Like Dr. Martin
Luther King, Dr. Ruth Oniango has a dream. A member of Kenya’s
parliament, she envisions a day when the people of her poor country
“can feed themselves.”
Congress of Racial
Equality national chairman Roy Innis shares that vision. But he also
knows the obstacles. “Over 70% of Africans are employed in farming
full time,” he points out. “Yet, half of those countries rely on
emergency food aid. Within ten years, Africa will be home to
three-fourths of the world’s hungry people.”
Many of the
continent’s farmers are women who labor sunup to sundown on 3 to 5
acre plats. They rarely have enough crops to feed their own families,
much less sell for extra money. Millions live on less than a dollar a
Maize (corn) is
southern Africa’s most important crop. But because of drought,
insects, poor soil, plant diseases and lack of technology, the average
yield per acre is the lowest in the world. Other crops suffer similar
“We eat cassava
for breakfast and mash it with potatoes and bananas. But the mosaic
virus attacks the plants, the leaves fall off, and it’s no good for
eating,” Kenya’s Samuel Njeru laments. “We can’t afford to spray. We
need a variety that is resistant to the virus.”
Mosaic virus first
appeared in Africa in 1894 and now infects every cassava plant. Over
35 million tons of this staple are lost every year – along with tens
of millions of tons of other crops.
“I farm a third of
a hectare with cotton,” says Alice Wambuii. (A hectare is 2.5 acres.)
“I spray five times a season with pesticides, but sometimes the
insects still destroy my entire crop. Last year, I got 3,000 Kenyan
shillings for my cotton, but I had to spend 5,000 for sprays.”
“Africa needs a
new agricultural revolution,” Mr. Innis says flatly. One is finally on
the way – a biotechnology revolution. It’s not a magic bullet. But it
is a vital weapon in Africa’s thus far losing struggle against
malnutrition, poverty, despair and deepening anger.
day-long conference hosted by CORE at the United Nations in January
conveyed that message forcefully. So do Kenyan and South African
scientists, farmers and politicians interviewed by Mr. Innis for a
video documentary. With this technology, farmers don’t have to learn
new skills. They just plant and tend seeds the same way as always –
but with amazing results.
chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications, says “biotechnology is a contribution, not a solution,
to the hunger crisis.” It is a technology that African farmers can
afford to have – and can’t afford not to have.
“I grow maize on a
half hectare,” South Africa’s Elizabeth Ajele explains. “The old
plants would be destroyed by insects, but not the new biotech plants.
With the profits I get from the new Bt maize, I can grow onions,
spinach and tomatoes, and sell them for extra money to buy fertilizer.
We were struggling to keep hunger out of our houses. Now the future
looks good. If someone came and said we should stop using the new
maize, I would cry.”
Sithole shares her excitement. “Now I don’t have to buy any chemicals.
With the old maize, I got 100 bags from my 15 hectares. With Bt maize
I get 1,000 bags.” The new maize has enabled South African farmers to
cut their pesticide use up to 75%, triple their profits and save 35-49
days per season working in fields – mostly spraying pesticides by
engineered (GE) cassava plant is now being tested in Kenya. It is
absolutely resistant to the mosaic virus and, once approved, will be
provided free to farmers. Mr. Njeru anxiously awaits that day, so that
he can “complete my children’s education and build a new house and
maybe a better shed for my cattle.”
In South Africa,
widow, school principal and mother of five Thandi Myeni explains:
“With the new Bt cotton, I only spray two times, instead of six. At
the end of the day, we know the crop won’t be destroyed and we will
have a harvest and money.”
“By planting the
new Bt cotton on my six hectares, I was able to build a house and give
it a solar panel,” says Bethuel Gumede. “I also bought a TV and
fridge. My wife can buy healthy food and we can afford to send the
kids to school. My life has changed completely.”
simple dreams and newfound hope. But now Africa faces a new threat
every bit as ominous as the droughts, viruses and locusts that have
plagued it for centuries: hordes of activists and regulators bent on
keeping this technology out of Africa (and away from farmers
well-orchestrated campaign is financed to the tune of some $70 million
a year by foundations, organic food interests, EU governments, and
even UN agencies and programs. It employs moratoriums and threats
against agricultural imports from countries that grow biotech crops,
complex and expensive requirements for labeling all GE ingredients and
tracking them from seed to store shelf, even outright lies about the
safety of biotechnology.
tactic is legislation in Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and Vermont
that would make farmers and seed manufacturers liable if their crops
“contaminate” organic produce with traces of GE pollen. It would open
the door for frivolous lawsuits, make biotech farming legally and
financially risky, deplete R&D budgets, and further delay Dr.
It promotes the
narrow interests of organic growers and their well-off, well-fed
clientele – who elevate their fears and demands above the needs of 200
million Africans who are still chronically hungry and malnourished.
Organic growers want to increase their market share and bottom line.
Organic consumers want food that is 100% biotech free. Africans want
to be fed.
hunger is a fundamental human right. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and
the UN charter affirmed this principle. To turn it into reality, we
must do more to help impoverished nations generate the health and
prosperity that we Westerners view as our birthright. A vital step in
that process is ending the fear-mongering and regulatory overkill that
places precaution against speculative risks from agricultural
biotechnology over the real, immediate, life-and-death dangers that
millions of Africans face every day.
Then Dr. Oniango’s
dream will come true. Poor Africans – and poor families everywhere –
will be able to feed themselves, and take their rightful places among
the Earth’s prosperous people.
Cyril Boynes is the Center of Racial Equality's (CORE’s) director of
international programs (www.CORE-online.org).
Paul Driessen is CORE’s senior policy advisor and author of
Eco-Imperialism: Green Power · Black Death (www.Eco-Imperialism.com).