Africa takes fresh look at GMOs as drought bites

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tomatoes-879441_1920A scorching drought in Southern Africa that led to widespread crop failure could nudge African nations to finally embrace genetically modified (GM) crops to improve harvests and reduce grain imports.

The drought, which extends to South Africa, the continent’s biggest maize producer, has been exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern and follows dry spells last year that affected countries from Zimbabwe to Malawi. Aid agency Oxfam has said 10 million people, mostly in Africa, face hunger because of droughts and poor rains.

That has brought GM crops to the fore, especially maize, a staple crop grown and consumed in most sub-Saharan countries. Many African countries have banned GM crops, arguing that they will cross contaminate other plants, pollute the environment and could have long-term health effects for humans. Zimbabwe, for instance, says although GM crops may initially be resistant to pests, the resistance could breakdown over time.

GMO advocates, however, say the fears are not scientifically proven, adding that poor African farmers are likely to benefit most from reduced use of pesticides, lower production costs, higher yields and high prices for crops.

The African drought’s impact is particularly serious for Zimbabwe, where the economy has struggled for five years to recover from a catastrophic recession marked by billion percent hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.

Zimbabwe does not accept GM maize imports, and when it has accepted emergency GM maize aid, it has been milled under security watch.

“GM crops are one of the alternative solutions for reducing hunger on the continent among many others which include good agronomic practices,” Jonathan Mufandaedza, chief executive at National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, a government agency, told Reuters.

The United States, Brazil and India are the world’s largest growers of GM crops while in Africa; South Africa is the only country producing GM maize on a commercial scale.

Sixteen per cent of Zimbabwe’s population requires food aid this year. The government plans to import up to 700,000 tonnes of maize and with its usual sources of maize like Zambia and Tanzania facing lower harvests this year, Zimbabwe could end up receiving GM maize after all.

This year, South Africa, which produces more than 40 per cent of Southern African maize may need to import up to 5 million tonnes of maize due to drought, the country’s largest producer group, Grain SA said this week.

Perceptions are shifting, with Burkina Faso in West Africa, and lately Sudan having started to grow GM cotton commercially, Getachew Belay, an African expert on GM crops told Reuters.“Historically, Africa has been a laggard to accept new agricultural technologies. For GM crops, much of the problem lies in the perception, exaggerated fear and conflicting messages sent to policy making,” said Belay.

In 2002, Zambia experienced a severe drought that left millions in need of food aid but it rejected GM maize offered by donors, citing inadequate scientific information.