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December 13, 2009

GM crops, industrialisation key to African adaptation to climate change, says expert

by Laurie Goering

Europe "shot itself in the foot" by rejecting genetically modified crops, but by following suit Africa has "shot itself in the heart," Paul Collier, an Africa specialist at Oxford University, has said.

Maize, the staple crop of southern Africa, will become difficult or impossible to grow there as droughts and other extreme weather associated with climate change take hold, Collier said in Copenhagen at the start of "Development and Climate Days", a four-day programme on development and adaptation issues related to climate change. New varieties of maize resistant to predicted increases in drought, heat and flooding in Africa cannot be bred fast enough by conventional means, so genetically modified crops will become a necessity, he said.

Some vulnerable countries including Malawi already plant at least some modified crops. But other southern African countries, following Europe's lead, ban the technology, largely on grounds that the laboratory-created crops have not undergone sufficient long-term testing to ensure they are safe for health and the environment. Europe's ban on genetically modified crops has led agricultural productivity in the region to decline by 1.5 percent a year over 30 years in comparison to U.S. productivity, said Collier, director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford.

More than 80 percent of the maize and soybeans grown in the United States, by comparison, are today genetically modified, agricultural producer groups say. Reductions in potential agricultural productivity in Europe were a minor contributor to the 2008 food crisis, which saw food prices shoot up worldwide as supplies dwindled, Collier said. But in Africa, rejection of genetically modified crops threatens to provoke mass hunger, he said.

He urged Africa to move toward industrialisation as a crucial adaptation to climate change. "Africa should move out of agriculture," Collier said. Over-reliance on agriculture, now the continent's major employer, will leave the world's poorest region too vulnerable as climate change takes hold, he said.

Mali's ambassador to Denmark, however, dismissed Collier's suggestion, saying "the Africa he talks about ... is not the Africa we are living in". "Agriculture is the backbone of our economy," Fatoumata Diakite said, predicting that a shift to industrialisation would produce more starvation than the current reliance on agriculture, particularly if the effort did not go well.


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