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Africa needs biotechnology to fight hunger

Tuesday June 7 2016

Emanuel Ber plays with yellow maize at their home in Rachuonyo, Homa Bay County, on January 19, 2016. National Biosafety Authority has approved cultivation trials for GMO maize which scientists say can allow us to grow more food on less land in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.  PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Emanuel Ber plays with yellow maize at their home in Rachuonyo, Homa Bay County, on January 19, 2016. National Biosafety Authority has approved cultivation trials for GMO maize which scientists say can allow us to grow more food on less land in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. PHOTO | TOM OTIENO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Gilbert arap Bor
By Gilbert arap Bor
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In 1885, the European powers met in Berlin to share Africa among themselves, launching a dark period of colonialist exploitation.

European lawmakers gather in Brussels to attempt to subjugate the continent once more, this time by pressuring Africa to forswear the scientific innovations that have revolutionised agriculture around the world.

This new offensive comes from the European Parliament’s Committee on Development, which has prepared a draft resolution that “urges the G8 member states not to support GMO crops in Africa”. It has received surprisingly little attention in the press locally and may receive a vote as early as this week.

As a Kenyan farmer who participates in the daily struggle to grow food on land that does not produce enough, I have a short message for the well-fed politicians who would consider supporting this neo-colonialist measure: “Leave Africa alone.”

The hostility to GMOs has set us back a generation. I urge the European lawmakers not to take a step that could impoverish us for another generation by discouraging African governments from accepting important crop technologies that farmers in many other places take for granted.

Here in Kenya, many people struggle with food insecurity. With 46 million people, a high rate of population growth, and the rapid urbanisation of our arable land, our challenges will probably grow worse. GMOs can allow us to grow more food on less land in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. Farmers need access to agricultural biotechnology.

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Instead of ordering Africans to abandon science, Europeans should listen to what their own scientists say. The European Commission and the World Health Organisation have vouched for the safety of GMOs. So has the National Academy of Sciences, the leading scientific advisory group in the United States, which just published a comprehensive study that endorses GMOs.

SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE

If the European Parliament wants to help Africa, it should spread scientific knowledge among the lawmakers and citizens of less-developed economies to enable them to become self-sufficient in the production of basic commodities that improve the lot of African farmers to ensure food security.

Only a handful of African countries have accepted GMOs, among them Burkina Faso, Sudan, and South Africa. Yet we could see a boom in this technology in the next few years.

Kenya is GMO-ready. We have regulatory protocols in place coordinated by the National Biosafety Authority. The first field trials of GM maize are under way and they may start soon for cotton. We still cannot cultivate, market, or import GMOs, but we are on the verge of lifting these restrictions. Once they are gone, Kenya will have a new weapon in the fight against hunger.

If Africa fails to take up modern farming methods, it will face disaster. It will never realise the potential of either the Green or Gene revolutions. Farmers will use more and more herbicides and pesticides, cutting into their incomes and endangering biodiversity. The cost of crop production will rise, which means the cost of food will rise, too. More people will go hungry.

This is the future that the resolution before the European Parliament asks us to embrace. Thankfully, the resolution is non-binding. The European Parliament cannot force a policy upon any member of the G8 and two members — Canada and the United States — are sure to reject it out of hand.

But that is not the point. Africa is in the habit of looking to Europe for political leadership and economic opportunity. Whatever the European Parliament decides, its choice will send a powerful signal. Let us hope it makes the right one.

Dr Bor is a small-scale farmer and lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. [email protected]

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