Biotech Holds The Solution To Africa's Food Woes
The New Technology, By Delivering Virus-Resistant Crops, Is Starting To Provide Food Security For Africa
November 3, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
October 19, 1999
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
CHURCHVILLE,Va.-Florence Wambugu spent 10 years at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute trying to breed higher-yielding sweet potatoes.
She used conventional plant breeding methods and got nowhere.
Then she got the chance to take her knowledge of African sweet potatoes to a First World biotech laboratory.
The collaboration produced African sweet potatoes that resist the "feathery mottle" virus-thus yielding 20 percent to 80 percent more food. This one breakthrough will improve food security and health for millions of African families.
Who would fund such an important, farsighted humanitarian effort?
It was, in fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Monsanto Co., the St. Louis agriculture technology company supposedly trying to force European housewives to buy genetically based "Frankenstein foods."
Now comes the real kicker. The virus-resistant strain of sweet potatoes developed in Monsanto's Life Sciences Research Center are still awaiting biosafety permits for field trials in Kenya. Meanwhile, the environmental group Greenpeace promotes a global ban on biotechnology in food.
Some days, I despair of those rich First Worlders-people with access to grocery stores overflowing with safe, inexpensive, high-tech food-who recommend low-yield farming to people still trying to stave off malnutrition.
At its essence, Greenpeace's self-serving and anti-conservationist campaign to ban biotechnology in food comes down to this: Europe, which has a food surplus, is trying to scare Africa into banning a technology that could save millions of lives and huge tracts of wildlife.
Africa is still the world's poorest continent, struggling to generate enough good government and economic productivity to provide such modern basics such as adequate food, clean water and literacy to a still-growing population.
Most of Africa's countries have 25 percent to 75 percent of their populations living on less than $1 a day. It's also the only continent where the human population may double. The current level is around 750 million.
Low-crop yields and food insecurity play a large role in Africa's problems. The poorest, hungriest people in the world also have the most births, apparently an instinctive reaction to the threat of extinction.
British economist Tim Dyson recently projected an African food shortfall of nearly 90 million tons a year by 2025 unless the continent's food yields begin climbing faster.
Africa is unlikely to have the cash to import much food, so the likely alternative will be clearing more wildlife habitat for low-yield crops.
Because the continent's grain yields are so low, Africa would have to clear 70 million hectares (172.9 million acres) of forest and savanna-the land area of the entire country of Zambia. Africa averages about 1.7 tons of corn per hectare, compared with a world average of 4.1 tons.
One of the biggest corn-growing problems is the maize streak virus. Researchers are trying to genetically engineer corn varieties that can resist the virus. Conventional plant breeding has never overcome a viral disease, but biotech has already done it in sweet potatoes, rice and bananas.
This summer's Southern African economic summit examined the potential of virus-resistant corn and potatoes, borer-resistant sugar cane and fungus-resistant varieties of corn and fruit. Drought-prone Africa is even more interested in the potential for genetically engineering drought- tolerant crops.
Historically, the acid soils of Africa have been a major stumbling block to higher yields, cutting crop yields by up to 80 percent. Genetically engineered acid-soil crops could radically alter Africa's crop-production potential.
And that brings us back to Kenya's Florence Wambugu.
"Local farmers are benefiting from tissue-culture technologies for banana, sugar cane, pyrethrum, cassava and other crops," she points out. "There is every reason to believe they will also benefit from the crop- protection transgenic technologies in the pipeline."
There is, she says, "the potential to double African production if viral diseases are controlled using transgenic technology."
Greenpeace might also want to listen to Muffy Koch, South Africa's director of innovation biotechnology.
Discussing biotech fields she has visited, Koch observes that "bird species that hadn't been seen in years" are reappearing in fields that no longer have to be chemically sprayed. That's just one example of why Africa needs biotech food crops.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.