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June 22nd, 2016 / B4FA Fellow Michael Ssali, B4FA.org

The recent European Parliament report that calls on the G7 countries not to support the use of genetically modified (GMO) seeds in Africa cannot have been based on a genuine understanding of the food security and poverty levels on the continent and the on-going efforts to deal with these challenges. The report presented by Mara Heubuch, the German Green MEP, unfairly criticised the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN) for promoting large-scale farming and what it referred to as land-grabbing and marginalization of small-scale farmers. Sadly the European Parliament rushed to adopt the report with a large majority as if it actually intends to keep Africa perpetually poor, food insecure, and dependent on Europe’s patronage. The decision can be best described as another neo-colonialist measure.

More than ever before, Africa’s food production today has fallen behind its growing population which is projected to increase from 1.2 billion to ca.2.4 billion by 2050, with most of that population increase occurring in sub-Saharan countries where up to now farmers use the hand hoe as their main tool. The region’s warm climate makes it prone to pests which together with the onset of global warming have made crop production a lot harder. The continent has seen the arrival of crop diseases which cannot be combated by any known pesticides and appear set to drastically reduce production of such major food and cash crops as bananas, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, rice, maize, and cassava among others.

In Uganda two of the staple crops, bananas and cassava can only be vegetatively propagated, and are grown by more than 75% of  farmers for food and income. These crops are increasingly under attack by a range of bacterial and viral diseases. Banana Bacterial Wilt disease (BBW) currently leads to loses of US$953 million worth of bananas annually. Cassava is the third major food crop in Africa, after corn and rice, and is being devastated by the Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), which is a virus spread by whitefly and has wiped out about 80% of the crop in some parts of the country.

Through GM technology, Ugandan researchers have been able to create BBW resistant bananas, and CBSD resistant cassava plants which will soon be passed on to farmers for planting. GM research is ongoing with such crops as maize, to provide stem borer resistance and increase drought tolerance, Irish potatoes to combat Potato Late Blight, and sweet potato for resistance to Sweet Potato Blight. According to the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre (UBIC), Uganda stands to save US$25.4 million annually by adopting drought tolerant and insect resistant maize. This is a country of some 36 million people, where every woman gives birth to 6.2 children, and whose population is projected to be 55.4 million by 2025 (www.prb.org). By choosing not to support and evaluate the potential benefits of GMO technology for African countries, the EU parliament cannot be seen by Africa as a supporter in its struggle to feed its people.

A recent report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which evaluated 20 years of research into the environmental effects of plants modified with genes that enable them to repel pests and withstand herbicides – and what happens when those crops are made into food for people or processed into feed for poultry and livestock – found the technology entirely safe. Neither the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) nor the World Health Organization (WHO) has raised any safety concerns about GM technology. One therefore further wonders why the EU should not support the use of the technology as one of the ways to improve food security and to reduce poverty in Africa.

Large-scale farming and use of machines such as tractors and combine harvesters are what have made agriculture in the G7 countries so successful. According to the World Bank there are around five tractors for every 1,000 farmers in Africa as compared to almost 1,600 tractors for every 1,000 farmers in the US. Richard Jones has written in an essay for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA): “Tanzania has over 44 million hectares of arable land of which less than a quarter is currently under cultivation. This means over 34 million hectares of land, almost the size of Germany, suitable for food production is not being utilized. You cannot farm an area the size of Germany with a hand hoe.” Where in Europe today do you find a man and a woman cultivating their farm with a simple hand-hoe to sustain their family as is so common in Africa?

In most EU countries less than 5 per cent of the population are farmers, yet in most sub-Saharan countries as many as 80 per cent are small-scale farmers, the majority of which are women. If small-scale farming is the best option for Africa, why is the continent looking to the EU for support?  “Low rates of mechanization in Africa not only reduce the welfare and quality of life for farmers but also limit farm productivity,” Jones has said.

It was with this in mind that in 2014, through the Malabo Declaration, the African Union (AU) recognized the importance of resorting to mechanization to accelerate agricultural growth in Africa. It was the reason that Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture with the AU, recommended the hand hoe to be banished from the continent.

For African farmers to use heavy machines it will require farmers with large farms and that is why as much as possible in countries like Uganda smallholder farmers (‘bibanja tenants’) who feel they don’t earn enough from farming and have capacity to venture into other activities are encouraged to sell their land to their landlords in what some people like Mara Heubuch have erroneously referred to as land-grabbing and marginalization of smallholder farmers.

Michael Ssali is Ugandan farmer and journalist, and is a Fellow of Biosciences for Farming in Africa.

Photo courtesy of B4FA Fellow Abdallah el-Kurebe.