UN: Cautions Africa on genetically modified crops

by Thalif Deen

New York, 9 Jul 2001 (IPS) - The United Nations warned African nations Monday against rushing into the use of genetically modified (GM) crops aimed at bolstering agricultural output without first studying their long-term consequences.

“The stark reality is that currently, very few African countries have the human and institutional capacities to manage risks and win consumer confidence that these products carry no health or environmental risks,” the world body said in a report released here.

“This is a core issue that African countries will have to grapple with before any of the GM crops are commercially released for sale to farmers,” it added.

The 18-page report, which will go before a month-long meeting of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Geneva ending 27 July, admits that GM biotechnology has the potential to generate substantial benefits for African farmers and consumers.

However, it warns that the ongoing public opposition in several industrial countries, mostly in Western Europe, is likely to persist until pertinent questions regarding the safety of GM crops for people, animals and the environment, are resolved.

According to the report, the economy of Africa grew at an estimated 3.5% in 2000, an improvement over the previous year’s performance of 3.2%.

Africa’s annual average economic growth of 2.3% during the last decade of the 20th century did not keep pace with the yearly population growth of 2.8%, however, and was considerably lower than the 7.0% annual growth required to reduce poverty by half by 2015.

There was significant recovery in agriculture, which posted a growth rate of about 3.6% in 2000 compared with 2.1% in 1999. “Despite this welcome recovery in agriculture, the region remains far short of satisfying its food needs.” the report noted. “Africa will continue to depend on external assistance to make up for the gap between domestic supply and demand for the nearly 20 million people who face critical food shortages.”

A continent plagued by famine and droughts, Africa is now in the process of experimenting with GM crops and is undergoing a “biotechnological revolution”, according to the report.

Egypt has genetically engineering several food products, including wheat, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, dates, bananas and cotton. South Africa is trying to genetically modify strawberries, maize and cotton while Kenya and Morocco have experimented on bananas.

According to the report, South Africa is among a host of developing nations with a unique set of problems that beg for the adoption of modern technology to increase agricultural output.

But South African farmers, most of whom are smallholders, have not benefited from recent advances of biotechnology and a number of constraints still persist.  Less than 15% of the country’s land is arable, and rapid population growth has placed high demand for food, particularly proteins.

The South Africans have conducted field trials with their GM crops - including maize, potato, strawberries and cotton - since the early 1990s. The first commercial releases of GM varieties were in 1997, and commercial planting of crops with insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits started in 1998.

But the GM debate in South Africa needs to balance the interests of the private sector, the farmers and the consumers. “Those interests are not always in harmony,” the report said. “There is a high cost of technology development and transfer; it is not simply an issue of developing technology and giving it to farmers to adopt it.”

Risk assessment and management techniques must be in place to support the introduction of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to deal with conflicts of interest that may emerge, particularly from environmental and consumer groups.

As a result, the South African government promulgated the Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997 whose objective is to promote the responsible development, production, use and application of GMOs.

To achieve this, the Act aims at protecting the environment and human health through risk assessment and management of each one of the GMOs.

All the GMOs are evaluated under this Act on the basis of sound science for human health and environmental safety as well as socio-economic implications, the report added.

Meanwhile, the latest Human Development Report released by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said Tuesday that Argentina and Egypt are among developing countries that have advanced furthest in current and intended use of GM crops and products.

Egypt has approved field test releases and is on the verge of commercialising its first GM crop.

“The current debate on biotechnology lacks consolidated, science-based assessments to provide rigorous, balanced evidence on the health and environmental impacts of emerging technology,” UNDP said. A number of countries have launched programmes aimed at involving the public in assessing technology.

This, according to UNDP, is essential if the views of farmers and consumers in developing countries are to influence national policy-making and bring more diverse voices to global debates. – SUNS4933

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