Every year, tens of millions of Africans die of diseases and afflictions unheard of in Europe and America . The number is so large as to be rendered meaningless to most of us. Who counts in the millions?
But those numbers are very real to Africans. These numbers incorporate brothers, mothers, children, aunts. And while Africans, as always, endure, science that could save millions rests unused, despised, and demonized.
Since the 1950s, genetically-modified crops have been developed in the United States . They have not created a generation of monstrous births. They have not created a huge wave of gastrointestinal cancers (our poor eating habits are the more likely culprit for most of our disease). They have not escaped and run rampant throughout the country, killing off natural plants that provide a necessary genetic reservoir for our food crops.
And yet, the European Union, the United Nations, and other primarily European organizations use these very arguments to deny Africa the biotechnology that could save it. Why?
Advantages of Genetically Modified Crops
Corn is the most commonly used genetically modified crop in America , and it has been remarkable in its applications. It is the United States ‘ most important feed for lifestock, and a primary food staple, used in hundreds of breads, vegetable dishes, as filler for other food, etc.
Genetically modified corn is designed to be hardier, more resistant to pests and pesticides alike. It scoffs at musts and other diseases that used to destroy entire crops. It needs minimal water, and can thrive with lower light conditions than its ancestors. Sometimes it even produces vitamins and nutrients that other corn cannot. American genetically modified corn is an ideal crop to plant in sunny, low-water conditions that proliferate in many of the drought-ridden areas of Africa .
In Africa , the primary cause of crop shortfalls is a lack of arable land. It stands to reason that any method that increases the crop yield of the arable land that still remains, without damaging that land, will be of help. In addition, Africa has long been suffering from a lack of adequate rainfall and a gradual decrease in soil fertility – a trend that may have disastrous consequences. And Africa has a unique biosystem that requires application of pesticides and herbicides in quantities that would be unheard of in the West – if you don’t poison the locusts, they will eat all the crops!
Because of all these problems, genetic modification of crops and lifestock, not just the breeding of fresh types, has long been called for by African scientists and leaders. And the few programs they have put in place have been outstandingly successful. Yet there is real resistance to using these crops in Africa , largely because of Europe .
Africa’s agriculture overall, even though it is inadequate for Africa, produces as much as half its income from exports, and employs about 60% of its people overall. It is therefore critical that they protect their primary market – which is Europe . But in Europe , there is a great fear and aversion to the use of genetically modified foods. Many European countries have threatened to cease buying agricultural products from Africa if it embraces biotechnology – a terrible fate for its small farmers.
Genetically Modified Crops: Their Real and Perceived Dangers
The dangers and fears cited by the anti-biotechnology voice in Europe and America are broad. Many claim that genetically engineered foods are inadequately tested before being put in place. Others complain that these crops can escape into the environment, contaminating natural stocks, despite the fact that most bioengineered seeds are incapable of producing viable seed of any sort. Others look to the past, stating that because “they,” meaning the industrial complex, have lied before, that we citizens have no reason to trust them now. (Of course, if we don’t trust them at least sometimes, we may as well cease having a civilization right now!)
One of the more scientifically pertinent arguments is that these crops may be able to breed superbugs and superdiseases – because the crops are engineered to be highly resistant to pests, the pests will just adapt to overcome that resistance. Since many genetically engineered crops are also manufactured in part by using antibiotic-resistant genes, it is also plausible that these crops may be able to develop real antibiotic resistance, making them hard to treat when the need comes.
Then there are arguments about the social and ethical results of genetically modified crops. Expensive seed corn that you have to purchase every year could make it impossible for small farmers to compete (in spite of increased yield). And there’s the fact that genes are being moved from one species to another; many see this as “playing God.”
Many, but not all, of these arguments are valid. The real problem is the current and very real danger of mass starvation in Africa . There are a half-billion people in Africa right now. It is projected that Africa ‘s population will top a billion within two decades. It is impossible with Africa ‘s current crop yield to feed that large a number of people. This invalidates the worries about exporting crops to Europe , especially since the gradually decreasing yield will make it impossible to export crops that simply cannot exist.
The fact is, without the application of genetic engineering to crops right now in Africa , the continent is certain to have increasing famine. It is difficult to reconcile equally the possibilities of scientific problems in the face of starving children and infants.
Biotechnology in Africa Today
But Africa does not exist in a vacuum, and its many nations are choosing a variety of answers to the problem. South Africa and Kenya are both exploring biotechnology extensively, and though Kenya is avoiding genetic engineering in active crops in the field, it is still exploring the possibilities.
Countries like Botswana are working with American companies like Monsanto to develop hardy varieties of their native crops. And other countries are starting to line up for biotechnology as well.
In the end, Europe ‘s desire for more organically grown foods is quickly being offset by Africa ‘s need for more food, period. It will only harm Africa if Europe insists on excluding their foods because of bioengineering. If Africa is wise, it will start looking elsewhere for markets; and if Europe is wise, it will give a sane and scientific look at biotechnology before turning its back on African bioengineered agriculture.