The Future of Genetically Modified Crops: Lessons from the Green Revolution


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South Africa, with its large commercial farming sector and accommodating policy environment see opposite , was the first and continues to be the most popular destination for GM seeds. The first GM crop, Bt cotton, was approved for commercial release in and by more than , ha were planted with GM crops. Industry is now trying to introduce GM crops in other African countries. Its major targets are the commercial maize and cotton-growing areas, since these crops already have well-established commercial market structures.

For the same reasons, applications to introduce GM fruits and flowers for export production are probably not far off. Yet the market potential in Africa for GM seeds is relatively small, and, in the near term, the public sector will remain the most significant actor in formal sector plant breeding. This means that public scientists have a particularly influential role to play when it comes to the introduction of GM crops in Africa.

Although GM crops have only been introduced in a few African countries and most have yet to formulate a national position on biotechnology, research on GM crops is moving ahead in public research centres. As public scientists become more involved in research on GM crops, interest in marketing them increases. Commercialisation is usually a project objective.

The research project then creates a whole set of needs: In this way, a few minor biotechnology projects can exert significant influence over national policy.

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With GM crops either already in the field or on their way into the fields in a number of African countries, there is reason for concern. These are new technologies that have not been in the field for very long and that have not been subjected to extensive independent study on their impacts to human health.

The risks presented by GM crops are in many ways similar to those presented by the introduction of pesticides, and rural communities in the South, once again, are the most at risk. In the case of pesticides, a number were introduced and later restricted or withdrawn in the North as their effects on human health and the environment became known, but they continue to be widely used in Africa and other parts of the South.

In , 43 million kg of banned or restricted pesticides were exported from the US—most to developing countries. With GM crops similar risks exist, but this time it will be impossible to withdraw the product if harmful effects are discovered after the crops are released since the modified genes can quickly spread through cross-pollination and reproduction.

And, once again, Africa's small farmers will be the ones to suffer. Since they are the ones who sow and harvest, they are the ones who find themselves on the first link of the food chain. Genetic engineering has created a set of unknowns that researchers and decision-makers have not had to consider previously. Each GM crop is the result of the transfer of genes from usually two or more species into the cells of another species to create a new, genetically modified organism.

Scientists take genes that they believe are responsible for a particular trait in one organism and insert them into another organism, where they hope the trait will be reproduced. For instance, with GM Bt maize, the genes that make the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis toxic to certain pests are inserted into maize plant cells to develop GM maize plants toxic to pests. The transfer of the genes can produce unintended consequences, as it is impossible to predict exactly how the inserted gene will behave in the new organism.

In fact, it's illegal to touch them. It is essential that the risks and the benefits are carefully taken into consideration and that those who stand the most to lose—farmers—are actively involved in the decision-making process. Moreover, GM crops bring with them potential socio-economic risks, such as patents and biological mechanisms for companies to control the seed supply.

These have profound impacts on agriculture and should be considered in the evaluation of the risks and benefits. Given the clear risk of GM crops, a precautionary approach to their release should be implicit, but often is not. This principle is enshrined in the biosafety guidelines of the National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines, one of the first developing countries to formulate its own biosafety guidelines. A similar process would be appropriate for Africa. But so far, biosafety processes in Africa have had difficulty finding a transparent, inclusive and effective footing.

The problem begins with the overall lack of information about GM crops. In Zambia, the extension services and education system lack the capacity and trained personnel to inform farmers about GM crops, there are no university courses in biotechnology, and journalists have little access to reliable information. Two years later, the National Biotechnology Strategy was announced without consultation with NGOs, farmers, trade unionists, or social scientists. According to Biowatch South Africa: The lack of information is compounded by the increasing collusion between governments and the seed industry lobbies.

Nevertheless, in many countries in Africa there are genuine efforts underway to establish effective biosafety regulations. This is no small task given that most African countries are desperately short of the resources needed to effectively regulate GM crops. Seed TNCs have, on occasion, taken advantage of this environment to avoid regulatory scrutiny. In Zimbabwe, Monsanto field tested its GM cotton before national regulations were in place without notifying the authorities.

When the government found out, the crops were quickly destroyed. But, even with regulations, the government may not have the capacity to ensure safety. According to a member of Zimbabwe's Biosafety Board, one Monsanto application for a Bt crop was more than 1, pages long.

