BIO.org -- Growing biotech crops in Africa has gained another voice of support in former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter.
In a speech in September at the United Nations University in Tokyo, Carter spoke about the need for further aid for sub-Saharan Africa. His goal in speaking was "to address perhaps the most basic human right of all: for food to eat."
Carter spoke at length about the need for more aid targeted for agricultural development in Africa. He also made clear his objections to those who would keep the fruits of biotechnology out of the hands of people who need it most.
"We must combat the false propaganda of some European extremists who condemn the use of genetically modified seeds," Carter said. "Their misleading statements have been extremely damaging to Africa, where some misguided leaders have rejected such imports."
In 2002, several African countries debated whether to accept food aid—including corn developed with biotechnology—from the United States. In the end, only one country, Zambia, rejected the food aid outright. But the debate over the safety of biotech food that is eaten every day by North Americans continues as hunger becomes even more widespread in Africa.
In 2003, more than 21 million people in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe face the risk of "imminent famine" and about 4 million more people in Eritrea, Mauritania and Mozambique are at risk of becoming "highly food insecure," according to the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
While a continuing drought is responsible for the immediate problems, the underlying cause of widespread hunger is Africa's below average agricultural productivity. The continent's average crop production is the lowest in the world, at 1.7 tons per hectare—less than half the global average of 4 tons per hectare.
To improve agricultural productivity, Carter called for more aid for agricultural development. In recent years, lending by international public-sector institutions for agriculture and rural development in poor countries has been declining:
* Annual World Bank lending has dropped 47 percent over the past 12 years.
* Annual foreign aid by governments to agriculture fell by 57 percent between 1988 and 1996.
* USAID funding for agriculture fell by 48 percent between 1992 and 2001.
Biotechnology is recognized as one way to boost productivity. As Andrew Natsios, administrator of the USAID, has stated, "Low yields due to pests, diseases, drought and even poor soils can be boosted by application of readily available tools of biotechnology."
To date, South Africa is the only country on the continent that has given farmers the green light to grow biotech crops. The income and productivity gains have been substantial.
One study of the 1999–2000 growing season said average yields in the Makhathini Flats area of South Africa were 93 percent higher for biotech cotton than for conventional varieties—with an average earnings increase of 77 percent. The farmers with the smallest plots saw even bigger gains. Emerging farmers also said yields for genetically enhanced white corn were 220 percent higher than for conventional corn.
Any yield increase can make a significant difference in regions where half the people survive on less than $1 per day, and three-quarters on less than $2 a day. According to a 2001 study by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, even a 1 percent increase in yields would help raise the incomes of 6 million people above $1 per day.
"In low-income developing countries, agriculture is the driving force for broad-based economic growth and poverty alleviation," wrote Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Marc Cohen in an article titled, "Modern Biotechnology for Food and Agriculture: Risks and Opportunities for the Poor."
In his speech, Carter condemned those who portray biotechnology as a threat to safety and to the environment without offering any facts to back up such claims. "There has never been any evidence of a hazard to humans or animals," he said. "Many of the most widely used medicines have come from the same process of utilizing genetic diversity."
Carter Plants Biotech Seeds
Carter offered further evidence of his support for biotechnology. A lifelong farmer who continues to till land that has been in his family since 1833, he said he grows biotech crops himself.
"Almost all the seeds (including cotton, soybeans and corn) planted on my own farm have been genetically modified, to protect the plants from disease, insects and weeds, and to provide higher nutrition," Carter said. "My own yields have increased greatly."
While Carter is known as a peanut farmer, he does not plant genetically enhanced varieties because no such peanuts have been approved for commercial planting in the United States.
Carter's own humanitarian aid group, The Carter Center, has worked for 17 years with the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) and The Nippon Foundation to assist agricultural development in Africa. His involvement with The Nippon Foundation's SG2000 pilot program has convinced him of the need to provide African farmers with the technology and education to improve agricultural yields.
"SG2000 has proven that farmers are eager and competent, and that with good seed, contour rows, conservation tillage, moderate chemical fertilizer, weed control and some guidance, they can triple production," he said.
The Nippon Foundation, a private humanitarian aid group based in Japan, joined forces 19 years ago with the SSVT, a private nonprofit group working toward developing agriculture in Africa. SAA, founded by Japanese statesman Ryoichi Sasakawa, specifically sought to do for Africa what the Green Revolution had done for India and Pakistan.
The Green Revolution that spurred agricultural development in India, Pakistan and many other regions in Asia largely bypassed sub-Saharan Africa because it's too dry for the high-yielding varieties of wheat, corn and rice that thrive in irrigated plots. Nor did the revolution focus on Africa's other staple crops—yams, cassava, sorghum and cowpeas.
Carter said increasing agricultural production is the only lasting solution to end hunger and malnutrition in Africa. "African people have proven their eagerness and ability to correct their own problems if given the chance," he said.
And the current stakes are high. Malnutrition contributes to up to 50 percent of the deaths in African children, according to the World Health Organization. Child mortality under five years of age is 157 out of every 1,000—18 times the rate of wealthy nations.
"There is hope for a better future in Africa," Carter concluded in his speech in Tokyo.
Providing farmers with the tools they need—including biotechnology—to boost agricultural productivity is the surest path to reach that better future.
Ethiopians urged to eat rice
IRIN AFRICA -- Ethiopians should consider changing their eating habits as part of the fight against repeated famines that have hit the nation, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
Sam Nyambi, the UN country representative in Ethiopia, urged the nation to adopt “diet diversification” as a means of combating recurrent droughts.
“It is a process we want to encourage, even more so in countries that are drought-stricken because you need to expand the ability of a family to survive,” Nyambi said.
His comments come as the UN and Japan launched a bid to encourage the impoverished nation to start growing a drought-resistant breed of rice called NERICA (New Rice for Africa).