ENGARUKA, TANZANIA – When the bell rang at midday, students fetched tin bowls and lined up under trees in the schoolyard for scoops of corn and bean porridge. Not one of them was fussy about the food.
After the rainy seasons shortchanged Engaruka, a Maasai village in northern Tanzania, children suffered too many days when there was no porridge — no food at all to eat in their mud-and-stick huts. Drought is to blame for a good share of their suffering.
Scientists are developing drought-tolerant corn, which could ease hunger across Tanzania and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But the corn can’t be planted in most places because it was genetically modified.
Opponents of genetically modified crops have made a stand in Africa — and now villages such as Engaruka are squarely in the middle of a global ideological war over agricultural technology.
Since American farmers first adopted genetically modified organism (GMO) crops in 1996, 17 million farmers in 29 countries have followed suit. Europe rejected the crops, though, arguing that farmers would be exploited by large seed companies and that more research is needed into possible risks to the environment and food safety.
And European activists have pressured Africa to do the same. Just four countries on the continent — Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa — have allowed them.
World crop production has more than doubled in 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. But Africa has lagged behind, achieving some gains while losing ground in places like Engaruka where drought, plant diseases and other problems have knocked down yields and depleted the available food.
Now that problem has taken on new urgency with U.N. projections that Africa’s population will quadruple by the end of this century.
Still, the question of which approach is best for Africa remains hotly disputed. It tears at Tanzania, where 80 percent of the people live by subsistence agriculture.
African countries and research organizations, working together in the project Water Efficient Maize for Africa, have incorporated a gene from a common soil bacterium into corn, enabling plants to produce kernels even while short of water. The modified corn is expected to increase yields by 25 percent during moderate drought.
Tanzania is a member nation in the project. But regulations it adopted in 2009 have effectively blocked GMO crops.
Under a “strict liability” rule, anyone associated with importing, moving, storing and using GMO products is liable if someone makes a claim of harm, injury or loss caused by them. Such a claim could reach beyond personal loss or injury to include damage to the environment and to biological diversity.
Under that policy, no research organization has dared to introduce genetically modified crops into Tanzania’s fields.
At Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and its commercial hub, plant virologist Joseph Ndunguru has genetically transformed cassava to resist viruses that are devastating the crop. Instead of starting field trials, Ndunguru is waiting for new regulations.
“There is a lot of fear,” he said.
As for water-efficient corn, Alois Kullaya said research has been on hold since 2009. He is the Mikocheni institute’s principal agricultural research officer and also the Tanzanian coordinator of the corn project. Tanzanian scientists have not been able to conduct field trials with the corn they have developed in laboratories.
The scientists have urged Tanzania’s government to shift to a “fault-based” regulatory approach, under which a heavier burden of proof would fall on someone claiming harm or injury.
Pushing the government from the other side is the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, a coalition of environmental and organic farming groups.
“Whoever introduces GMOs should be responsible for what happens on the ground,” said Abdallah Mkindi, alliance coordinator. If regulations were relaxed, he said, seed companies could hold small-scale farmers ransom, and food security would be threatened.
Some coalition members argue that Africa’s food sovereignty is at risk if its farmers accept seeds and plant cuttings created by large, outside organizations. Some also claim that a high-tech fix for the continent’s food insecurity is a false promise, given the many other problems begging to be addressed — including poor access to land, water, credit, agricultural extension services, roads and markets.
Of 19 alliance members, 11 are Europe-based groups or have European affiliations. The expert authority that the alliance cites for claims about GMO crops is from London-based Earth Open Source.
Beyond grass-roots activism, Europeans have influenced African attitudes by rejecting genetically modified crops, said Ndunguru of the Mikocheni institute. “People go to the Internet,” he said, “and they read the information put there by European anti-GM groups, and they ask, ‘If this technology is safe, why don’t the Europeans use it?’ “
Now some experts are accusing European activists of placing ideology above food security.
“Opposition to biotechnology in Africa started before there was much scientific research on the subject outside South Africa. So Africa’s first import was opposition to the technology before the products got there,” said Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor of international development and a native Kenyan. “This was because the (European Union) constructed a resistance industry and exported it through a variety of channels.”
American advocates for GMO crops have been busy in Africa, too.
Support for Water Efficient Maize for Africa came from the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates and the Howard G. Buffett foundations. The project’s drought-tolerance gene came from Missouri-based Monsanto, which has said the seeds will go royalty-free to African farmers. The project also produces conventionally bred corn.
Other GMO research targeted for Africa also is backed by American money and know-how.
One target has been the vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness in millions of African children. Helen Keller International is involved in engineering orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to deliver extra helpings of the micronutrient that the body transforms into vitamin A. St. Louis-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is working in Kenya and Nigeria to boost that pro-vitamin A and other nutrients in cassava.
Another goal is to address deficiencies in the resources available to African farmers. Dupont Pioneer, for example, is helping develop corn that makes more efficient use of nitrogen so that farmers could get by with less fertilizer.
Behind the individual projects, GMO foes suspect a conspiracy to slip U.S. agribusiness into Africa. In 2012, the Barack Obama administration prompted a flurry of suspicion when it used a Group of Eight summit to announce the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, with the goal of lifting 50 million Africans out of poverty by 2022.
A working group of the German Forum on Environment & Development reacted with a statement saying the initiative “paves the way for radical opening of markets for international seed and agrarian corporations in African countries.”
The controversy flared again this year after the World Food Prize Foundation announced that its prestigious annual award would go to three scientists who laid the groundwork for today’s GMO crops 30 years ago, by developing techniques for inserting foreign genes into the DNA of plants.
While the global debate rages, many families back in the village of Engaruka remain perilously close to starvation after recent droughts destroyed crops and killed 65 percent of the livestock.
Before 2009, Thomas Saitoti’o said that he owned 30 cows. Now he has just two. His family lost its cushion against the next drought, ran out of food in April and was saved by a government handout of corn.
At the end of the dirt path leading to the next house, Juliana Saitoti sat shelling beans. Thanks to rain this year, her family had food in September, even eggs for the children. But, with the dry season, food would run out in October. “Then we will not have enough to eat,” she said.
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