Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kofi Annan's missed opportunity

Here is one of the many articles this week in overseas papers covering the announcement that the new organization, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa or AGRA led by the former UN chief Kofi Annan will attempt to engineer a green revolution in Africa without the aid of genetically modified (GM) crops. This decision is very short sighted.

From the article:
Conventional methods of farming have not yet been applied to the fullest extent in Africa. Simply working with conventional breeding, we can do a lot,' said Joseph De Vries, programme director with AGRA.
Yes, but, with GM crops, even more could be done. I understand that GM crops are controversial and many people find their use disturbing. However, on a continent where so many go hungry, closing the door completely on a technology that has the potential to improve the drought and pest resistance of important crops makes no sense. One of AGRA's primary goals is to improve "crop varieties for larger, more diverse, and more reliable harvests". How can anyone suggest that in this day and age, GM crops have no role to play in this endeavor?

The genie is out of the bottle. GM crops are here to stay. They should stay. On a planet with 6 billion people and counting, the potential they offer to increase yields, reduce chemical usage and expand arable land is too great to ignore.

The big challenge with the development of GM crops (and the aspect that I am most uncomfortable with) is that too many decisions about which traits to manipulate and what risks are worth taking are made by big agribusiness. This is where Annan's new organization could have played a constructive role. AGRA is headed by a former Secretary-General of the UN and bankrolled by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations to the tune of $150 million. Such an organization has the potential to be a powerful voice in the debate over the best use of GM crops for improving the quality of life and sustainability of agriculture in Africa.

By this decision, AGRA has removed itself a discussion that will occur whether they chose to participate or not.

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