UNITED NATIONS, Jul 9 (IPS) - The United Nations warned African
nations Monday against rushing into the use of genetically
modified (GM) crops aimed at bolstering agricultural output
without first studying their long term consequences.
"The stark reality is that currently, very few African countries
have the human and institutional capacities to manage risks and
win consumer confidence that these products carry no health or
environmental risks," the world body said in a report released
"This is a core issue that African countries will have to grapple
with before any of the GM crops are commercially released for sale
to farmers," it added.
The 18-page report, which will go before a month-long meeting of
the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Geneva ending Jul 27,
admits that GM biotechnology has the potential to generate
substantial benefits for African farmers and consumers.
However, it warns that the ongoing public opposition in several
industrial countries, mostly in Western Europe, is likely to
persist until pertinent questions regarding the safety of GM crops
for people, animals and the environment, are resolved.
According to the report, the economy of Africa grew at an
estimated 3.5 percent in 2000, an improvement over the previous
year's performance of 3.2 percent.
Africa's annual average economic growth of 2.3 percent during the
last decade of the 20th century did not keep pace with the yearly
population growth of 2.8 percent, however, and was considerably
lower than the 7.0 percent annual growth required to reduce
poverty by half by 2015.
There was significant recovery in agriculture, which posted a
growth rate of about 3.6 percent in 2000 compared with 2.1 percent
"Despite this welcome recovery in agriculture, the region remains
far short of satisfying its food needs." the report noted. "Africa
will continue to depend on external assistance to make up for the
gap between domestic supply and demand for the nearly 20 million
people who face critical food shortages."
A continent plagued by famine and droughts, Africa is now in the
process of experimenting with GM crops and is undergoing a
"biotechnological revolution", according to the report.
Egypt has been genetically engineering several food products,
including wheat, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, dates, bananas and
cotton. South Africa is trying to genetically modify strawberries,
maize and cotton while Kenya and Morocco have experimented on
According to the report, South Africa is among a host of
developing nations with a unique set of problems that beg for the
adoption of modern technology to increase agricultural output.
But South African farmers, most of whom are smallholders, have not
benefited from recent advances of biotechnology and a number of
constraints still persist.
Less than 15 percent of the country's land is arable, and rapid
population growth has placed high demand for food, particularly
The South Africans have conducted field trials with their GM crops -
including maize, potato, strawberries and cotton - since the early
The first commercial releases of GM varieties were in 1997, and
commercial planting of crops with insect-resistant and herbicide-
tolerant traits started in 1998.
But the GM debate in South Africa needs to balance the interests
of the private sector, the farmers and the consumers. "Those
interests are not always in harmony," the report said. "There is a
high cost of technology development and transfer; it is not simply
an issue of developing technology and giving it to farmers to
Risk assessment and management techniques must be in place to
support the introduction of the genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) and to deal with conflicts of interest that may emerge,
particularly from environmental and consumer groups.
As a result, the South African government promulgated the
Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997 whose objective is to
promote the responsible development, production, use and
application of GMOs.
To achieve this, the Act aims at protecting the environment and
human health through risk assessment and management of each one of
All the GMOs are evaluated under this Act on the basis of sound
science for human health and environmental safety as well as socio-
economic implications, the report added.
Meanwhile, the latest Human Development Report released by the UN
Development Program (UNDP) said Tuesday that Argentina and Egypt
are among developing countries that have advanced furthest in
current and intended use of GM crops and products.
Egypt has approved field test releases and is on the verge of
commercializing its first GM crop.
"The current debate on biotechnology lacks consolidated, science-
based assessments to provide rigorous, balanced evidence on the
health and environmental impacts of emerging technology," UNDP
A number of countries have launched programs aimed at involving
the public in assessing technology. This, according to UNDP, is
essential if the views of farmers and consumers in developing
countries are to influence national policy-making and bring more
diverse voices to global debates.
The non-governmental organization ActionAid has set up a citizens'
jury in India involving a range of farmers who could be affected
by GM crops.
The study also said that few health or environmental risks have
been observed from the use of GM crops in agriculture. But many of
the much-needed, long-term studies on potential environmental
risks have not yet been done, it added.
Copyright 2001 IPS