Date: Wed, 21 Jul 1999 10:22:49 -0500 (CDT)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: DEVELOPMENT: African Scientists Endorse Genetically Modified Food
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African Scientists Endorse Genetically Modified Food
By Judith Achieng‘, IPS, 20 July 1999
NAIROBI, Jul 20 (IPS) - A growing number of African scientists are slowly accepting the idea of genetically modified food, as a solution to the continent's perennial food crisis.
"We want to create an enabling environment where African people can participate and benefit from biotechnology in a responsible and sustainable agriculture," says James Ochanda, a lecturer in biochemistry at Kenya's University of Nairobi.
Ochanda, who heads the NationalBiosafety Forum (NBSF) in Nairobi, has described the growing concerns in Europe over the safety of biotech crops as "Europe's way of propagating fear and scare to prevent us from reaping the benefits of biotechnology."
"Many of these concerns have nothing to do with food safety. Transgenic foods are eaten daily in the United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere with no reported undue effect," says Florence Wambugu, who runs the Nairobi-based International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA- AfriCentre).
In an article in 'Nature', an international scientific journal, Wambugu, who has developed and patented a new sweet potato variety, argues that Africa needs biotechnology to achieve self- sufficiency in food production.
The article, titled "Why Africa Needs Agricultural Biotech", explains that agricultural biotechnology is the solution to famine, environmental degradation and poverty, besetting the continent.
"Africa missed the green revolution, which helped Asia and Latin America achieve self sufficiency in food production," the article says, and cannot afford to miss another major global "technological revolution."
Figures quoted in the article indicate that Transgenic food production increased from 4 million to 70 million acres globally just between 1996 and 1998. Meanwhile, the average maize yield in Africa remains a dismal 1.7 tonnes per hectare compared with the four tonnes elsewhere. (One hectare is equal to 2.47 acres).
And with Africa importing at least 25 percent of its grain and relying on food aid from wealthy countries during famines, Wambugu argues that, "It would be a much higher risk for Africa to ignore biotechnology."
"We know there are people who believe that Africa should not benefit from biotechnology," she claims.
A number of human rights groups in Europe, and lately Africa, have opposed biotechnology, warning that Africa has been targeted as an experimental field for Transgenic crops whose safety has not been proven.
They say biotechnology would subject Africa to manipulation by powerful multinational companies, through the use of the "terminator-gene", a technique which involves engineering of plants to be sterile.
They say farmers would be forced to buy seeds from multinational companies each time they need to plant crops.
Jagjit Plahe, a researcher at Econews Africa, a non- governmental organisation (ngo) in Nairobi, says, "the scare around GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the West is based on concrete scientific evidence."
Citing a recent state-sponsored research in the UK, she says there is evidence that genetically modified food, cross-pollinate with unmodified crops. "The concerns and controversy are quite legitimate," she argues.
She also cites the high yielding Jasmine rice, which has been grown in north eastern Thailand for years, but now patented by a US corporation, forcing farmers to buy seeds from the corporation each time they want to plant. "The rice was developed by farmers but their knowledge was stolen," she says.
Traditional knowledge is not recognised by the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), which Plahe has been campaigning against.
Plahe's sentiments have been echoed by Manfred Koehler, a genetic engineer, based in Europe. "I think Transgenic crops cannot solve many of Africa's problems. Those who suggest this highly sophisticated technology for Africa has to know that it makes them dependent on the First World. To fight hunger with Transgenic crops are a typical end-of-the-chain solution."
Wambugu disagrees. "African countries need to cast off the 'victim-mentality' created in Europe and think and operate as stakeholders," she says.
She accuses the anti-biotech lobby for applying double standards in refusing to acknowledge the application of the controversial recombinant DNA (deoxyribonuclei acid) processes in Transgenic foods, while applying it in production of pharmaceutical products.
"The public seems prepared to accept the application of GMO techniques to new pharmaceutical products but not to food production," she says. "Why should there be different standards for crops and pharmaceuticals, particularly in Africa where the need for food is crucial for survival?"
"Why deny the Third World or African people the technologies that have helped increase productivity levels in the developed world ?" asks Simon Ehui of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
"One becomes tired of being ignored and used by others. Africans must speak for themselves," says Michael Wingfield, a professor of pathology at the university of Pretoria, South Africa.
Jennifer Thompson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, says Africans should be allowed to "speak for themselves on GM foods."(END/IPS/ja/mn/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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