Harare, Zimbabwe

In late June, George W. Bush spoke of Africa as a famine-stricken continent where the people are unable to grow enough food for themselves. According to the President, African farmers need biotechnology–and therefore should give a warm welcome to GM (genetically modified) seeds and foods supplied by US agribusiness. (These announcements coincided with the US decision to proceed with a World Trade Organization suit against the European Union on genetically modified foods.)

Bush’s assumptions are not accurate. Of course, some Africans are starving and many are chronically poor, sick and hungry. But most Africans manage well in a difficult situation–growing crops that are adapted to their environment, with limited technology. Africans need many things to improve their lives–but biotech agriculture is not one of them. This was the message I delivered on Capitol Hill and elsewhere when I visited the United States recently at the invitation of consumer and environmental groups.

So why is the Bush Administration so keen to push biotechnology into Africa? There are obviously domestic factors (such as agribusiness contributions to US political campaigns) but in Africa we see two principal reasons:

§ “Development assistance” for US farmers. In 2002, when a severe food crisis hit southern Africa, affecting 14 million people, the US government offered food relief in the form of surplus GM grains. Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique accepted either unmilled or milled GM corn. Zambia–with 2.4 million people in need–rejected the GM corn, citing the absence of conclusive information on the long-term health effects and the likely impact on Zambia’s food production, environment and trade. The US government then refused to supply Zambia with non-GM maize or to untie its aid, which was to be given only in kind.

The insistence on using GM corn as food aid rather than giving untied funds illustrates that “development assistance” is aimed at US farmers rather than African needs. Unable to sell GM crops in the wider market, the United States prefers to subsidize surplus output as “food relief.” Incidentally, the drought in southern Africa has now broken and Zambia is doing well, having harvested bumper crops this year.

§ Creating new markets and business opportunities. Establishing biotechnology in Africa will create new markets for seeds and associated items produced by huge US-based agribusinesses. The new African Agricultural Technology Foundation, supported by USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation and Monsanto, says that it will donate patent rights, seed varieties and laboratory know-how free to African scientists. The funders claim their support is altruistic while acknowledging that they hope for new markets in Africa.

GM seed varieties have been of marginal benefit to American farmers, so they are likely to be even less beneficial in Africa, where around 70 percent of farmers are small-scale producers, saving seed from year to year. Meanwhile, African scientists, such as the West African Rice Development Association, are developing their own new seed varieties, like New Rice for Africa (NERICA), and solving other agricultural problems, cheaply and safely.

Although North Americans have been eating GM foods for years, even with a well-funded scientific establishment the United States has not been able to test or measure their impact. There is no research on the potential health consequences of biotechnology in Africa, where grains are a major part of people’s diet and where regulatory testing regimes are still in their infancy. African consumers have the same basic rights as American consumers: the right to information, to safety and to redress for harm. Although few Africans fully understand the implications of the new GM products, many feel that they will have far-reaching impacts.

The challenge for African governments is to regulate and control the introduction of GM food and to adopt high standards of safety for GM products. In May 2001 the African Union–the pan-continental organization of African governments–brought together eighty-nine scientists, lawyers and other specialists to discuss ways to set up an Africa-wide biosafety system. The meeting later developed the African Model Law on Biosafety in Biotechnology, which was part of the agenda at the African Union summit in Mozambique just held on July 10-12.

Africa needs a genuine debate on the effects of biotech, led by Africans and concerned with African needs. Until then, we must thank President Bush for his concern with poverty and starvation in Africa but ask him to step back and allow Africans to make up their own minds on whether they want GM foods.