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By Mark Lynas
Africa desperately needs agricultural modernisation. With the most rapidly growing population in the world and hundreds of millions still suffering malnutrition, African leaders cannot afford to close the door to innovation.
Poverty is endemic and “yield gaps” mean that African farmers commonly harvest less than a tenth of the global average in maize and other crops.
Part of the problem has been political resistance to adopting new and improved technologies, particularly in seed breeding. Some of this unwillingness has been home-grown, but much has been imported to Africa by rich-country NGOs with a colonialist ideological agenda that see poverty as dignified and want to keep farmers permanently trapped in subsistence lifestyles.
These NGOs, and their well-funded domestic offshoots in African cities and villages, have opposed high-yielding hybrid crops, mechanisation, herbicides, and many other improvements that are routinely used in the rest of the world to make farming more productive and less laborious.
But their most determined opposition has been to genetically improved crops, the so-called GMOs, about which extremist fearmongering has become routine across the continent.
In Uganda, for example, ActionAid was censured recently when it was revealed that the group had paid for misleading radio adverts linking GMOs with cancer.
In Tanzania, I witnessed NGO-sponsored farmers claiming that consuming GMOs would make their children homosexual.
All these statements are absurd and scientifically baseless, but unfortunately African governments have taken them all too seriously. In Kenya, activists touting a piece of scientific “research” apparently linking GMOs with cancer in rats (this paper was later retracted because of scientific flaws) led to the government imposing a GMO import ban.
In Tanzania, so-called “strict liability” laws threatened crop breeders with a decade in jail for doing their legitimate work to improve plant genetics and food security. And in Uganda and Nigeria “biosafety Bills” remained logjammed in Parliament as MPs and other policymakers were bamboozled by relentless NGO fearmongering campaigns, media misrepresentation, and anti-GMO lobbying.
But things are shifting and today’s winds of change are sweeping across Africa. Before leaving office last month, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed the long-delayed National Biosafety Agency Bill into law and approved the establishment of the Biosafety Management Agency, finally allowing Nigerian scientists to continue working on improvements to maize, rice, cowpea, cotton, and many other important crops.
In Tanzania, the strict liability prohibition on scientific research was lifted in February.
In Mozambique, the government has allowed the establishment of the first confined field trials so that scientists and agronomists can continue their work on drought-tolerant maize under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa programme.
In Nairobi many high-level policy-makers and legislators have called on the government to lift the GMO import ban. Consequently, the minister for Health, Mr James Macharia was recently quoted in the press as saying that the government was ready to move as soon as the Cabinet meets.
The ban has made life more difficult for commodity importers and raised food prices countrywide, negatively impacting food security for millions of Kenyans.
Kenya is holding back, but at least now in Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania, and a growing list of African countries, biotech-related improvements to agriculture can move forward.
And the urgency is increasing all the time: cassava in East Africa is being hit by brown-streak virus, for which a genetic resistance solution is now under development. Similarly, banana bacterial wilt threatens Uganda’s staple matoke.
No one suggests that biotech is a silver bullet. Agricultural improvement overall, however, is vitally important for development. Food-insecure countries where the majority of the population is trapped in subsistence farming cannot modernise and eradicate poverty. Policymakers in some African countries are at last taking notice of this fact — and change cannot come soon enough.