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Sowing the seeds of destruction

(Monday, July 14, 2003 -- CropChoice news) - Charles M. Benbrooke, NY Times, via the Agribusiness Examiner: President Bush deserves praise for going to Africa and talking about hunger, his proposals for addressing the problem are likely to make it worse. American farm and trade policies --- particularly the promotion of American-style agricultural biotechnology --- will do little to alleviate hunger.

In the weeks before the president's trip, the administration stepped up its efforts to promote biotechnology and genetically modified food. In May, the United States filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union for its moratorium against the approval of genetically modified crops. The administration claimed that European policies have turned some African nations against biotechnology, thereby undermining American efforts to help Africa. In a speech last month to biotech leaders, the president said, "We must help troubled nations to avert famine by sharing with them the most advanced methods of crop production."

The president is right that African farmers will benefit from new knowledge and technology. But he's wrong about which technologies we should be offering. African farmers neither need nor want to produce American-style genetically modified crops.

It is easy to understand Africa's lack of enthusiasm. The first generation of genetically modified food crops --- corn and soybean seeds --- were created to make pest management simpler on America's large, mechanized farms. The technologies would be far less effective on African farms, which are small and diversified and rely largely on human labor.

These technologies don't make economic sense. In the United States, most farmers planting genetically modified seeds break even --- the increase in seed costs, approximately 35%, is covered by reductions in pesticide expenses or marginally higher yields. In stable, well-irrigated environments, these crops enable individual farmers to cultivate more land.

In Africa, however, these benefits can be burdens. For cash-poor farmers, the cost of genetically modified seed would be prohibitive. Moreover, genetically modified crops need near-perfect growing conditions. In dry areas, they require irrigation systems and the water to run them. They also need to be managed with special care. For example, crops are engineered to work with specific herbicides; the wrong herbicide can ruin an entire crop. In Africa, where pesticides are often misbranded, sold in unmarked containers or handled by people who cannot read, this can be a problem.

Governments will also bear increased responsibilities and costs in carrying out and assessing health and environmental safety testing for these crops, a task few African nations are able to take on.

Africans recognize these drawbacks and that's why American efforts to promote genetically modified crops have backfired. The initiative to introduce genetically modified corn to Zambia through American food aid donations in 2002 clearly did not work out the way the administration had hoped. The Zambians were vocal in their refusal. And the move brought simmering global tensions over biotechnology to a boil at last summer's global environmental summit meeting in Johannesburg and raised questions about American motives, priorities and understanding of the roots of hunger. Despite a full-court press by the Bush administration and some members of Congress, the Zambians have stood by their decision to reject such food aid.

African farmers face a multitude of challenges. Drought is a recurrent problem. Soils are often worn out. Depressed commodity prices undercut human enterprise. Land tenure systems and reluctance to direct financial and technical assistance to the women who do the majority of the work on many farms are social issues that undermine farm productivity, as are civil strife and AIDS. For these problems, biotechnology has little to offer.

The only way Africans can afford today's genetically modified seeds is for us to give the seeds or technology to them no strings attached, a highly unlikely scenario. Before contemplating this approach, though, Americans should know that their money and expertise might be better directed doing the things that Africans themselves might actually find useful.

Charles Benbrook,, Sand Point, Idaho, an agricultural consultant, runs Ag BioTech InfoNet, a Web site.