AGRA President Urges ‘Informed’ Discourse on GMO Technology

AGRA President Urges ‘Informed’ Discourse on GMO Technology

When the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa released a 204-page report on Africa’s agriculture, the chapter on GMOs dominated media coverage.

AGRA released the report in early September on the state of Africa’s agriculture, including a wide range of obstacles and challenges facing African countries as they seek to transform their agricultural productivity.

But it was the mention of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that dominated media coverage of the report, said AGRA president Jane Karuku in a blog published in TheGuardian.

Perhaps it was inevitable that GMOs would be a lightening rod, given how controversial they are in Africa, said Karuku, who heads up the organization. Founded in 2006 through a partnership between the Rockefeller and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations, AGRA seeks to achieve “breakthrough agricultural production” by helping smallholder farmers in Africa.

“With hindsight, we should not have been surprised by this reaction,” Karuku said. “After all, our report noted how the controversial and complex nature of GMOs can make it incredibly difficult to hold a reasoned debate. It is why companies, organisations and scientists tend, when they can, to steer clear of voicing their opinions on the subject. All fear their position will be exaggerated.”

Karuku blamed the author of the chapter on GMOs in the report for allowing it to be open to misrepresentation, “a mistake we must accept,” she blogged. AGRA’s long-established position on GMOs, she said, “reflects the cautious and balanced approach needed when considering any new technology.”

GMOs are grown in only three countries – South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. Slow adoption of this technology stems in part from a cautious approach that recognizes all technologies come with risks as well as benefits.

Many African countries are still putting in place biosafety regulations in practice. Some African governments feel they still lack the capacity to manage GMO technology adequately.

Many countries outside Africa have placed controls on GMO crops that impact on Africa’s current trade and could undermine its potential as a major supplier of food to the rest of the world.

“In the long run, however, Africa – a continent where one in four people still go hungry, and where annual food imports exceed $20 billion – must carefully examine the potential of all new technologies to boost food production,” Karuku said.

This does not mean pushing GMOs or any other technology on reluctant governments or citizens, she said. But neither does it mean slamming the door shut on discussion, debate or research that might provide benefits.

Agra not fund research, awareness campaigns or the development of GMOs adapted for Africa, she said, because we “believe there are cheaper, readily available technologies that can effectively help smallholder farmers improve their harvests and yields.”

What AGRA does do, she said, is support the development of improved crop varieties – developed through conventional breeding methods and make sure “they find themselves in the hands of African farmers.”

AGRA works with 16 national research institutes and farmers across Africa to develop seeds suited to Africa’s varied environments. “We are supporting the development of local entrepreneurs and companies who can distribute these seeds, along with fertilizer and other technologies, and helping to improve access to finance so that farmers can buy them.

“These initiatives are making a difference. Last year, schemes supported by AGRA produced enough seed of improved varieties to plant an estimated 9.6 million acres. Throughout the continent, the adoption of our new varieties – none of which are genetically modified − is leading to record yields. For example, a recent study of an improved variety of (corn) seed in Kenya has shown yields increasing by a third.

“We are seeing real progress across the continent; for the time being, therefore, our focus will remain on conventional breeding methods. For better or for worse, depending on who you ask, GMOs are unlikely to impact African food security in the near future. In the meantime, we need to have an informed, dispassionate conversation that includes all parties.”