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Don't shove biotech down Africa's throat

By Stan Cox
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- "I'll tell you something - the guts in this machine are the same as the ones in the expensive models. It just doesn't have all the fancy controls."

You've heard it before. Having failed to direct your attention to the $800 or $500 washing machines, the salesman winks, rubs at a spot on the $250 model with his cuff, and gives you the real story.

What's true of washing machines is true of biotech crops. But don't expect the promoters of genetically modified seed to come clean in the way the guy at Pop's Appliance does.

GM corn, soybean, cotton, and canola are not magical new solutions for a hungry world. They are the same old crops with a handful of "special features" designed to make them more profitable - not to the farmer but to the corporations that own the patents.

Several African countries have caused an international uproar in recent months by rejecting food aid in the form of whole-grain GM corn. Two issues have become commingled in the brawl, which came to a head during the recent Johannesburg Summit. On one hand, many biotech critics are warning that eating GM corn is hazardous to your health. On the other, the biotech industry insists that GM crops are the key to increased food production in Africa.

The GM-food critics are overstating the threat, and the industry is just doing a sales job.

As many observers have pointed out, it would be hypocritical to insist that hungry Africans boycott GM-laced food while well-fed Americans ingest it at almost every meal. At the same time, the U.S. government's efforts to selectively push GM corn as food aid has less to do with hunger than with expanding the market for biotech seed.

Writing in the March 15 issue of the journal Science, Dr. Pedro Sanchez, former director general of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Kenya, and this year's winner of the World Food Prize, went to the heart of Africa's food crisis. He argued that rebuilding soils through proven, low-tech, but knowledge-intensive techniques is the key to increasing the continent's food production. Tremendous yield gains could be achieved without GM crops, and, conversely, GM crops would fail in poor soil.

Like the $800 washing machine, current GM crop varieties and hybrids work about the same as or sometimes more poorly than their non-GM cousins. The alien genes for herbicide or pest resistance are there for marketing purposes and to solve problems created by the industrial-style agriculture of which GM crops are a part.

The "guts" of the crop plant - its anatomical and biochemical machinery for collecting sunlight and storing the energy as harvestable grain, roots or other foods - is the same in GM and non-GM crops. Biotech publicity often expresses the unfocused hope that high technology can be used to overhaul a plant's machinery and create a super-yielder. But to tinker with one gene at a time and overhaul the vastly complex biological pathways that produce a crop of corn or rice? As a plant breeder, all I can say is, "Good luck, and we'll check with you sometime next century."

A colleague of mine presented a paper at a professional meeting two years ago demonstrating that it takes about the same number of years to engineer and distribute a GM corn hybrid as it does to breed and distribute a non-GM hybrid. The big difference is cost, which can be 28 times as high for the GM hybrid.

Biotech firms are willing to make huge investments to achieve such small product changes, and it's not for the sake of hungry babies. Business's most venerable marketing slogan, "New and improved!", has been used to sell prettied-up versions of old stuff for decades.

Farmers all over the world face serious environmental, economic and political obstacles whenever they set out to grow a crop. Serious, cost-effective approaches to addressing these problems, employing knowledge of genetics, plant and soil science, and ecology are available. Their realization requires political will, not genetic engineering. For the price, neither America's nor Africa's farmers can afford GM crops.

- Stan Cox (cox@landinstitute.org) is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle and senior research scientist at The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He holds a Ph.D. in plant breeding from Iowa State University.