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Better Crops Through Technology?

Over the past year Africa has coped with food shortages and rising prices for imported food. Last week scientists gathered in Uganda to talk about how science may be able to alleviate the problem through the use of genetically modified crops, or GM, for short.

“Genetically modified technologies, agricultural biotechnologies, are one of many solutions that could potentially help farmers increase their productivity," says David Spielman a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, IFPRI, the conference sponsor.

Some countries in Africa are already growing GM crops. Last year, Burkina Faso and Egypt started producing biotech cotton and maize. South Africa has been producing genetically modified crops like cotton, maize, and soybeans for years.

Spielman and other scientists say the adoption of genetically modified crops by other African nations could increase food production, and significantly lower the price of food.

But getting support for genetically modified crops has not been easy.

Spielman says Uganda is one country that could benefit if a banana resistant to fungus is approved. “Delays in approval of this fungus-resistant banana means that Uganda foregoes potential benefits ranging from about $170 million to $365 million a year,” he estimates.

Spielman says genetically modified crops have met resistance in African nations when policy makers do not have all of the information about both the risks and benefits. He says many lawmakers are concerned about losing access to European markets, where anti-GM sentiments run high.

The safety of genetically modified crops for both humans and the environment is another major concern, but Spielman says this should not be a problem.

“A lot of the discussion has become very politicized. But if you look at the scientific evidence, there is no clear evidence to suggest that genetically modified crops and the traits that we have introduced in these crops have negative health and environmental consequences,” says Spielman.

Spielman explains that there is still a lot of work to do, including research and determining ways to get these new technologies to African farmers. But he said the future is still promising.

“It’s not a silver bullet. It won’t solve all of Africa’s problems or all of Africa’s food problems," he says. "By no means will that happen. But it is a set of options that if exploited properly could help farmers improve their livelihoods and help reduce food prices for consumers in the regions.”

According to IFPRI, more than 13 million farmers worldwide grew genetically modified crops last year, and 90% of these were smallholder farmers in developing nations.