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May 11, 2010

U.S. Aid Groups Divided Over Biotechnology for Africa's Farmers

On 11 May 2010, the Voice of America reported on the divide between various U.S. foreign assistance groups regarding the role of gene modified (GM) crops in Africa.

As background, the only African countries that have fully approved and commercialized GM crops are South Africa (cotton, corn and soybeans) and Burkina Faso (BT cotton).

On one side of the debate are pro-biotech groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing aid for biotech field tests in many other African countries.
 
In a phone interview, Lawrence Kent, senior program officer on the agricultural team at the Gates Foundation presented the foundation's position.  He noted, "We want to help small holder farmers reduce hunger, reduce poverty and improve their nutrition. So we see agriculture as the lever to do so, and we want to make sure that African farmers have access to the best technologies, whether they be conventional or ones that use biotechnology, so that they have a choice about which technology they think is most appropriate."

Kent added that "the foundation is looking at partnership programs in several African countries to develop drought resistant maize, disease-resistant cassava, pest-resistant sweet potatoes, and to improve the nutritional content of other staples like rice and bananas."

Anti-GM groups on the other side of the debate include U.S.-based Oakland Institute, the Malian National Coordination of Peasant Organizations and the Johannesburg-based African Center on Biodiversity.  They contend that: 1) "farmers are not given a choice as no other seeds or agencies that would also provide credit; 2) farmers have been "left in debt"; 3) the effect of these crops on the environment, human health and the income level of small farmers have not been carried out properly; 4) citing the South African biotech maize sitting in Mombasa harbor -- African public opinion has been ignored."

Oxfam America is somewhere in the middle of this debate. However, anti-GM groups such as the Oakland Institute note that Oxfam is further to the pro-GM than in the middle.  It concludes this because of the conclusion in Oxfam's publication Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers (New York: Routledge 2009), which states that "biotech crops offer enormous benefits."

Kimberly Pfeifer, Ph.D., head of research at Oxfam noted that "Oxfam has no set position on the use of biotechnology in African agriculture, and merely researching the topic was difficult. ... It puts you in a position of being caught within a very polarized debate, and sometimes when you are in that middle place, if you are not coming out against, you are for, and vice versa. I still think it is very important to look at these trends and really see what ultimately do they mean for resource poor farmers and poverty reduction through agricultural development."

Pfeifer added that the "the best interests of the farmers" should remain at the center of the debate. "[t]hey are often overlooked and many African farmers continue to face challenges of food insecurity and climate change, while the private sector, aid organizations and activists disagree over whether biotechnology in crops should be encouraged."

Photo Credit: African farmers at the center of global agricultural biotechnology debate by Nico Colombant, VOA.

For more see: Colombant, Nico. "US Aid Groups Divided Over Biotechnology for Africa's Farmers." Voice of America, 11 May 2010.

About Margaret


CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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