A lively controversy over the use of genetically modified organisms divides Western Africa. For those in favor, GMOs provide an opportunity to achieve a “Green Revolution” which can defeat hunger and poverty. For those against, they are a real danger.
“We are in favour of GMOs and new biotechnologies” declared Amadou Moustafa Djigo, President of the Union Nationale Interprofessionnelle des Semences du Sénégal (UNIS) in an interview with Agri Infos.
Together with Mr Djigo, there are many Africans who support the use of transgenic plants in agriculture. They state that biotechnologies enable better yields and the prospect of larger stocks of cotton, soy, maize, rice, which can help combat hunger and poverty in areas where agriculture has not yet achieved satisfactory results. Rice cultivation, for example, achieves yields significantly below world averages: less than 1.5 tons per hectare compared to 3.84.
Western Africa – which almost completely coincides with the Sahel – is also one of the regions in the world to record a reduction in food output relative to demographic trends. According to a study of the UN World Food Program, one third of the 300 million people living in the area of the Economic Community Of West African States (CEDEAO) are “chronically threatened by hunger.”
For these reasons, countries such as Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo and Guinea-Bissau have made efforts since 2006 to introduce GM crops, as part of the West Africa Regional Biosafety Program (PRBAO). This initiative, supported by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, is implemented by the West African Economic and Monetary Union.
But while we wait for a common position to be reached, Bt cotton – which owes its name to the mutated gene of Bacillus thuringiensis, which enables the plant to produce a toxin lethal to parasite larvae—has been tested since 2003 in Burkina Faso, and commercial crops have been grown since last year. It is no secret: Burkina Faso, through its Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INERA) has entered into a contractual agreement with Monsanto and Sygenta, the two largest agrochemical multinationals, which are vigorously lobbying in this part of Africa. The important point is that cotton accounts for 50 percent of the country’s total exports. According to studies carried out by INERA, Bt cotton improves yields by 40 percent, particularly when the transgenic variety Bollgard 2 is used. ‘We are sure that biotechnology applied to cultivating cotton can be one of the solutions to the problems of competitiveness” wrote Professor Alassan Séré, President of the Burkina Biotech Association, in his editorial published in Biotech Echo in May 2007. Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali and Togo have followed the example of Burkina Faso, deciding in June 2006 to accept cultivation of Bt cotton. According to unconfirmed reports the Senegalese company Sodéfitex which manages cotton crops in the south of the country, is considering following the example of Burkina Faso.
Supporters of GMOs think that West African states should quickly adopt these transgenic plants to allow these countries to escape the cycles of poor harvests which cause small farmers lost earnings, hunger and poverty. It is a disastrous situation afflicting both people and animals. This is exactly what is happening this year in Senegal, where low rainfall in 2007, insufficient seed and a lack of fertilizers, water and pesticides, have led to a 60 percent collapse in cereal production, particularly affecting millet and corn. The supporters of GMOs claim that transgenic seeds would have withstood these difficulties more successfully. Reinforcing this point of view, Djigo, President of UNIS and West African representative at the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA), emphasizes that biotechnology brings “well-being” to Africans. “But,” he continues “it must be accompanied by a biosafety system which can evaluate the environmental impact of GMOs on humans and animals.”
The supporters of GMOs forget however that the disastrous situation facing West African agriculture is associated with bad agricultural policies. There has been a lack of agrarian reforms in support of female work, inadequate efforts to improve soil fertilization, no credit for thousands of small farmers in family farms, and no promotion of traditional knowledge.
We should also remember that there are some uncertainties surrounding the consumption of transgenic foods. While cultivation of GM corn in the countries mentioned is still on an experimental basis, this is not the case for the consumption of other transgenic products. In fact, countries such as Brazil or Argentina, well-known for being among the world’s largest producers of GM crops, export significant quantities of transgenic wheat, corn, soy and other products to West Africa. Never mind the environmental damage, human and animal health.
Property to Protect
The opponents of GMOs base their rejection on evidence of disasters caused by these biotechnology products and appeal to the precautionary and protection principles. For these opponents – researchers, ecologists and producers belonging to small farmer organizations such as ROPPA in West Africa – transgenic plants constitute a danger to the African continent. The Coalition for the Protection of African Genetic Heritage (COPAGEN) shares this position and is campaigning against the introduction of GMOs to Africa. Through its actions, COPAGEN wants to bring the problem to the attention of African political authorities, and at the same time raise public awareness through widespread information.
Those opposed to GMOs feel laws must be passed to protect African genetic heritage and to control the risks of environmental pollution. With membership of the World Trade Organisation, it is possible to envisage a risk that African countries could become dependent on GM seeds. Then there are some plant varieties which specifically belong to particular African rural communities and should be protected. One representative example is fonio (Digitaria exilis), a cereal with a minute grain, which is gluten-free and well tolerated by diabetics. If we do not protect ourselves against the problems that can arise from the use of GMOs or intellectual property issues connected with seeds, we risk exposing Africa to many dangers and its small farmers to the possibility of losing some of their rights.
We should at this point mention the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Following this agreement, since 2002 the countries of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) and Economic Community of West African States (CEDEAO) have tried to harmonize their laws covering the use or non-use of GMOs in their countries.
The former Senegalese Minister for Scientific Research, Yaye Kéne Gassama, while chairing a meeting of his CEDEAO colleagues in January 2007, stated: “Most countries have followed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in their legislation, but they must each be fully aware of the issues and express their own opinion. Technology transfer must not conceal and override ethical issues.”
It must now be recognized however that some West African countries have difficulty in harmonizing their intended actions in the context of globalization. At present, we are not witnessing a simple debate on the issue of GMOs, but a real battle between the United States and the European Union. Africa should keep its distance from this battle of giants, looking for its own alternative way. As Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania said: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
Senegal, a journalist of the Journalistes en Afrique pour le Développement et l’Environnement network and editor of the Agri Infos monthly.
This article is published in the Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.