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Can Genetically Modified Crops Save Africa?

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AFRICANGLOBE – Glimmers of enthusiasm for Genetically Modified crops in Africa are emerging from the embers of suspicion. Ethiopian farmers are planting GM cotton seeds in preparation for the rainy season in June this year. The development comes after the Ethiopian parliament gave the green light for the importation of GMOs into the country. Last year, Ethiopia’s Industry Minister, Ahmed Abtew articulated the government’s belief that GM cotton will help Ethiopia achieve its ambitious five-year plan to export $1bn of textiles and garments by 2015.

Researchers from the University of Nairobi, ISAAA Africentre and ASARECA have written a study which estimates that the adoption of Bollgard II (Bt) cotton in Ethiopia could lead to an improvement in cotton yields. The report states that with a 20% adoption rate, consumer surpluses could increase by 0.28%, producer surpluses by 0.55% and innovator surpluses by 0.11%, leading to a total surplus increase of 0.86%, or 73.31% internal rate of return (IRR).

The report also estimates that with a 40% adoption rate, consumer surpluses could improve by 0.55%, producer surpluses by 1.11% and innovator surpluses by 0.22%, bringing the total increase to 1.81% or 106.32% IRR. The paper claims that a 70% adoption rate is most likely and this would translate into a 0.96% rise in consumer surpluses, a 2.02% increase in producer surpluses and a 0.51% improvement in innovator surpluses, bringing the total surplus increase to 3.42% or 91.57% IRR. With a 70% adoption rate, Bt cotton gains could be over $31 per hectare.

Ethiopia has around 53,000 smallholder cotton farmers who work land between a quarter and three quarters of a hectare: 110,000 hectares of land is under cotton cultivation. Production, at 82,500m tonnes, is higher than Kenya and Uganda but lower than in other nearby countries like Zambia and Tanzania.  Ethiopian farmers face numerous obstacles including the decimating effects of bollworm; the high price of pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser; and the low price of cotton at market. The total production costs for Ethiopian cotton farmers are extremely high – over $650 per hectare, compared with less than $175 per hectare in western Tanzania or roughly $288 in Kenya.

Ethiopians spend over $93 per hectare on pesticides compared to Kenyans, who spend less than $17. Land preparation costs an eye-watering $230 per hectare, compared with $12 in western Tanzania. Some Ethiopians, including Million Belay, director of the environmental NGO MELCA- Ethiopia are opposed to the introduction of GM cotton: “There are systemic reasons why cotton productivity in Ethiopia is decreasing. Simply turning to GM production does not deal with these systemic challenges,” says Belay. “Trials of cotton varieties from Turkey and Israel could improve productivity in Ethiopia. Worldwide demand for organic cotton is increasing by 35% every year as well. Why can’t we focus on organic cotton production instead?”

According to Belay, the government’s enthusiasm for GM betrays their desire for a ‘quick fix’ and is a result of pressure from GM seed firms: “Companies are working day in day out to try and get African countries like Ethiopia to introduce GM crops. I also think that the Ethiopian government may see an opportunity to get funding for its biotech industry if it commits to GM research in the future.”

Ethiopia has expressed no intention of cultivating any other GM crops apart from cotton. Some believe that the government’s change in stance could pave the way for other GM crops, however. “This is definitely a policy shift,” says Belay.“I am convinced that the government may go for GM cotton. If it does so, the movement will be to GM livestock feed and then eventually allow GM crops to be produced in the country.”

Opposition to GM crops may also be slowly melting away in other African countries. Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mali and Egypt now have GM research and development capacity. In Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello University is developing a GM black-eyed pea, hoped to be resistant to the ravaging effects of the insect Maruca vitrata, estimated to lay waste to nearly $300m of black-eyed pea crops a year.

In Uganda, scientists are developing a transgenic banana able to fend off the bacterial diseaseBanana Xanthomonas Wilt, which costs the Great Lakes region half a billion dollars a year. Researchers are also trying to develop a golden banana, which has an extra injection of vitamin A ­– crucial for a strong immune system, healthy growth and good vision. Benin, Tanzania, Zambia and Senegal have carried out GM field trials. Countries have shown a desire to explore options for GM cotton, sweet potato, maize, soya bean, banana, pigeon pea and tobacco.

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