For African leaders in some of the worst food-starved regions of the continent, the biggest concern over genetically modified (GM) crops is the danger of contaminating their domestic food crops through cross pollination with GM types, and all the unknown consequences that could have.
Countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola are steadfastly resisting food aid in the form of GM maize and wheat types, unless they are milled before entering the country.
Increasingly, however, agricultural and biotechnical science is providing evidence that such biologically engineered foods are safe to eat and are no threat to local crops.
An unlikely hero in the battle for food security is rice. Today, thanks to a Cote d'Ivoire scientist, rice is rapidly becoming everyday fare in diverse parts of Africa, and it could be the thin edge of the wedge in the conversion of more of Africa to the acceptability of genetically modified crops. (See panel, opposite page).
Famine is a persistent peril in Africa, and presents many of the region's governments with an increasingly heavy dilemma: do they accept US and European food aid--staple food crops that have been genetically modified--or condemn thousands of their people to starvation? At stake is Africa's ability to feed itself, helped by GM food, and even to export surplus produce to the lucrative EU market.
Europe ended its controversial ban on new GM foods in May this year, allowing imports of genetically engineered tinned maize, in the form of sweetcorn, as a first step to lifting the overall GM moratorium.
S AFRICA GOES BIG FOR GM
Contrarily, in the view of some African governments, South Africa has taken wholeheartedly to the business of agricultural genetic modification. The proportion of its maize crop with a GM component has doubled this year and the industry is heading for a massive surplus.
In five years from now, GM maize will make up more than 50% of its entire maize production, not to mention crops such as sorghum, wheat and cotton. The particular cleft African governments are finding themselves in is the shrinking number of markets they can obtain food from, either to buy or receive in aid, while their own stocks and production capacities dwindle.
For many in the climatically unstable and drought-prone SADC region, South Africa is the nearest and most cost-effective source of grain foods--and insistence that maize kernels are milled before crossing borders eats into relief funding and reduces the amount of food received.
African states take about 80% of South Africa's 1.2m tons of maize exports each year. Currently they are able to receive non-GM varieties, but this is rapidly changing in the switch by farmers to GM varieties.
In contrast to most of its neighbours, the South African government has given broad backing to GM. The total planted area of GM cotton and maize is 33% up over last year. The South African Department of Agriculture took the unusual step of publicly waving the biotechnology flag and moving to dispel fears about GM safety.
In announcements aimed as much at its sceptical neighbours as its own consumers, the government stressed that all GM organisms in South Africa had gone through a rigorous assessment process, taking into account human, animal and environmental safety factors.
At a recent media briefing in Pretoria, the Department of Agriculture's director of genetic resources, Julian Jaftha, described in detail how GM licensing applications were processed, saying the emphasis was on access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food and the sustainable management of the country's natural agricultural resources.
The government believed biotechnology could play an important role in eliminating poverty and hunger, Jaftha said, but also recognised the risks. "The appraisal of applications involves …