The Biosafety Protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity that was adopted in January was supposed to help resolve some of these biosafety difficulties. The Protocol created a funding mechanism for building national biosafety capacity in developing countries and established an Advance Informed Agreement that obliges parties exporting GM seeds destined for agricultural purposes to give the importing country written notification. Yet, there is no obligation on exporting parties when it comes to GM crops destined for processing or direct human or animal consumption.

This leaves Africans without control over the GM crops entering their countries, especially when it comes as food aid from the US and other exporting countries looking to unload the surplus production that Europe and Japan will not accept. As the President of Kenya recently said about US food aid entering the country: The most active is the seed industry, which is pushing African countries to harmonise biosafety regulations with the US. Mark Condon of the American Seed Trade Association recently told a gathering of seed industry representatives and politicians in Africa: Some biosafety consultants are urging governments to look to the seed industry for the funds to cover the costs.

It is helping to take biosafety decisions directly to the affected farming communities. Monsanto's Bt cotton or Bollgard Cotton was the first commercial GM crop released in Sub-Saharan Africa and Africa's experience with it reveals much about the problems of biosafety on the continent. Currently, all officially approved production of Bt cotton in Africa takes place in South Africa, where it is grown on , ha by 1, commercial farmers and 3, small-scale farmers mostly in the Northern Province, with some in KwaZulu-Natal and the Orange Free State.

Monsanto also planted Bt cotton in Zimbabwe in without permission, but the crop was burnt before flowering as soon as the authorities found out. Monsanto also has applications pending in Kenya, where it has a collaborative project with KARI to field test and eventually commercialise Bt cotton, and in Uganda, where it is working with the Kawanga National Agricultural Research Organisation. Bt cotton presents significant ecological concerns in Uganda, given its rich diversity of cotton varieties. The same concerns also exist in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa where there are indigenous cotton varieties.

A cotton operation run by a US company called Dunavant recently provided Bt cotton to farmers participating in its out-grower schemes without informing the farming community or other stakeholders. The Bt cotton was grown for one season in trials at the organisation's fields in Magoye in Zambia's southern agricultural belt and was then discontinued, but Zambian officials believe that it is still being grown in the country.

In South Africa, where Bt cotton has been grown for several years, the process is more official. The problem is that none of the regulations are enforced, particularly in the areas where small farmers have taken up the seeds. Monsanto maintains that the refuge strategies are not necessary since the bollworm is endemic to the areas where small farmers are growing the cotton and there are plenty of natural hosts all around. Plus, Monsanto says that it is doing its own monitoring of Bt resistance. If the government wants a resistance management plan, then, Monsanto argues, it is up to the government to carry out the inspections and enforcement.

As of February , four years after the crop was released in South Africa, responsibility has still not been resolved. Despite these biosafety concerns, Bt cotton is likely to be the flagship for opening seed markets to GM crops in a number of African countries. In his community, small scale farmers plant Bollgard on hectares, and the numbers keep increasing even though the technology fees that Monsanto charges are quite high. For one, the technology works, at least in the short term, at killing off certain insect pests and thereby reduces pesticide use.

But the early success rests on a fragile foundation. The Bt cotton farmers are not the only farmers in the area.

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Most of the Bt cotton production is handled by farmers of the Ubombo Farmers Association, and, as a result of the project, their political influence has increased. Recently, they successfully lobbied the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry DWAF to release water in the nearby dam a few weeks early, since the maturation period for Bollgard is on average two to four weeks shorter than usual. The normal flooding period, however, was established by the DWAF through consultations with the floodplain farmers and is arranged to suit the needs of their subsistence crops, mainly maize and beans.

When the water was released early, these farmers lost their crops. Success for the cotton farmers themselves is also fragile. Cotton is a cash crop and success is not only measured by productivity but by the market price. South Africa, which dismantled its Cotton Board in and is in the midst of liberalising its cotton market, imports over half of its cotton. This makes the country increasingly vulnerable to price fluctuations.

For example, in , the largest cotton crop in 10 years in China flooded the world market and, even though other areas were undergoing slumps in production, global prices fell sharply. Even Monsanto's lead cotton researcher in South Africa wonders how small farmers will cope with the liberalisation of the cotton market. There is also the problem of dependency that the Bt cotton project encourages. Part of the reason why Bt cotton has been taken up by small-scale farmers in South Africa is that it provides some short-term relief to a system in need of serious reform.

Most rural communities in South Africa lack access to productive land and those that do have access to land are constrained by labour shortages, as men are constantly migrating in search of work. Farming is left to women, who can usually only farm on a part-time basis, and they have minimal access to and control over the resources needed to carry out effective agricultural management practices.


