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Organic Point/Counterpoint
Is Biotech the Answer to Africa's Food Woes? (Point/Counterpoint)
Note to reader: The two news articles on this page represent differing viewpoints in regards to organics and are a part of OCA's new "Point/Counterpoint" series, providing readers with an opportunity to view arguments from both proponents and opponents of the organic industry.

Point (article #1): "Biotech Potato Holds The Solution to Africa's Food Woes"

Counterpoint (article #2): "Monsanto's GE Potato Fails in Africa"

More Articles on this Topic

Biotech Holds The Solution to Africa's Food Woes
The New Technology, By Deliverying Virus-Resistant Crops,
Is Starting To Provide Food Security for Africa

By Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute

CHURCHVILLE,Va.-Florence Wambugu spent 10 years at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute trying to breed higher-yielding sweet potatoes.
She used conventional plant breeding methods and got nowhere.

Then she got the chance to take her knowledge of African sweet potatoes to a First World biotech laboratory.

The collaboration produced African sweet potatoes that resist the "feathery mottle" virus-thus yielding 20 percent to 80 percent more food. This one breakthrough will improve food security and health for millions of African families.

Who would fund such an important, farsighted humanitarian effort?

It was, in fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Monsanto Co., the St. Louis agriculture technology company supposedly trying to force European housewives to buy genetically based "Frankenstein foods."

Now comes the real kicker. The virus-resistant strain of sweet potatoes developed in Monsanto's Life Sciences Research Center are still awaiting biosafety permits for field trials in Kenya.

Meanwhile, the environmental group Greenpeace promotes a global ban on biotechnology in food.
Some days, I despair of those rich First Worlders-people with access to grocery stores overflowing with safe, inexpensive, high-tech food-who recommend low-yield farming to people still trying to stave off malnutrition.

At its essence, Greenpeace's self-serving and anti-conservationist campaign to ban biotechnology in food comes down to this: Europe, which has a food surplus, is trying to scare Africa into banning a technology that could save millions of lives and huge tracts of wildlife.

Africa is still the world's poorest continent, struggling to generate enough good government and economic productivity to provide such modern basics such as adequate food, clean water and literacy to a still-growing population.

Most of Africa's countries have 25 percent to 75 percent of their populations living on less than $1 a day. It's also the only continent where the human population may double. The current level is around 750 million.

Low-crop yields and food insecurity play a large role in Africa's problems. The poorest, hungriest people in the world also have the most births, apparently an instinctive reaction to the threat of extinction.

British economist Tim Dyson recently projected an African food shortfall of nearly 90 million tons a year by 2025 unless the continent's food yields begin climbing faster.

Africa is unlikely to have the cash to import much food, so the likely alternative will be clearing more wildlife habitat for low-yield crops.

Because the continent's grain yields are so low, Africa would have to clear 70 million hectares (172.9 million acres) of forest and savanna-the land area of the entire country of Zambia. Africa averages about 1.7 tons of corn per hectare, compared with a world average of 4.1 tons.

One of the biggest corn-growing problems is the maize streak virus. Researchers are trying to genetically engineer corn varieties that can resist the virus. Conventional plant breeding has never overcome a viral disease, but biotech has already done it in sweet potatoes, rice and bananas.

This summer's Southern African economic summit examined the potential of virus-resistant corn and potatoes, borer-resistant sugar cane and fungus-resistant varieties of corn and fruit. Drought-prone Africa is even more interested in the potential for genetically engineering drought-tolerant crops.

Historically, the acid soils of Africa have been a major stumbling block to higher yields, cutting crop yields by up to 80 percent. Genetically engineered acid-soil crops could radically alter Africa's crop-production potential.

And that brings us back to Kenya's Florence Wambugu.

"Local farmers are benefiting from tissue-culture technologies for banana, sugar cane, pyrethrum, cassava and other crops," she points out. "There is every reason to believe they will also benefit from the crop-protection transgenic technologies in the pipeline."

There is, she says, "the potential to double African production if viral diseases are controlled using transgenic technology."

Greenpeace might also want to listen to Muffy Koch, South Africa's director of innovation biotechnology.

