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[JOHANNESBURG] A coalition of African scientists at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg has urged southern African countries to accept donations of genetically modified (GM) maize.

The declaration was presented by Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu, executive director of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International, at a day-long side event last Saturday (31 August) organised by AfricaBio, a Johannesburg-based association that promotes biotechnology in the continent.

It follows the controversial decision by some southern African nations to reject US donations of maize, on the grounds that it might contain GM material (see Famine-stricken countries reject GM maize).

"The rejection of GM food by some African countries is… not based on scientific data evidence of harm to human beings, animals or the environment," says the declaration. "As African scientists, we therefore consider it unethical and inhuman to play politics with the lives of people under the pretext that the food aid is unsafe because it is GM food."

GM foods will have a tremendous positive impact in Africa, where per capita food production is actually declining, so there is a clear imperative to increase yields, said Wambugu.

Other speakers at the meeting highlighted how GM crops are already taking off in developing countries. Of the 5.5 million farmers growing GM crops last year, more than three quarters were resource-poor farmers, mostly in China but also in South Africa, according to Nathalie Moll of the Brussels-based lobby group Europabio.

Moll said that between 1999 and 2000, the growth in area planted with GM crops in developing countries was five times that in developed countries. She also claimed that small-scale farmers in both South Africa and China have successfully employed Bt cotton, which has been genetically engineered to protect plants against bollworm. In South Africa’s Makhatini flats, for example, peasant cotton farmers have already seen rises in yields, she said.

But many African countries remain opposed to transgenic crops. Zimbabwe and Zambia, for example, recently outlawed their use. And although Nigeria has made a larger commitment to research for biotechnology, South Africa is the only country on the continent where GM crops — including cotton, maize and soyabean — have been commercialised so far.

Delegates stressed that African countries should be free to make their own decisions about the crops. “Biotechnology must not be imposed on Africa, but developed from within it,” said Jane Morris of the African Centre for Gene Technologies at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. “A particular concern is a lack of capacity in assessing safety considerations.”

But others had different objections. Nico Kruger of African Products, the continent’s biggest commercial producer of glucose and starch, and its largest processor of maize, warned that there is limited demand for GM crops for industrial purposes. Consumer concerns over the possible health effects of the technology, particularly in regions such as Europe, reduce the export potential of such crops.

Link to statement by African scientists on GM food

Related external links:

A Harvest Biotech Foundation International
Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation

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