Environment

GM foods: Population and climate change sway debate

Sipho Kings

South Africa has been an early adopter on a continent that has been hostile to the corporate power behind genetically modified organisms.

African countries formerly hostile to GM seed are being persuaded by the failure of traditional crops. (Supplied)

Genetically modified (GM) seeds and foods have permeated most of the world's markets. In Africa, South Africa was an early adopter on a continent that has traditionally been hostile to the corporate power behind genetically modified organisms.

But with the continent's population pushing past a billion and a changing climate affecting traditional crop variants, resistance is ebbing. Countries have relaxed their imports of modified crops and larger economies have started investigating whether they can produce and plant these crops locally.

South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt have already adopted GM crops for commercial production and field testing is under way in Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi.

United States diplomatic cables, recently released by WikiLeaks and collated by nongovernmental organisation Food and Water Watch, have shown that countries are increasingly asking for assistance in moving towards GM crops. The cables also show that the US State Department has actively pressured countries to adopt GM seeds.

A report on GM crops in Africa, written by the United Nations Development Programme last year, said countries had taken a precautionary approach and would rather not consume or plant GM crops until they knew they were safe. South Africa was different, with "a relatively permissive approach", it said.

The Kenyan government recently banned the use of GM seeds, saying it would consider overturning this decision only if they were proven to be safe.

In India, GM seeds and crops are hugely controversial.

Activists say they create dependence on big seed companies such as Monsanto. Also, tens of thousands of suicides have been blamed on these companies, with anti-GMO lobbyists saying that farmers who bought GM seeds could not replant their seeds after a harvest, and had to buy a new batch. If a crop failed, they did not have the money to buy new seeds and many of them committed suicide.

However, research has shown that while suicide rates have increased in India, they cannot be linked empirically to the introduction of GM foods.

A committee set up by the Indian government to look at GMOs recommended a 10-year moratorium on their use until further research was done.

The European Union passed a similar moratorium on new crops in 1998 and while it ended in 2004, there are strict laws about the labelling of all products containing GM crops.

The continent's anti-GM stance has been a hindrance in trade negotiations between it and the US, which is the world's main producer of GM crops.

More than 90% of the US's soyabean, maize, cotton and sugarbeet seeds are genetically modified.


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