Discussing biotech fields she has visited, Koch observes that "bird species that hadn't been seen in years" are reappearing in fields that no longer have to be chemically sprayed. That's just one example of why Africa needs biotech food crops.

Provided to Lumen Foods by and with the permission of author Dennis T. Avery. Mr. Avery is based in Churchville, Va., and is director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis.

Monsanto's GE Potato Fails in Africa

KENYA: Monsanto GM technology fails local potatoes
By Gatonye Gathura

Trials to develop a virus resistance sweet potato through biotechnology have failed.

US biotechnology, imported three years ago, has failed to improve Kenya’s sweet potato. This has confirmed critic’s fears that bio-engineered techniques tried
elsewhere may not be replicated in Africa with similar results.

The modified potato was launched in Kenya, in 2001 by US special envoy, Dr Andrew Young, who had flown into the country for the occasion.

Investigations, on the transgenic crop, by KARI’s Biotechnology Centre, say the technology has failed to produce a virus resistant strain. "There is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation using the initial gene construct," says
a report by researchers, Dr Francis Nang’ayo, and Dr Ben Odhiambo.

The transgenic potato was imported from Monsanto in the US to Kenya for tests. The initial genetic engineering work was done at the Monsanto laboratories, using virus-resistant technologies.

In a nine-year study, Monsanto had developed a coat protein responsible for virus resistance, and donated it to Kari, royalty free, to use in its sweet potato improvement programme.

"The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field," says the report, doubting whether the gene expression was adequate or it failed to address the diversity of virus in this region or just that the gene construct was inappropriate.

Actually, the report indicates that during the trials non-transgenic crops used as control yielded much more tuber compared to the trangenics. "All lines tested were susceptible to viral attacks."

The Kari results corresponded with an earlier study released by the Third World Network Ð Africa. The study, titled "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence", by Aaron deGrassi, of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK, had warned that the GM sweet potato introduced in Kenya did not address the crop's major
problem - weevils.

The study offered new evidence against claims of the miracle potential of genetically modified crops for dealing with famine and poverty in Africa. After examining the impact of three genetically modified crops, sweet potato, maize and Bt cotton, on poverty
alleviation in Africa it concluded that biotechnology does not address the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa.

Now Kari’s research on sweet potatoes has reverted to working with improved gene constructs based on Kenyan strain of virus. This questions the suitability of wholesale importation of foreign technologies.

It was hoped that the technology would boast one of the country’s most important tubers with the widest regional distribution. It seems much more needs to be done.

Dr Young while launching the technology had said, "I don't believe that we live in this world for our crops to be destroyed. We have been given knowledge for the earth to make sense."

He had then described the continent as being, on the verge of a tremendous revolution. "With biotechnology, we are going to make a green revolution in Africa."

The sweet potato project had been approved by the Kenya Biosafety Council and mock-trials initiated in Kakamega, Kisii, Muguga, Mtwapa and Embu. But the Kari
researchers say all is not lost because the experiment proves that the country has the capacity to handle transgenics in the field.

"It proved that KARI and Kenya by extension had the capacity to try the suitability of sophisticated biotechnologies," says Dr Odhiambo.

Unlike the more conventional Irish potato, the tuber is not only popular among rural communities in Kenya, but also lasts much longer after traditional processing. This makes the root tuber a more ideal crop for storage for dry seasons.

The average harvest of the crop in Kenya, however, has remained low due to a number of factors, including attacks by pests and the sweet potato virus disease. The yield losses resulting from the viral diseases, according to KARI, can be as high as 80 per cent.

Kenya's average sweet potato yield stands at six metric tons per hectare less than half the world's average 14 metric tons per hectare.

Gene modification is a relatively new technique in Kenya. Other less high-tech biotech processes such as tissue culture have been widely commercialized in crops like bananas, macadamia nuts and strawberries.

The transgenic sweet potato is not the only food crop improvement projects conducted between KARI and Monsanto. Other projects include insect-resistant cotton, and maize resistant to striga - a parasitic weed responsible for destroying up to half of yields in western and coastal parts of Kenya.

KARI is the main institute of agricultural research and technology transfer, in charge of providing such appropriate technology aimed at boosting agricultural productivity and livestock production.

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