In a significant announcement, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, backed by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, has ruled out the use of genetically modified crops to fight hunger and poverty on the continent, according to the group's chairman Kofi Annan, in a report in the Kenyan Business Daily.
"We in the alliance will not incorporate GMOsin our programmes. We shall work with farmers using traditional seeds known to them,” he (Annan) said. Mr Annan said poor pricing of commodities, and not type of seeds, keeps African growers away from their farmlands despite spiralling food insecurity and poverty on the continent.
“We need to get the right seeds into their hands by strengthening research partnerships with local universities and other institutions,” he said. Mr Annan said insufficient infrastructure such as roads, poor storage facilities and weak market structures were to blame for Africa’s continued dependence on food aid.
High-yield seeds were at the center of the former Green Revolution in Asia. While many have viewed GM crops as the latest step in high-yield agriculture and a way to fight hunger in the Third World, many others have criticized that approach and African countries have resisted for numerous reasons: the risk of GMO contamination, trade impediments to GM crops, the issues of patenting seed and the high costs of large-scale intensive agriculture. Although AGRA has not ruled out GMOs, the group says on its web site:
The Alliance is not at this time funding the development of new varieties through the use of genetic engineering. We have chosen to focus on conventional breeding techniques—which can be quite technologically sophisticated—for two main reasons:
- We know that conventional methods of plant breeding can produce significant benefits in the near term at relatively low cost. Until now, however, conventional plant breeding has not received sufficient attention or investment in Africa, leaving untapped the inherent genetic potential available in African crops. With improved seeds produced through conventional breeding methods, plant scientists and farmers could readily raise average cereal yields from one tonne to two tonnes per hectare—making a major contribution toward ending hunger and poverty in Africa.
- Conventional crop breeding fits within the regulatory frameworks now in place in most African countries, enabling relatively rapid dissemination to farmers of the new varieties they desire.
In a speech last month in Cape Town, when Annan was appointed to the post, the former UN secretary-general laid out the broad goals for the initiative.
We aim to make a concrete difference in our lifetimes. With respect to seeds, the Alliance is already in the fields, working with African farmers and African agricultural scientists to breed new varieties of maize, cassava, rice, beans, sorghum and other major crops that will offer better resistance to disease and pests. Our goal is to produce 100 new crop varieties in five years. And to ensure farmers have access to these seeds, we will also move to create a wider network of local seed distributors and agro-dealers to better serve remote rural areas.
In addition, the group has goals with regards to maintaining and improving soil health, irrigation, and marketing infrastructure.
Agra was established last year with an initial $150 million grant from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations. It seeks to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families get out of poverty and hunger through sustainable growth in farm productivity and incomes. According to the Kenyan report, Annan said food production in Africa could be doubled in the next decade with improved seeds and increased access to inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides.