Prof. Brando Okolo: A LETTER FROM GERMANY-

Africa, beware of loosing-out on the GM crop rush

Driven by the need to feed a rapidly growing population, can we possibly debate genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa? A couple of years ago some of our folks in the southern part of Africa chose not to have GM crop varieties brought to their homeland even in the mist of a desperate nutritional situation. Why? It may be harmful they argue and besides people in the developed countries are yet to fully make-up their minds on its usage.

What then is a genetically modified crop? Answer: Crops that have had their genetic code retyped to a format where only select natural traits are highlighted in them. The traits conferred on these crops could be smell, colour, taste, size or accelerated rate of reproduction.

It is a reasonably alarming practice. Some sections of society have questioned the moral justification for this practice. In Great Britain pressure from citizens has prompted an in-depth examination of GM crops and how it affects biodiversity. In Germany the Federal Office of Plant Varieties has already approved the annual cultivation of 15 – 20 types of genetically modified crops. As mixed as these signals might be, one side; either the supporters or the opposition, will have to break.

Nevertheless, the question still needs to be asked, “What could happen to us now or in the future should we chose to feed-on and market GM crops and products?” – Apparently nothing.

The race to produce, consume and market GM products was hardest in the mid nineteen-nineties. At the same time efforts to stop its production and consumption intensified at an equal rate.

One of the most comprehensive reviews on the effects of transgenic crops on animal and human health was conducted by Professor David Beever and Dr. Richard Phipps of the Centre for Diary Research at the University of Reading, UK. The summaries of their individual reports states that feeding GM plants to farm livestock does not affect animal health and is unlikely to affect the health of humans consuming farm animal products. I personally have not read any study which specifically concludes otherwise.

By producing GM crops, yields increase at harvest time, the quality of crops are significantly improved, the need for large-scale cultivation is reduced, energy use and damage to the soil and wild life is reduced. Furthermore the use of pesticides and herbicides can be markedly minimised with resulting economic and environmental benefits.

At least 75% of GM crops produced over the past 2 years were from developed countries with the rest being from developing countries particularly, Argentina, China, South Africa and Brazil. China in 1999 invested $112m of its national research and development budget on crop biotechnology and hoped to increase this figure by 400%!, in 2005. China has taken great steps to secure its agricultural and commercial sectors through flexibly regulated policies specifically aimed at fostering its economic dominance in the Far East Asian region.

The aim is not to draw direct comparisons with countries such as China, however we need to be awakened to global trends and how these trends affect our general performance as a continent.

The African Union, African regional big-weights such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt need to initiate a healthy and well informed public debate on the issues of GM crop production and consumption in the continent. Biotechnology laboratories located in the continent need to be given the leverage necessary to make GM crops eventually available to local farmers.

Will GM products someday flood the market places? You bet they will. When this happens Africa and Africans need to be prepared. Whilst food crops remain the emphasis in Africa, however cash crops and their derivatives with origins in GM practices will have an even more impacting effect on economies. The cultivation of GM varieties of corn, soybean and cotton in the USA has increased to the point where it is now described as the new “gold rush”. As the prices of crude oil have remained at a record high for the past 24 months, alternatives such as ethanol are receiving wide attention and acceptance. The feedstock for ethanol production in the USA is corn and soybean while in Brazil; with the world’s highest production and consumption of ethanol in automobiles, sugar cane is the feedstock. These are emerging commodities with potentials of striking a major chord in the global marketplace because of their value in the energy sector. Stay tuned.

I think the science behind genetically modified crops is both a magnificent and profoundly brilliant idea. If we can use it to secure our existence in Africa then we need to take advantage of our access to this practice, now! Let’s not miss-out on this movement.

Professor Brando Okolo, African Heritage Man of the year 2011 is a full Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the German University in Cairo – Egypt. Article first published 2006


Comments are closed.