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Out of Africa

By Paul Driessen and Cyril Boynes, Jr.
web posted February 14, 2005

Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. Ruth Oniango has a dream. A member of Kenya's parliament, she dreams of the day when the people of her poor country "can feed themselves."

Congress of Racial Equality national chairman Roy Innis shares that vision. But he also knows the obstacles. "Over 70 per cent of Africans are employed in farming full time," he points out. "Yet, half of those countries rely on emergency food aid. Within ten years, Africa will be home to three-fourths of the world's hungry people."

Many of the continent's farmers are women who labor sunup to sundown on 3 to 5 acre plats. They rarely have enough crops to feed their own families, much less sell for extra money. Millions live on less than a dollar a day.

Maize (corn) is southern Africa's most important crop. But because of drought, insects, poor soil, plant diseases and lack of technology, the average yield per acre is the lowest in the world. Other crops suffer similar fates.

"We eat cassava for breakfast and mash it with potatoes and bananas. But the mosaic virus attacks the plants, the leaves fall off, and it's no good for eating," Kenya's Samuel Njeru laments. "We can't afford to spray. We need a variety that is resistant to the virus."

Mosaic virus first appeared in Africa in 1894 and now infects every cassava plant. Over 35 million tons of this staple are lost every year -- along with tens of millions of tons of other crops.

"I farm a third of a hectare with cotton," says Alice Wambuii. (A hectare is 2.5 acres.) "I spray five times a season with pesticides, but sometimes the insects still destroy my entire crop. Last year, I got 3,000 Kenyan shillings for my cotton, but I had to spend 5,000 for sprays."

"Africa needs a new agricultural revolution," Mr. Innis says flatly. One is finally on the way -- a biotechnology revolution. It's not a magic bullet. But it is a vital weapon in Africa's thus far losing struggle against malnutrition, poverty, despair and deepening anger.

Participants in day-long conference hosted by CORE at the United Nations in January conveyed that message forcefully. So do Kenyan and South African scientists, farmers and politicians interviewed by Mr. Innis for a video documentary. With this technology, farmers don't have to learn new skills. They just plant and tend seeds the same way as always -- but with amazing results.

Clive James, chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, says "biotechnology is a contribution, not a solution, to the hunger crisis." It is a technology that African farmers can afford to have -- and can't afford not to have.

"I grow maize on a half hectare," South Africa's Elizabeth Ajele explains. "The old plants would be destroyed by insects, but not the new biotech plants. With the profits I get from the new Bt maize, I can grow onions, spinach and tomatoes, and sell them for extra money to buy fertilizer. We were struggling to keep hunger out of our houses. Now the future looks good. If someone came and said we should stop using the new maize, I would cry."

Countryman Richard Sithole shares her excitement. "Now I don't have to buy any chemicals. With the old maize, I got 100 bags from my 15 hectares. With Bt maize I get 1,000 bags." The new maize has enabled South African farmers to cut their pesticide use up to 75 per cent, triple their profits and save 35-49 days per season working in fields -- mostly spraying pesticides by hand.

A genetically engineered (GE) cassava plant is now being tested in Kenya. It is absolutely resistant to the mosaic virus and, once approved, will be provided free to farmers. Mr. Njeru anxiously awaits that day, so that he can "complete my children's education and build a new house and maybe a better shed for my cattle."

In South Africa, widow, school principal and mother of five Thandi Myeni explains: "With the new Bt cotton, I only spray two times, instead of six. At the end of the day, we know the crop won't be destroyed and we will have a harvest and money."

"By planting the new Bt cotton on my six hectares, I was able to build a house and give it a solar panel," says Bethuel Gumede. "I also bought a TV and fridge. My wife can buy healthy food and we can afford to send the kids to school. My life has changed completely."

Urgent needs, simple dreams and newfound hope. But now Africa faces a new threat every bit as ominous as the droughts, viruses and locusts that have plagued it for centuries: hordes of activists and regulators bent on keeping this technology out of Africa (and away from farmers everywhere).

Their brilliant, well-orchestrated campaign is financed to the tune of some $70 million a year by foundations, organic food interests, EU governments, and even UN agencies and programs. It employs moratoriums and threats against agricultural imports from countries that grow biotech crops, complex and expensive requirements for labeling all GE ingredients and tracking them from seed to store shelf, even outright lies about the safety of biotechnology.

Their latest tactic is legislation in Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and Vermont that would make farmers and seed manufacturers liable if their crops "contaminate" organic produce with traces of GE pollen. It would open the door for frivolous lawsuits, make biotech farming legally and financially risky, deplete R&D budgets, and further delay Dr. Oniango's dream.

It promotes the narrow interests of organic growers and their well-off, well-fed clientele -- who elevate their fears and demands above the needs of 200 million Africans who are still chronically hungry and malnourished. Organic growers want to increase their market share and bottom line. Organic consumers want food that is 100 per cent biotech free. Africans want to be fed.

Freedom from hunger is a fundamental human right. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and the UN charter affirmed this principle. To turn it into reality, we must do more to help impoverished nations generate the health and prosperity that we Westerners view as our birthright. A vital step in that process is ending the fear-mongering and regulatory overkill that places precaution against speculative risks from agricultural biotechnology over the real, immediate, life-and-death dangers that millions of Africans face every day.

Then Dr. Oniango's dream will come true. Poor Africans -- and poor families everywhere -- will be able to feed themselves, and take their rightful places among the Earth's prosperous people.

Cyril Boynes is CORE's director of international programs. Paul Driessen is its senior policy advisor and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power · Black Death.

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