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The United States is taking its fight to win global acceptance of genetically engineered foods to hunger-plagued Africa.
As President Bush visits five African countries this week, he is expected to reiterate what he told biotechnology executives two weeks ago at a conference in Washington, D.C.: Genetically engineered foods will save millions from starvation.
Anti-biotech groups strongly disagree. Demonstrators at a meeting of agricultural ministers from developing nations this month in Sacramento loudly proclaimed that this technology would destroy African agriculture.
Pro-biotech groups believe the technology will mean that more and better food is grown on less land, using fewer chemicals and resulting in less environmental damage. In Africa, proponents look to biotechnology as a way to develop new varieties of African crops, creating more nutritious foods that can be grown without expensive and hard-to-get fertilizers and pesticides.
''I know some people will say it is harmful, but they have not proved that. That's why we say to the U.S.: 'Give us the technology; we need it,' '' says Peter Rammutla, president of the National African Farmers Union in South Africa. Rammutla is scheduled to attend a luncheon with Bush today.
Critics believe the technology is unproven, innately dangerous, unnatural and potentially toxic to humans, animals and the environment. They fear that its introduction into Africa will infect traditional crops with bioengineered traits and leave small-scale farmers beholden to multinational companies that want only to make a profit.
''They're talking of 'sharing' know-how, donating patents and so on,'' says Amadou Cheikh Kanoute of the Consumers International regional office in Harare, Zimbabwe. ''You might forget the patents for three to five years, and then comes year six and the multinationals will come back and say, 'We've been putting money into research and development to come up with these seeds; now you have to pay for it.' ''
That's patently untrue, says Monsanto, the largest U.S. producer of biotech seed. The company is working on several projects with African and international agricultural researchers, including disease-resistant sweet potato, cassava, papaya and cowpeas. Although all are at least five years from farmers' fields, they are in the pipeline. ''For these projects, we've given them licensing rights for all time,'' the company's Robert Horsch says. ''They're free to give it away.''
This kind of back-and-forth has been common in the worldwide debate over genetically engineered crops since they were first proposed in the 1980s. Despite the eager adoption of genetically engineered corn, soybeans, cotton and canola by U.S. farmers over the past decade, other nations have not embraced the technology so wholeheartedly.
Europe is most profoundly distrustful. Its 5-year-old moratorium on new biotech products was softened only last week with the passage of regulations that include strict labeling provisions. China is eagerly creating its own technology, and the rest of Asia is watchful. Parts of South and Central America embrace the technology, and parts revile it.
Africa is only the latest battleground. Last month, dueling groups of Africans, pro- and anti-biotech, were escorted across the country to meet with the press and politicians to present their cases.
Earlier in the year, AfricaBio, a pro-biotech non-profit group, was offering journalists paid trips to South Africa to meet small-scale farmers who are growing genetically engineered crops.
During a famine in southern Africa last summer, both sides made much of Zambia's refusal to accept genetically engineered corn from the USA.
Many believe that European environmental groups opposed to genetically engineered crops convinced African leaders that if they accepted biotech corn, the European Union would no longer import any of their agricultural products.
The conflict is not just scientific; it's also political and even ideological, says Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. Though he does not consider genetically engineered crops a panacea for Africa, he says, ''there's no evidence whatsoever that biotech crops do anything different than hybrid corn or any other normally bred crops.''
''All the science is on the side of the American argument,'' says Sanchez, who won the 2002 World Food Prize for his years of work in Africa on soil fertility and productivity. ''In that sense, Africa is being held hostage by the Europeans. It goes beyond politics; it's malicious.''
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