A RECENT DISPATCH in The Post from a village in Tanzania foreshadowed stark choices facing Africa in the decades ahead. Journalist Sharon Schmickle, watching young children eagerly await scoops of corn and beans for lunch, described the conflict in Tanzania between those who suffer from food shortages caused by drought and pestilence and those who hold deep suspicions about the genetic engineering of crops, which might help grow more food. The doubters about genetic modifications seem to have the upper hand in Tanzania at the moment, and that is disturbing.
As a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, genetic engineering in agriculture is not a magic bullet for Africa, but it can help battle pests and diseases, improve nutrition and reduce the use of water and chemicals, all of which would benefit farmers and their families. Genetically modified crops can increase yields, which lag in Africa behind those of the rest of the world.
African countries and research organizations in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, for example, have incorporated a gene from a common soil bacterium into corn, enabling plants to produce kernels even when short of water. The genetically modified corn is expected to increase yields by 25 percent during a moderate drought.
Yet this corn is not being tested or planted in Tanzania. The country has adopted some of the most restrictive rules on the continent to govern genetically modified food. A policy of “strict liability” threatens companies or organizations that introduce genetically modified crops, and none has dared to bring such plants to Tanzania’s fields. Scientists are hampered and frustrated.
Africa in general has been slow to accept genetic engineering. Only four nations have commercialized biotech crops: South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso. Underlying the hesitation is a suspicion that the genetically modified crops are the first wave of malevolent U.S. corporations seeking a toehold in African fields. Since U.S. farmers first adopted genetically modified crops in 1996, some 17 million farmers in 29 countries have followed suit, but Europe has rejected the crops, and European activists have urged Africa to follow suit. There is much talk of a threat to Africa’s “food sovereignty.” This is having some impact, however misguided.
Smallholder farmers — those with less than two hectares — are the backbone of Africa’s agriculture. They face immense difficulties. Fewer than a third of the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use any type of improved seeds that have been developed through conventional breeding, let alone more advanced, genetically modified varieties. This is the hard reality that can’t be changed overnight by genetic engineering. Surely, there is no harm in a vigorous debate about genetically modified food; if people don’t understand it, the benefits will never be realized. But it is a shame to abandon these crops based on irrational fears and suspicions. If Europeans choose to forego genetically modified food, they can do so without risking hunger. They ought not discourage its use for those village children in Tanzania who are hungry and at the mercy of drought.