GM technology suffers negative activism despite its advantages, says expert

Monday, May 3rd, 2021 00:00 |

By Joseph Maina

Anti-GMO activism has adversely affected the adoption of genetically modified food technology in many parts of Africa, thus denying many small-scale farmers access to a technology that wields immense potential to boost food security among vulnerable populations.

Dr Jennifer Thomson, author of the new book “GM Crops and the Global Divide”, decries the spirited opposition to GMOs that has restricted the technology’s reach.

“It’s the fault of the activists, who have made regulation so unwieldy and expensive that the only people who can afford it are the multinationals,” Dr Thomson told a recent webinar, hosted by Cornell University’s Alliance for Science. She argues that through the anti-GMO activism, the West is imposing its beliefs on Africa and other developing nations.

“It is absolutely a new form of colonialism."

People venture into farming with an aim to gain and maximize on profit. While the developed world has greater access to fertilisers and growth accelerators that ensure robust crop farming enterprises, Africa in particular faces the overwhelming task of making do with lesser resources, against fast-depleting soil fertility owing to years of continued use.

“African farmers do not think that small is cute. They want to maximize profits, which is why it is unfair to deny them access to GMO crops. Let them decide what they want to grow,” Dr Thomson said.

GMO, among other biotechnologies, has been advanced as one tool that could help solve many of the continent’s nagging food security problems. Dr Thomson highlights in her book some of the crops being developed through biotechnology in Africa. An example is scientist Leena Tripathi’s work of improving cooking bananas in Uganda, where it is a food staple. She observes that the average Ugandan consumes up to 485 pounds of bananas each year, with 75% of the country’s farmers growing the crop. If given access to disease-resistant bananas, farmers in Uganda would reap up to 21% more from their crop, and profits would rise by 68%. Further, over 58,000 Ugandans could escape poverty each year, all thanks to this technology.

Other examples in the continent point to the opportunity lost by failure to execute friendlier policies that embrace the technology.

“If Kenya had adopted genetically modified corn in 2006, between 440 and 4000 lives could theoretically have been saved,” Dr Thomson stated. “Similarly, Uganda had the possibility in 2007 to introduce Black Sigatoka risk-resistant bananas, thereby potentially saving between 500 and 5,500 lives in a decade”.

Dr Thomson is an emeritus professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Her research field is the development of genetically modified maize resistant to the African Endemic Maize Streak Virus and tolerant to drought. In 2004, she won the L'Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science in Africa.

One way of getting around the stumbling blocks is by providing greater decision-making powers to the farmers themselves, and minimizing the stake of the political elite in the issue.

 “It’s such a powerful technology than can save people’s lives and livelihoods. Let the farmers decide. It shouldn’t be up to the politicians to say ‘Yes, you may,’ or ‘No, you may not’. Just give it to the farmers. They are savvy. If it doesn't work, they won’t plant it. Let the farmers decide”.

She clarifies that by the time the seeds get to the farmers they will have been fully tested and approved.

In her book, Dr Thomson stresses on the need for communication to teach the public the science of GMOs, as a way to shape public opinion and change negative attitudes towards the topic.   

 Kenya is signatory to The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose objective is to contribute to ensuring the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms.

The country has made significant strides in biotechnology, with recent adoption of insect-resistant Bt cotton for commercial use paving the way to what seems an illustrious journey towards more productive farming.

Farmers have also expressed optimism in GM crops showcased in field trials, like the ongoing trials of TELA Bt maize that is expected to produce higher yields than conventional varieties with less pesticide use. 

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