Millions of people in Africa need food aid but are genetically modified crops the answer? Monsanto and Syngenta are keen to move in, but the impact on farmers and the environment are disputed. Steven Swindells reports from Johannesburg on an enduring controversy that is crying out for new legislation.


Drought-hit and AIDS-ravaged southern Africa is faced with a looming humanitarian crisis, with almost 12 million people in need of food aid. But genetically modified (GM) crops remain off the menu for most African governments, which remain reluctant to allow their farmers to do business with GM giants Monsanto of the US and Switzerland’s Syngenta.
 
GM’s role in Africa has been dogged by controversy since Zambia’s decision three years ago to turn back “poisonous” GM crops, while many of its people edged closer to malnourishment after another bad harvest.
 
Even after a decade of strong-arm lobbying by the industry – backed by the political power of Washington – Africa’s GM commercial crops are restricted solely to South Africa; GM trials have had mixed and disputed results and few African governments have proper GM legislation in place to allow the industry to prosper.


Legislative limbo
 
The latest warnings by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and aid groups of an imminent food crisis, striking worst in crisis-hit Zimbabwe and the dust bowl of once-fertile Malawi, may not lead to a breakthrough the GM industry needs or accelerate badly needed legislation governing GM by regional governments.
 
GM’s opponents are far from giving the industry any leeway in the current food crisis. “Rather than solving hunger in Africa GM, would further impoverish African farms by making them totally dependent on corporate giants, such as Monsanto, who would have a monopoly on seed supply,” says Amadou Kanoute, director of Consumers International Africa.
 
GM opponents, applauding Zambia’s move, have blasted the industry for overtly wanting to destroy African seed collection culture through a recolonisation programme that would plunge the continent’s mass of small farmers into financial ruin and dependency on foreign multinationals. They point out that European consumers would baulk at any GM imports from Africa while modified organisms let loose in Africa would damage the environment and put human health at risk.


GM trials under fire
 
Even trials of GM crops such as cotton in South Africa and Kenya have been heavily criticised by GM opponents such as Mariam Mayet, of the African Centre for Biosafety, who says that poor farmers in South Africa who have grown GM cotton have not seen benefits and that despite promises to the contrary, farmers have still had to use pesticides and many experienced problems with secondary insects.
 
“Despite all the hype, the fact remains that South Africa does not produce anything more than between 300,000 and 500,000 hectares of combined GM cotton, maize and soya crops,” Mayet says.
 
By contrast, the GM industry itself has said that GM is the way to solve the continent’s food recurring food crises by developing crops that produce increased yields and boost revenues of small-scale farmers.


Solution to hunger?
 
“I think it is a disgrace… to stop food production when millions face starvation. We frequently hear the anti-GMO activists claiming that GMO crops are not meant for Africa. Who are these people who claim to speak on behalf of Africa?” said Monsanto’s sub-Saharan Africa manager Kobus Lindeque.
 
Monsanto has heavily promoted GM in Africa as a way for farmers to cut pesticide use, while herbicide-tolerant crop systems have also been sold on the promise of helping farmers reduce tillage, which limits soil erosion. New GM crops it has pressed to build on South Africa’s main maize and cotton GM crops include sweet potatoes in Kenya, which are resistant to the feathery mottle virus and also disease-resistant bananas.
 
South Africa has pioneered GM in Africa for more than six years. In the 2004/5 season, South Africa planted more than 500,000 hectares of GM and currently more than 20% of the maize and an estimated 40% of soybeans, and 85% of all cotton planted in the country is transgenic, according to Lindeque.
 
“To date, there have been no detrimental effects for humans consuming GM grains or products, or in use as livestock meal,” says Joel I. Cohen, a senior research officer at International Food Policy Research Centre.
 
Furthermore, there may also be signs that GM may be making some inroads in Africa. Zambia’s government in December waived its requirement that scientists check whether maize imported from South Africa is GM, as a way of speeding up food shipments to feed some 1.7 million Zambians in need.
 
Though commercial GM crops remain limited to South Africa there are GM field trials in Kenya, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Zimbabwe while at least a dozen African countries are carrying out GM research.
 
But without a sea change, GM is not going to solve the region’s pressing food crisis.