Farmers in Africa are Desperate for Change: by Jasson Urbach- October 18, 2011

The use of GM (genetically modified) food crops is a highly emotive issue. What should influence the debate between those who support these developments and those who oppose them is a report by the US Department of Agriculture. They estimate that with rising population trends, if no significant reforms are made over the next decade, the number of “food insecure” people (those consuming less than 2,100 calories per day) in Africa, will increase by 30 per cent to 645 million. To make use of the latest available technological developments is, therefore, of paramount importance.

To counter food shortages, farmers need to derive the maximum possible yield from their farms. Worldwide, alfalfa (lucerne) is grown mainly as a food for cattle. The recent development by seed company, Monsanto, of a GM variety of alfalfa that is resistant to herbicides, makes it possible now for farmers to spray their alfalfa with a herbicide, killing the weeds without harming their crop.

Most authoritative reviews conclude that neither GM crops nor food produced from them pose a significant risk to the humans who consume them. Indeed, in its annual State of the World’s Food and Agriculture report, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) states that the balance of evidence suggests that GM technology does not harm humans and GM seeds do not harm the environment.

According to the FAO, food production must increase by at least 70 per cent to meet the growing demands of a world population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050. It is essential, however, that increased agricultural productivity be derived from the better use of existing agricultural land and not from an expansion of agricultural land as in the past four decades, when increasing amounts of land were put to use for farming to the detriment of forests, soil, and water.

Like any business, the goal of farming is to deliver the goods required by the market. To achieve this it has to become more profitable by being more efficient, that is by farming more intensively, not extensively. Biotechnology, and, more specifically, genetically modified foods offer a realistic opportunity to meet the demands of growing populations by increasing a farmer’s productivity.

Throughout the world, more and more farmers are recognising the benefits of using the latest available technologies and are switching to transgenic seeds.
In 2010, 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries planted 148 million hectares of transgenic crops. The United States is the biggest producer of GM crops, with an estimated 66.8 million hectares followed by Brazil (25.4), Argentina (22.9), India (9.4) and Canada (8.8). South Africa is the 9th largest producer of transgenic crops with 2.2 million hectares, comprising maize, soybean and cotton.

Transgenic seeds offer great promise to poor African farmers who missed the green revolution. Compared to the rest of the world, African countries generally suffer from very low agricultural yields. For example, in the case of maize, the average yield per hectare in the developed world is 10 to15 tons per hectare, whereas the average yield in Africa is 1.4 tons per hectare. Since a large proportion of Africa’s inhabitants are subsistence farmers, these low yields contribute to the continent’s poverty and lack of economic development.

One of biotechnology’s great advantages is that it can become available almost immediately to farmers outside industrialised countries. In just a few years, GM crops could improve the effectiveness of the agricultural sector and food security in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. However, there are several bar-riers that can prevent farmers from using these new age seeds to improve their productivity. They are governmen-tal restrictions, lack of credit, poor infrastructure, high transaction costs, and educational and cultural barriers.

Those farmers who have adopted these modern technologies have seen a substantial increase in their crop yields and a reduction in their workloads. They have been able to produce more than they consume and to sell their excess product. GM crops have improved their health, well-being and overall quality of life. To force these individuals to return to traditional farming methods is out of the question.

Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation. This article is syndicated by