Beyond the Dustbowl: BT in Africa

April 28th, 2004

Posted by: admin

With southern Africa facing its fourth consecutive growing season of low crop yields and food insecurity, genetically modified crops and food aid are sure to be front-burner issues for yet another year.

For the past three years, southern Africa has faced debilitating drought and a resultant demand for both food aid and drought-resistant crops. Consequently, the EU-US led debate over genetic modification (GM) has spread to Africa, thereby engaging African leaders and diverting attention from other severe agricultural problems like poor soil, a failing transportation infrastructure, and unwelcoming markets for crops from subsistence farmers.

At its core, this is a technology policy debate about willingness to accept risk. Yet as both sides politicize the issue within Africa, they drag African leaders into what the New York Times called “an undeclared trade dispute between the EU with its powerful environmental activists and the US and its influential biotechnology industry.”

The result is an African GM debate as politically charged as ours. On one side lie leaders calling for agricultural biotechnology as a means to end hunger altogether. And on the other lie leaders who see agricultural biotechnology as “poison” sent to exploit the third world, even in the form of
food aid.

As this politicization continues, African agricultural development lies in limbo, waiting for an unlikely solution to the bickering. And yet, it cannot wait. African soils are severely nutrient depleted such that they can barely provide the crops necessary for a single season, let alone a surplus for seasons of drought.

As population increases rapidly, farmers try to meet increasing food needs by intensifying land use without properly managing the land, which results in soil stripped of nutrients. In 1998 the UN Food and Agricultural Organization released a report stating that “sub-Saharan Africa risks being marginalized from the mainstream world economy because of failure of many countries in the region to adopt environmentally sustainable
agricultural practices to improve productivity and counter the process of natural resource degradation.”

These problems are severe but they have solutions. Evidence lies in the American Great Plains. Poor African agricultural practices are reminiscent of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s where the land, having been through decades of excessive plowing, dried and turned to dust. Dust, which was blown into the air and dumped in tons onto farms, homes, and towns. As a result, the US government intervened to teach farmers techniques that would slow rainwater runoff and improve absorption into the soil. Agriculture recovered. And last year, a drought 30% more intense than the 1930’s drought plagued the same area, but without the dust bowl results.

A similar change in African agricultural practices could greatly enhance both food security and economic stability in Africa. But to get there, we must not wait for a solution to the GM debate. We must seek opportunities to decrease vulnerability to the cycle of drought now in the face of debate. Only this form of aid will last beyond this year.

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