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March 31, 2010

Race on to introduce GM maize in Africa over climate change concerns


In Kiboko, Kenya, a barbed wire fence separates a field of hybrid corn from the surrounding lands. Inside the fence, food safety regulators are learning to grow the crop with little water. In recent years, droughts have hit the region between June and September, reducing yields.

But two new varieties of corn, also known as maize, are coming to sub-Saharan Africa. One of them is conventionally bred; the other, better-yielding variety is genetically modified. Both are drought-tolerant and the seeds are royalty-free. Together with other agricultural interventions, they have the potential to feed some of the 300 million people for whom the plant is a staple.

There is now a great rush in parts of the continent to get biosafety regulations in place before the transgenic corn arrives on commercial markets in 2017.
Sylvester Oikeh, based in Kenya, is an agricultural scientist and the project manager for the drought-tolerant maize initiative (called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, or WEMA), run by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

He described the promise of the Kenyan fields in a phone interview.

"Maize happens to be one crop in Africa that is consumed by more than half of the population, and it is badly affected by drought," he said. "With climate change, the problem will become worsened."

The initiative has big names behind it. The Gates Foundation and Warren Buffett fund it. Monsanto developed the crop for North American farmers using a gene from the lowly Bacillus subtilis bacterium, which is found in dirt.

For a region such as northeastern Uganda, which has seen its twice-in-a-decade drought cycles arrive once in two years, yield matters a lot. Corn is grown in rain-fed regions that already feel the ill effects of climate change on their agricultural output, according to Oikeh.

"The food crisis of 2008 was a harbinger of things to come," said Nina Fedoroff, the science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The impact of climate change is just beginning to be factored in."

With a burgeoning population, water scarcity, rising numbers of meat-eaters in the developing world, and greater competition for land, agricultural productivity needs to increase dramatically. The first green revolution of the 1970s was an easy accomplishment in comparison to this one, according to Fedoroff.

Climate change will deliver a triple curse on agriculture, forcing crops to deal with rising temperatures, droughts and the rising salinity of water in parts of the world. The numbers speak for themselves. By the end of the century, the average global temperature will be 3.5 degree Celsius above normal.

The optimal temperature for photosynthesis is 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. By 2080, the average temperature in Uganda, for example, will rise to 29 degree Celsius (an increase of 4.3 degrees above the current average), according to a report by U.K. Department for International Development and LTS International. The rise in temperature will be accompanied by erratic rainfall and increasing drought, the likes of which have already been seen in the country, according to the report.

"A third of the world's population already lives in dry lands," said Fedoroff. "The shape of the future is pretty daunting."

Other experts agree. Charles Godfray, a professor at the Department of Zoology at Oxford University who recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science about the challenges of feeding 9 billion people, said that the impact of climate change on agriculture will be negative. Although warming will open up lands in cooler regions for cultivation, it will not compensate for the loss of water and land in areas near the tropics, he said.

"The current system of agriculture is not sustainable," he said. "Water is arterial. We will run out of water in parts of the world."

There are many ways to get greater productivity. The rise of precision farming, conventional breeding techniques aided by biotechnology, improved irrigation and genetically modified crops are all important in helping the world cope with its food challenges, said Godfray.

In 2008, constrictions in the food supply chain led to a spike in global prices and riots around the world. The situation will only get worse. Drastic improvements in agriculture are necessary to cope with increased demand in a complex world. South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be worst hit.

In Africa, improving infrastructure, better fertilizer use, improved irrigation and other constraints can be relieved to increase yield. But the continent is drought-prone, with millions of farmers relying on rainfall for their crops grown in small land holdings. Corn is most widely grown, with almost 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa using it as the main source of food. And it is grown in rain-fed regions prone to crop failures.

In Africa, improving infrastructure, better fertilizer use, improved irrigation and other constraints can be relieved to increase yield. But the continent is drought-prone, with millions of farmers relying on rainfall for their crops grown in small land holdings. Corn is most widely grown, with almost 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa using it as the main source of food. And it is grown in rain-fed regions prone to crop failures.

New York Times

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