Sympathetic Stupid

Monday, October 03, 2005

Modified Frogs Leap Higher?

[Inspired by Luisa. Hi!]

So nanotech can 'leapfrog' developing countries to a better place. Yeah, it might be closer than it looks, but for now it's all very pie-in-the-sky. Biotech, on the other hand, is here now. For all those smart Aussie biotechnologists who want to go to Africa and make a difference, what are the options?

Well, biotech in Africa is overwhelmingly focused on agriculture. As this article says, the goal is to boost production so that imports of basic food items can fall, increasing the continent's food security. In this context, that means GM crops.

(Aside: Agriculture is clearly Africa's strongest industry for the forseeable future, but exports are suppressed by the huge subsidies Western countries hand their farmers - see How Northern subsidies hurt Africa. As good economics disciples, surely we expect that Africa requires incentives to improve food production, so shouldn't we drop our subsidies?)

So, GM. Us privileged few in rich countries have the luxury of consideration on issues like GM, to take time to try to balance the big-pharma spin against the anti-science horror. Unsurprisingly, the prevailing view in the West is that biotech crops are something of a luxury, with FlavrSavr tomatoes - "... reaches the consumer in an optically attractive state ..." - leading the charge to more predictable food.

But for a starving continent, widespread debate is definitely not a priority, or even particularly feasible. There's so much that GM crops can do to seriously improve the lot of African farmers, from giving pest and disease resistance, and reducing fertiliser and water needs, to improving the nutritional value of food. From India, a common modification increases cotton yield up to 80% - but with legitimate questions about sustainability.

Of course, it's not just crops that gain from modification, as still-more-controversial GM animals begin to wander the globe. We're all waiting for the GM super-intelligent monkey to enslave us all, but goats with spider silk in their milk are just plain weird. But seriously, animals that grow faster, require less feed or are more drought-tolerant must help in Africa.

Is all this necessary, though? Here's doubled crop yields; no GM, just rotation of feed crops with a weed called tithonia. It prevents erosion, builds up nutrients and can be made into mulch, firewood or animal feed afterwards. No miracle, just a natural solution to the problem.

There's no doubt GM can help Africa leapfrog forward; it's something that the West is less willing to do, for one reason or another, so widespread uptake in Africa could really give the continent an edge. But will the morning after the GM party have the mother of all hangovers, as the entire ecosystem collapses because of biodiversity reductions or runaway GM crops?

Science & Biotech @
Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International
Special Report on GM @ New Scientist
Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa @ USAID (with a grain of salt)