolerant crops that have been developed by less precise, conventional techniques, and which have been approved for cultivation without the long and costly process required for GE crops. (The process includes a risk evaluation and regulatory review that lasts between five and 10 years with costs upward of $10 million). And yet, these conventional plants (e.g. rapeseed, sunflower, rice or wheat), cultivated on millions of acres, present the same risks, and sometimes the same genetic modification, as herbicide-tolerant GE plants.


In summary, the data overwhelmingly show that GE plants offer great benefits. They do it today all over the world, and they do it particularly well for millions of farmers in developing countries. In fact, the great majority of farmers using GE crops (90% of about 13 million) are poor farmers from developing countries, some of them in African nations such as Burkina Faso and South Africa.

This is something that people should think twice before spreading falsehood to African people regarding their options for agricultural development. Unconvinced readers are suggested to read Robert Paarlberg's book "Starved for Science."

Given all of the above, we strongly believe that it is not only "a moral obligation to permit these countries to do their own experimentation," as said Father Gonzalo Miranda, a professor of bioethics at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university, but also to provide them with the tools (education) to do it.

Also, it is an unnecessary luxury, and therefore a sin on the part of Western countries, to demand complete safety from a technology when a partly stagnant African agriculture means death and undernourishment for many. Safety for Africa begins with growing more food. Now.

* * *

Piero Morandini is a Researcher in Plant Physiology at the University of Milan.

Ingo Potrykus is Chairman, Humanitarian Golden Rice Board & Network, and Professor Emeritus in Plant Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.


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