GM crops could help as climate warms

Professor Calestous Juma, of the Harvard Kennedy School, has urged political leaders and scientists to embrace the technology and the possibilities of GM crops, particularly in Africa, where GM has largely been shunned. Though debate still rages over GM crops, animals, and fish, Professor Juma insists the benefits are critical to ensuring our future. From 1996 to 2011, for instance, transgenic crops saved almost 473 million kilograms of active pesticide ingredients, he says, and reduced 23.1 billion kilograms of CO2 – the equivalent to a reduction of 10.2 million cars.

Today, 28 countries grow transgenic crops, but only four of these are in Africa: South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan. Professor Juma points to the examples of black-eyed peas and bananas: bacterial banana wilt costs the Great Lakes region some US$500 million annually, and a certain type of moth destroys US$300 million worth of black-eyed peas each year, despite the use of some $500 million on pesticides to combat it. Ugandan scientists are developing a transgenic banana species to resist this wilt, and a transgenic black-eyed pea variety with insecticide properties was developed by Nigerian scientists. Vitamin- and micronutrient-enhanced regional staples, like bananas, sorghum, and cassava, could help maintain a broader food base in Africa based on improved indigenous crops, as well as help address nutritional requirements.

The press of climate change and population growth, he states, builds an even stronger case for adopting new crop technologies, despite what he called ‘technological intolerance’. He spoke of “the power of human creativity in responding to global challenges”, but even GM technologies won’t be enough however. He maintained that they “must be part of a wider system of innovation that includes improving interactions between academia, government, business and farmers.”  Innovation, he noted, requires committed champions, and cooperation of national agricultural research bodies and universities.

There are 160 countries that have rejected GM technology so far, and over 80% of the world’s GM crops are grown in just four countries in the Americas – these are predominantly soy, corn, canola, and cotton – mainly herbicide-resistant crops that are patented (along with the herbicides used) by large agri-business corporations. Other criticism points out that pesticides have led to ‘super-weeds’, which resist herbicides and are nearly impossible to eliminate. Some attitudes to GM may change if the focus turns to drought-and salt-resistant varieties for making use of marginal land, rather than on commercial crops that would benefit the already-wealthy.