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A senior African Union (AU) official has urged African presidents to cast aside any apprehension about allowing genetically modified (GM) crops to be grown commercially in their countries.

Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, the AU's commissioner for rural economy and agriculture, told delegates at the African Green Revolution Conference in Oslo, Norway, yesterday (28 August) that there is a need to convince leaders on the continent about the benefits of the controversial technology.

"GM is extremely important. Unfortunately there is little appreciation of what it is and how it can improve food production. There is a need for advocacy," she said.

Her words came after Kofi Annan, the former UN general secretary who chairs the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), chose not to mention GM technology in his opening speech to the conference.

According to one South African delegate, who wished to remain anonymous, AGRA has decided to skirt around the issue of GM, since its mention often turns into a polarised debate about the pros and cons of the technology.

Piet Bukman, chairman of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council, who shared the podium with the AU commissioner, said that fears about the potential harm of GM products often overshadows the benefits the technology can bring. "Is it possible to solve the food security problem in Africa without GM?" he asked.

But Monty Jones, executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), did not agree that GM is essential for increasing harvests in Africa. "I agree that GM food has a role," he said, "But it's the right of every country to decide if it wants to use GM".

GM technology isn't a quick fix, Jones added, as the move to large-scale production will take time. "In the short term, we should look to conventional approaches."

Amos Namanga Ngongi, president of AGRA, agreed. "I don't think African food security depends on GM crops," he said, pointing to the increases in farm productivity achieved by Asia during its "green revolution," without recourse to modern GM technology.

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