Xinhau  (China)
By Ronald Ssekandi
May 19, 2009

ENTEBBE, Uganda, May 19 (Xinhua) — Researchers, policy makers and heads of farmer associations on Tuesday started a three-day meeting here aimed at examining the potential benefits of producing Genetically Modified (GM) crops to boost food production in hunger stricken Africa.

While in this meeting emphasis is being put on use of GM technology to boost production, another international meeting opened in the capital Kampala, 40km north of Entebbe, calling for organic farming in order to take advantage of the lucrative market in Europe.

These two meetings regenerate debate on genetic engineering and its impacts on Africa.

Experts at the Entebbe meeting said that Africa needs to adopt biotechnology in order to feed its starving population in view of stagnating agricultural productivity, harsh effects of climate change and a growing population.

Millions of smallholder farmers on the continent can no longer grow enough food to sustain their families, communities or their countries. This has led to recurrent food crises on the continent as millions face hunger, starvation and death. The malnutrition levels have continued to go up.

For instance in Uganda, malnutrition is widespread with more than 36 percent of children under three years and 10 percent of mothers suffering from chronic under-nutrition, according to ministry of health figures.

Early this year, over 10 million Kenyans faced starvation mainly due to underproduction by smallholder farmers, harsh effects of climate change and disruption of the main planting season following last year’s post-election crisis

The situation in these two East African countries is the same or even worse in other African countries, especially those that have or are facing armed conflicts.

This appalling food situation has led to scientists to introduce GM technology as one of the means to boost food production on the continent.

Bright Rwamirama, Uganda’s minister of state for agriculture, said while in the past it was necessary to open up large expanses of land to increase production, it is now impossible because of the rapid population growth, pests, diseases and unpredictable climate.

"It is important to note that land is not expanding and we need to involve science to produce efficiently for our people’s food security and to increase their incomes," he told the over 200 participants from Africa and other parts of the world meeting here.

"We need to put in place varieties that are resistant to diseases, drought and also give higher yields to address the challenges of poverty in our communities," he added.

African governments have been moving cautiously on whether to adopt genetic engineering and if so, how to do it, either using its scientists or those in developed countries. The continent now faces a daunting task of feeding millions of people who are starving.

Some countries like South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso have started commercial use of GMs while others like Uganda are carrying out field trials and some like Zambia have vehemently refused to embrace biotechnology.

Anti-GM lobbyists and advocates of organic agriculture continue to raise concern over the impact of biotechnology on people’s health, the environment and its implications on food security.

Moses Kiggundu, the chief executive officer of the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda says that while organic agriculture is friendly with some biotechnology applications like tissue culture and grafting, it is not agreeable with genetic engineering.

"Transferring animal genes to crop or vice versa is not acceptable in organic agriculture. Once that transgenic transfer is made, it is permanent. If the results are negative, you will have to leave with them," he said at the meeting in Kampala.

Rwamirama said Uganda will take a two-pronged approach, organic agriculture to take advantage of the lucrative European markets and GM crops to boost food production.

According to Daniel Otunge of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) based in Kenya, the fear of the unknown is the major cause of debate.

He advises African governments not to just dismiss genetic engineering but engage their scientists to research on GM technology and give advice based on scientific research and not on opinions.

Charles Mugoya, the Regional Coordinator East and Central Africa Biotech and Biosafety Program says that GM seeds go through a rigorous testing system before they are rolled out to the market.

"Scientists mean well, along the way they want to ensure production as well as safety," he said.

Margaret Karembu, director of ISAAA said that the debate should not be whether to adopt biotechnology, but how to adopt it. She said African countries need to discuss issues of biosafety and intellectual property rights, which are the main points of contention.

"Managing the opportunities and risks posed by GM crops, including trade related challenges, requires countries to have a well-functioning, efficient, and responsible biosafety system," she said.

She urged countries to emulate Kenya, Mali and Togo which have enacted national biosafety legislation. The participants will share experiences on the potential benefits and challenges of producing GM crops in Africa.