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Bt cotton is taken up in these conditions because the technology is in the seed. It is, for example, more susceptible to the fungal disease Fusarium wilt than conventional cotton. No variety can remain resistant to all pests and diseases, especially when it is widely used in a given area, and with the rapid adoption of Bt cotton in South Africa, it is only a matter of time before an epidemic strikes leading to crop losses and increases in pesticides.

Bt cotton may provide a small amount of relief to small farmers in the near term, but it threatens to make matters worse in the end. Rather than a technology fix, small farmers in South Africa and other African countries need the support of rural development strategies that give farming communities control over their own resources and build local knowledge and technology systems. Farmers must be able to choose to avoid a cycle of debt and dependency. In the short term pesticide use may be reduced, but agronomic and economic dependence remains. Alternative strategies that rely to a greater extent on locally available inputs and that provide farmers with the tools to analyse what is happening in their fields, to adopt strategies to make appropriate variations in their practices, to understand when pests threaten economic loss and to take preventive measures to improve soil by the addition of organic matter have proven effective.

The solution is ultimately political, not technological. The emotion and excitement around GM crops expressed by some scientists and policy makers is hard to understand. For all the money, research and advertising that have been devoted to their development, GM crops offer remarkably little in the way of possible benefits. The Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe BTZ , for instance, was initially established to identify problems facing smallholder farmers that could be addressed with biotechnology.

It asked a number of researchers to go out in the field to talk with small farmers to identify the most pressing problems and come up with proposals for biotechnology research. Most, if not all, of the GM crops that are being developed for African agriculture are not oriented towards the needs Africa's small farmers.

For example, researchers in Zimbabwe are trying to develop GM cowpea with resistance to the herbicide atrazine. The idea is to make it easier for larger-scale commercial farmers planting maize and spraying atrazine to rotate their fields with cowpea. But, as the case study below illustrates, the GM sweetpotato has used up vast resources for a technology that will do little for small farmers, but will instead create new dangers.

The Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering

Something else is going on. With the patents they hold on GM crops, corporations can prohibit farmers from saving seed from year to year. Once a farmer chooses to plant GM crops, it becomes very difficult to rethink that choice, particularly in the face of aggressive marketing and sales campaigns by the manufacturers and the widespread endorsement of such crops by government agencies.

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The example of Bt maize highlights the implications of these emerging issues as collaboration between public and private research increases with the development of GM crops. Sweetpotato is a major crop in small-scale agriculture throughout Africa. It is regarded as an insurance crop, offering an important source of food, income, and animal feed. There is very little commercial sweetpotato production in Africa, and most of it is grown using sustainable agriculture methods, without chemical inputs. Public and private researchers have paid relatively little attention to sweetpotato, despite its importance to the rural poor in Africa.

Nevertheless, farmers have developed many varieties of sweetpotato on their own and have had a great deal of success in managing pests and diseases. Under certain conditions disease can present a problem.

The sweet potato virus disease SPVD is perhaps the most important disease affecting sweetpotato production. It forms through the interaction of two other diseases, sweetpotato feathery mottle virus SPFMV and sweetpotato chlorotic stunt virus SPCSV , neither of which present a problem on their own. While the viral coat protein gene is patented by the International Potato Centre CIP and the Scripps Institute in the US, the genetic construct incorporates marker and promoter genes patented by Monsanto.

The participating institutions have agreed to make these available to KARI on a royalty-free basis. At present, a variety of sweetpotato has been genetically engineered and the first season of field trials has been undertaken in Kenya. First, the technology presents a number of biosafety concerns. Furthermore, sweetpotato has wild relatives throughout Africa, and the transgene could spread to these species through cross-pollination.

Second, there are concerns that the disease resistance will not be effective. Finally, there are alternative methods for increasing yield in sweetpotato that are more appropriate and less costly. Farmers control disease by planting different varieties in a typical crop and selecting healthy vines for planting the following year. Through constant selection and exchange, farmers have developed a wide diversity of sweetpotato varieties with excellent disease resistance, many of which have not yet been characterised by public researchers. In fact, it is the high-yielding clonal varieties developed by formal sector breeders that are most susceptible to disease.

The Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe has taken this approach. It runs a sweetpotato micropropagation programme in collaboration with farmer-breeders. In the first year of the programme, BTZ collected different varieties from farmers' fields and conducted trials of 27 varieties at a time in different locations. Cite this Email this Add to favourites Print this page.

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The Green Revolution and Genetic Engineering

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