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Feed the Future …with GMOs?

A dramatic population increase on a planet that cannot feed its current inhabitants, unprecedented food price hikes, the decreasing proportion of farmlands and farmers cultivating despite record urbanization are all worrisome developments.

While about a billion people are already hungry and the days of surpluses are disappearing fast, feeding two billion more is beyond an uphill climb. This is something global leaders are dreading.

About 40 years ago, the US had 50 percent more corn than it needed and Americans were wondering what to do with it; but even then people were dying of hunger in other parts of the world. This year, the stock is only five percent and the world may not be able to feed itself for more than a month, according to an Iowa researcher.

“Food is the most basic of needs, it decides not just the health of individuals but also the health of communities,” writes former Ghanaian President, John A. Kufour.

“Access to food is as big a challenge as growing it. This is the investment nations will have to make,” Josette Sheeran, World Food Programme Executive Director, said. About 80 percent of people in the developing world do not have food security systems, according to her.

“Hunger is the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction,” Brazil’s former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won this year’s World Food Prize jointly with Ghana’s Kufour, said.

The Plan: A US Response

Recent discussions in Washington DC, suggest that the US is about to embark on something unprecedented in world agriculture.

Two years ago President Barack Obama came up with the programme ‘Feed the Future’. About a dozen target countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda and Bangladesh are considered priorities; selected for being either on the verge of achieving food security or are severely food insecure.

‘Feed the Future’ aims to help these countries transform their agricultural practices so they can achieve a fast rise in productivity.

The plan is to boost productivity of major cereals, such as teff, in Ethiopia’s case, by coordinating the government, private sector as well as domestic and international agricultural research institutions.  Improving (cross-breeding) existing seeds and introduction of new ones from other countries are, therefore, parts of the plan that may also seek to bring in US agriculture technologies.

The GMO Element   

Daniel E. Jacobi, Vice President, Commercial,  in charge of Asia-Pacific, Africa and Europe at the Iowa-based seed breeder – Pioneer – argues, where a hectare of arable land in Africa yields only about 1.5 tons of corn from a natural seed, in the US farmers harvest up to 10 tons using genetically engineered seeds. The nearly 10 fold higher harvest is not the only benefit out of using the laboratory-made seeds widely known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “Biotechnology helps farmers save costs they would have spent on pesticides,” Jacobi told a group of visiting journalists.

GMOs are organisms which have been modified using means other than natural reproduction to introduce DNA from another species.

Along with Monsanto and Sygenta AG, Pioneer – a subsidiary of the infamous multinational DuPont – is pushing hard for the rest of the world to embrace what they call “the miracles of science” that has made Iowa the food basket of the US – or even the world, as some would like to believe.

Pioneer seems to have seen a potential future market coming in the wake of a US government campaign for the world to embrace any alternative to feed the future.

USAID Deputy Administrator for Development responsible for Feed the Future initiative, Tjada McKenna, told journalists in Washington DC, that her government wants “all the three technologies, GE (Genetically Engineered), non GE and conventional to go together as solutions for global hunger and farmers should be allowed to choose.”

Why not GMOs?   

GMOs are among the major scientific inventions of the 20th century but their use as has been intensified mainly in the US over the past three decades has always been a subject of fierce debate. By the turn of the last decade, about 29 countries worldwide adopted GMOs raising the total land covered by these varieties to more than 150 million hectares worldwide, accounting for 10 percent of global agricultural land.

The three top users of GMO – the US., Brazil and Argentina – have produced 81 percent and 89 percent of the world’s total corn and soybean supplies, respectively, this year. At least 93 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of corn produced in the US are of genetically modified varieties. China and India are said to have recently applied this technology, but India has had its share of the dreaded effects of GMOs which has led to an ongoing campaign against GMOs.

Though downplayed by promoters of GMO as negligible and not scientifically proven, critics of the technology sternly argue about a number of health risks to human beings stemming from consuming GMO foods. While the promoters say there is no scientific evidence supporting the claim that GMOs are not healthy, the opponents argue GMOs have not been proven un-harmful either.

But opponents go even further questioning the credibility of the research that is meant to demystify the controversy, alleging that such studies have been funded by the very companies who produce and trade GMOs.

A group of protesters in Washington DC, for example, was demanding the labelling of GMO produces so their children would be protected from what they call the “horrible and scary” risks. Organizers argued laboratory implanted genes in genetically engineered seeds to make the plant resistant to pests also kill agriculturally and environmentally important insects and soil nutrients essentially disorienting the natural balance and order of life.

Reports indicate that unhealthy foods are affecting at least two billion people, causing obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other diseases, and serious pandemics are likely to occur in the near future.

Nevertheless, in the US a facility in charge of building capacity at home and overseas, the Food Safety Laboratory at the University of Maryland, works with the USDA and the Drug Administration Agency to make suppliers anywhere ensure food coming to the US meets the standards set by a recent act.

“I have become very careful about the food I eat. I don’t use GMOs,” a food safety researcher at the lab who didn’t want to be identified said. The researcher who is not authorized to comment on the dangers of GMOs added that knowledge of the difference in chemical residue levels in GMO and organic food means she would never eat the former, though she had never cared in the past.

What about Ethiopia?              

In July 2009, Ethiopia’s Parliament passed a bill its writers said aims to save the nation from the adverse effects of GMOs.

Dubbed Proclamation on Bio-Safety, the law prepared by the Federal Environmental Protection Authority (FEPA), resisted a long time call by environmental groups and local consumer associations.  It contains provisions to protect human and animal health as well as biological diversity, by managing and even totally avoiding GMO threats.

The legislation also provided for the FEPA to establish a National Bio-Safety Clearing House that keeps detailed records of experts specializing in modified organisms in order to monitor their activities. It also makes information on lists of modified organisms either rejected or approved for import and export publicly available.

Ethiopia’s law is based on the principle that there is a responsibility for the government to intervene and protect the public from exposure to harm where scientific investigation discovers a plausible risk in suspected GMO cases.

According to the law, any transit, import or production of GMOs should be done only with a written consent granted by the FEPA and a violation of its stipulation could lead to prison term of up to 15 years.

However, four leaked US Embassy cables sent from Addis Ababa between late 2009 and early 2010 expose Washington’s strong opposition to this move and its persistent lobby to scrap it going as far as twisting the Ethiopian government’s arms.

“Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is admittedly unprepared to implement the new legislation, owing to a lack of laboratory facilities, technical expertise, and manpower,” reads the cable. “Although the EPA’s leadership is ideologically opposed to the use of bioengineered crops, the EPA will likely be pressured to approve trials of such crops where they could promote growth in key export sectors, namely cotton.”

A second cable demands funds for a workshop meant to bombard Ethiopian officials with a barrage of information on the benefits of GMOs, which a latter cable indicates has worked.

While knowledge about GMOs is arguably available in Ethiopia, the use of the modified seeds in the farms seems to be just starting. Nevertheless, a story of a farmer from southern Ethiopia is featured on Pioneer’s website reportedly changing his family’s life by boosting productivity with the use of seeds provided by Pioneer; and another farmer-mother pictured from a maize farm appearing on its corporate publication, means that GMOs are no more too remote issues for Ethiopians to debate.

By Omer Redi

Email: [email protected]

The author is an Ethiopian journalist who represented his country on the group of 27 journalists from across the world that participated in the US Department of State Foreign Press Centre ‘Food Security Reporting Tour’ in October 2011.

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