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US Aid Groups Divided Over Biotechnology for Africa's Farmers

Farmers in Africa are at the center of discussions over the expanding use of biotechnology in agriculture

U.S.-based aid groups and research institutes increasingly are divided over the promotion of biotechnology for Africa's farmers. The debate is putting several aid contributors at the center of the issue.

Scientists have for years been using biotechnology to genetically modify crops in the United States. They say that changing the DNA of food with genetic engineering makes farming more efficient.

The United States is the main producer of such crops, along with Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and China.

But farmers and activists in many countries worry that genetic changes to crops are risky. They are concerned about health and environmental implications. They also say the new methods are expensive and tied to intellectual property laws, putting smaller farmers at a disadvantage.

There is a growing debate within aid groups over whether biotechnology is good for agriculture in Africa.

South Africa already grows biotech cotton, corn and soybeans, and Burkina Faso has started experimenting with BT cotton. Aid groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are looking into helping with biotech experiments in many other African countries.

The U.S.-based Oakland Institute and several other groups, including the Malian National Coordination of Peasant Organizations and the Johannesburg-based African Center on Biodiversity, are against the trend. They recently issued an open letter criticizing another group, Oxfam America, for concluding in a recent book that biotech crops offer enormous benefits.

Oakland Institute Executive Director Anuradha Mittal says biotech experiments in Africa have produced controversial results. "BT cotton, which was first tried out in South Africa in Makhathini Plains, has been hailed as a successful BT cotton. What people very often do not realize is that the farmers were given no choice. They had no other seeds or agencies that would also provide credit. And it has been a disaster as our letter points out by studies done by Biowatch and other places; they report that the farmers have been left in debt," he said.

Mittal says studies on the effect of these crops on the environment, human health and the income level of small farmers have not been carried out properly.

She says recent research by the aid organization Oxfam America seems to have also ignored African public opinion. "They do not seem to take into account, for instance, [that] right now in Kenya about 40,000 tons of maize is sitting on the docks that is genetically modified, which South Africa is trying to dump into Kenya and the civil society is not allowing it to come into the country. So for Oxfam America to ignore the resistance in countries in Africa and to join the likes of Monsanto and the Gates Foundation to promote this biotechnology is extremely shocking and appalling at the same time," she said.

The U.S.-based Monsanto Company, a major agricultural biotech multi-national, says it seeks to get the best technology to farmers. But anti-biotech activists allege Monsanto's business methods lure poor farmers into using expensive products, while the company lobbies politicians, international agencies, the public and aid organizations.

Officials at Monsanto did not respond to VOA's request for an interview.

A senior program officer on the agricultural team at the Gates Foundation, Lawrence Kent, said he wants to help small farmers gain access to the most appropriate tools. "We want to help small holder farmers reduce hunger, reduce poverty and improve their nutrition. So we see agriculture as the lever to do so, and we want to make sure that African farmers have access to the best technologies, whether they be conventional or ones that use biotechnology, so that they have a choice about which technology they think is most appropriate," he said.

Kent said the foundation is looking at partnership programs in several African countries to develop drought resistant maize, disease-resistant cassava, pest-resistant sweet potatoes, and to improve the nutritional content of other staples like rice and bananas.

Kent shared the example of a woman farmer he met in Tanzania recently. "She had her machete out and she had a pile of sweet potatoes in front of us and we could see the sweet potatoes were damaged by insects. They had black holes and rotten spots all over them, where the insects had been eating them. And at her feet where her children. And I could see that they were malnourished. It just felt like this is a shame that these insects are eating her food and causing her to lose a large percentage of her harvest. It was a reminder for me that our investment in helping to improve sweet potatoes is a worthwhile one. And in the case when it involves biotechnology to tackle a problem like sweet potato insects, it is a worthwhile endeavor to take on," he said.

The Oakland Institute says that several former high-ranking Monsanto executives work for the Gates Foundation and that may be a conflict of interest influencing where its money is directed.

When asked about the allegations, Kent did not respond directly.

The head of research at Oxfam America, Kimberly Pfeifer, responded to the criticism of her group's recent book concluding biotech could offer great benefits. She said Oxfam has no set position on the use of biotechnology in African agriculture, and merely researching the topic was difficult.

"It puts you in a position of being caught within a very polarized debate, and sometimes when you are in that middle place, if you are not coming out against, you are for, and vice versa. I still think it is very important to look at these trends and really see what ultimately do they mean for resource poor farmers and poverty reduction through agricultural development," she said.

Pfeifer adds that it is important for all U.S. organizations involved in this process not to forget who they are trying to help. "Shift that discussion or reframe it in terms of putting the farmer first - putting the farmer and how the farmer defines his or her needs at the center of that discussion and then working outward from there," she said.

Pfeifer says it seems simple to keep the best interests of the farmers at the center of the debate. But she says they are often overlooked and many African farmers continue to face challenges of food insecurity and climate change, while the private sector, aid organizations and activists disagree over whether biotechnology in crops should be encouraged.