Commentary

Genetic engineering not the solution to hunger in Africa

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By Kumi Naidoo

Posted  Tuesday, March 30  2010 at  00:00
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Genetic engineering is a technology in search of a problem; a product in search of a market. This should be foremost in the minds of civil society leaders, farmers and politicians attending the “Innovation and partnerships to realise Africa’s rice potential” conference in Mali this week.

Lobbyists from the genetic engineering (GE) industry are offering Africa a stark choice between hunger and GE crops. This is a false choice. Hunger can be avoided without growing and eating GE crops.

Ecological farming which nurtures our soils, cultivates diversity and supplies our families with safe and nutritious food, is the only way to address effectively the serious triple crises of food security, water scarcity and climate change.

Is ecological farming an utopian pipe dream? No. Backed by Unep and the UN Agriculture Assessment, the benefits of ecological farming systems are well known and documented by a substantial and growing band of scientists. They agree on the benefits of supporting local farmers and farm workers to promote systems that minimise dependency on external inputs like artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

The so-called ‘green revolution’ brought about an age in which the massive use of fertilizers and pesticides and ‘modified’ seeds have destroyed soils, put small farmers out of business and concentrated power over our food production into a handful of agro-multinationals. It has reduced diversity and increased vulnerability to threats such as climate change.

Now the same agro-multinationals want to promote their latest ‘technofix’ product, genetically engineered crops.

Current GE crops are heavily dependent on the continued use of large amounts of agrochemicals. GE crops are designed by predatory multinationals prepared to sue farmers for storing seeds from one harvest to plant for the next. Many governments are allowing corporations to patent seeds, helping them to prevent farmers from planting saved seeds, a fundamental right which is the basis of the livelihoods of millions of small farmers.
GE crops are not the solution to hunger in Africa, nor in the rest of the world. Take India for example, which has followed the ‘green revolution’ model for over five decades. Hunger has not been banished. India is still home to some 214 hundred million hungry people. World hunger cannot be solved just by increasing food production. In the US, 49 million people, including 17 million children, do not have access to a secure food supply.

Scientists have confirmed that GE crops do not necessarily produce higher yields than natural varieties. According to a report entitled ‘Failure to Yield’ published by the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, after more than 15 years of GE crops production in the US there has been no increase in crop yields.

Africans know better than most that climate change is real, that it is a huge threat that is happening now. We can adapt to change climate and help mitigating its impacts, again with simple ecological farming practices: protecting crop and seed diversity, and changing grazing systems.

The GE industry’s claims about ‘climate-friendly’ crops means more fertilizers, corporate control over seeds and a vast reduction in seed diversity. Rather than nurture our threatened soils and seeds the industry would like us to soak them in agrochemicals in order to allow GE crops to grow.

Africa can find at home all it needs to create 21st century ecological farming systems, systems which mean less hunger and a more resilient environment in the face of climate change.

Dr Naidoo is the Greenpeace International executive director. Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, contributed to this article