Over 230 million people in Africa do not get enough to eat. Farmers make up over 70% of the African population and they are struggling to grow enough food. Together with low productivity, increasing population and the effects of climate change, most of their staple crops are threatened by virulent new strains of old diseases: banana bacterial wilt, bean root rot, cassava mosaic virus, potato late blight, rice blast and wheat rust.
African farmers are desperate for ways to fight these diseases, and biotechnology offers them just that. Africa needs a new generation of crops that are disease resistant, drought resistant, highly productive and nutritious. In Uganda, for example, over 13 million people consume bananas and plantains as their main food. An estimated 75 percent of farmers grow the crop, yet banana bacterial wilt causes an average yield loss of 71.4 percent a year. Traditional breeding techniques are too slow and too expensive. Ugandan scientists are now turning to biotechnology to confront the crisis.
Biotechnology allows scientists to take genes from one variety of a species and transfer them into another variety of the same species, vastly speeding up the same process that farmers have been using since the birth of agriculture. In fact, many studies have demonstrated the benefits of genetic modification technology — particularly its potential to increase food security in developing regions. For example, of the 15.4 million farmerswho planted GM crops in 2010, over 90 percent were resource-poor farmers in Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa.
Apart from the science, other issues are clearly involved in the debate. Many of the countries most affected by famine have been influenced by pressure groups to set up complicated and obstructive regulations for the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Export of produce to Europe is hampered by tight EU restrictions on GM food. And the agricultural multinationals are not interested in developing crops specifically for cultivation in poor countries. About 85 percent of all transgenic crops planted globally are soya bean, maize and cotton varieties.
However, African countries do not have the luxury to enter into the GMO debate. African farmers need help, and that can best come from new varieties bred with the assistance of simple biotechnology in their own countries by their own scientists, as well as GMOs introduced with care and caution from developed countries.
As long as the safety precautions and good international practices are observed, a GMO will not cause any harm to the environment, food chain or the consumers, despite what the European press might say. And that cannot happen too soon.
Australia, Asia, Latin America and the United States have introduced modern biotechnology into their agricultural research and development policy frameworks. It is time for tropical Africa, especially the sub-Saharan belt, to upgrade its crop-breeding systems to include genetic engineering. GM crops are an unavoidable and absolutely necessity to the African food system. They are also safe.