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Planet Ark World Environment News South Africa Leads on GMO, Other African States Wary

Date: 01-Mar-05
Country: SOUTH AFRICA
Author: Peter Apps

Parts of Africa have chronic food shortages, with millions left malnourished and vulnerable to disease. Supporters of drought- and insect-resistant GMO crops say they offer a way to fight famine, but so far only South Africa has taken the plunge.

Anti-GMO campaigners say higher yields are not the issue in battling famine, arguing that the world already produces enough food to feed everyone. Land control issues, poverty and conflict are the main reasons for famine, they say.

"Farmers are extremely enthusiastic about GMO crops," said Kobus Lindeque, area director for biotech giant Monsanto in Southern Africa. "Since GMO crops have been introduced in South Africa, every company that has seeds has been sold out."

But while a handful of other African countries -- including Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania -- are looking at creating new laws to allow planting of GMO crops, many others ban or strictly control imports, creating a headache for food aid operations.

Analysts say Africa's cotton-producing countries in West Africa are the most likely to move rapidly into GMO, which Monsanto says has increased yields in South Africa by as much as 50 to 70 percent.

Several West African cotton producers such as Burkina Faso and Mali have either already approved GMO crops for test planting or are looking at doing so, industry insiders say. Both Kenya and Nigeria are looking at making their own GMO variants.

Companies such as Monsanto are keen to protect their intellectual property and say they will not sell to countries that do not have biosafety laws. But in much of Southern Africa, that seems a distant prospect.

HUMAN HEALTH

Zambia prohibits GMO imports, saying it fears the impact on human health, forcing the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to move stocks out of the country when it introduced the ban in late 2002 as the agency tried to feed some 14 million people across the region after a drought.

Other nearby countries, including Malawi, Lesotho, Angola and Zimbabwe, which aid workers say still face serious local food shortages, only allow milled GMO maize products to enter the country -- banning the import of raw GMO maize.

"There are general concerns that something might escape," Rob Tripp, research fellow at British aid think-tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) said. "Maybe some maize would fall off the truck and someone might plant it."

Monsanto says these countries could boost crop yields by at least 15 percent if they switched to GMO, but with the European Union demanding labelling of so-called "Frankenstein foods", some countries fear contamination could hit their trade.

Traders say South Africa's GMO status has made it more difficult to shift its 3 million tonne maize surplus -- partly a product of better yields under GMO.

And the WFP worries that the popularity of GMO growing in South Africa -- where it was introduced in 1997 and now accounts for some 20-30 percent of output -- might cause problems in the event of serious regional shortages.

"If there was another major emergency on the scale of 2002/03, then it might be an issue," WFP spokesman Richard Lee said. "We were lucky then that South Africa had a large surplus of white maize that was not GMO."

The import controls prevent states from accepting food donations from the United States, where stocks are mixed in warehouses leaving recipients unable to tell if they are getting GMO food or not.

ODI's Tripp said countries like Zambia opposed GMO for a variety of reasons. They heard demands in Europe that GMO produce be labelled and were lobbied by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and South Africa's Biowatch, he said.

"For a number of the countries, it's an easy way to stand up to the multinationals and to US pressure," he said.

"You wish their governments would put as much effort into making sure the crops that reach the markets are free from toxins and pesticides."

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