Give a man a seed, and he can feed himself? Not if it’s GM, says Europe

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In the news today, this piece by Steve Connor brings up a lot of the issues surrounding the ethical use of GM crops in Africa that I spoke about last July in my coverage of the Crop World Global Conference.

In sum, (in Connor’s words):

Professor Calestous Juma, a Kenyan-born expert on sustainable development, warns that vital improvement in food production that could help to feed a rapidly expanding population in Africa is being held back by anti-GM legislation designed to placate environmental activists in Europe.

Unfortunately, my article never went to print. Here’s the copy, though, as it seems that little has progressed since then.

Ahead of his keynote speech at the Crop World Global Conference this week, Kenyan scientist and governmental agricultural advisor Felix M’mboyi slated the “hypocrisy and arrogance” of the European Union’s opposition to genetically modified crops. This stance, he says, is crippling the development of biotechnology in Africa, which he argues could provide the continent with a chance to feed itself.

Europe’s resistance to GM is hardly a new issue, but M’mboyi’s remarks are especially relevant as the population crisis once again comes to the fore once in light of the UN’s predictions that the global population could more than double to hit 15 billion by 2100. The Observer’s estimates of a population of 9.6 billion in 2050 indicate that almost a third of those will live in Africa – the world’s poorest continent.

That Europe’s negative attitude to GM crop production, reflected in notoriously prickly EU legislation, influences legislators and research funding organisations in the third world is undeniable. Bans on GM imports make their research and development an extravagance in most African countries – even where there are no crop exports, countries’ support of GM crop cultivation most commonly follows European policy. The most heart-rending example of this influence came in 2002, when in the midst of a food crisis Zambia turned away tonnes of food aid from the USA because it could not be certified as GM-free.

This mistrust of genetically modified foods may sound histrionic in the face of such calamity, but it is a mirror of the same deep suspicion found throughout progressive Europe. One doesn’t need to look deeply into British anti-GM literature to find phrases like “monster crops” and “Frankenstein food”, rhetoric more suited to a synopsis of “Little Shop of Horrors”. Given how much of our lives in the first world is now governed by the use of technology it seems somewhat medieval to hold plant biotechnology in such suspicion, even despite the admitted domination of the industry by giants such as Monsanto.

The textbook example of gene technology’s contribution to food security in developing countries is “Golden Rice” technology, developed and donated for humanitarian use by German plant scientists Peter Beyer and Ingo Portrykus. Through the insertion of two genes into the rice genome, greatly increased quantities of β-carotene, a form of vitamin A, deficiency in which is responsible for thousands of preventable deaths in developing countries, are produced and accumulated in the grains. Such research clearly proves that genetic modification of crops can be massively beneficial without the need for reliance on shady multi-nationals, and with no controversial health or environmental side-effects.

The potential hazards that campaigners in Europe base arguments on, like hybridisation with native varieties or possible (but so far unproven) risks to humans via consumption, seem minor compared to predominantly African problems like starvation and malnutrition, which could be alleviated by GM crops which guarantee higher yields. Furthermore, crops which are modified to be resistant to insects will reduce the use of pesticides, reducing the process of chemical soil leaching and run-off into waterways – as well as reducing the impact of agriculture on insect populations. These are all valid points in Europe, but in Africa where people die daily because of toxins in poorly treated (or completely untreated) water, this one example feature of GM crops could save lives even beyond the simple increase in yield.

In Britain and much of Europe we may be right to champion organic and sustainable farming practises for ethical reasons – with no risk of a food deficit, we have the luxury of choice. But what is appropriate to prioritise in Europe is clearly not the same as what needs desperately to be prioritised in Africa. If this year’s famine in East Africa is an indicator of what is next, the food crisis will begin in Africa, and Dr Felix M’mboyi has made it clear that Africa is seeking its own solutions. If his criticism of Europe’s stance on GM crop production is not unfounded, it may be that the best pre-emptive aid we can supply is a rethink of our attitude.