Crop flop: Phillip Manoto of the Free State took the painful decision to write off his maize crop and feed the stunted plants to his cattle during one of the recent droughts. Pictur: JAMES OATWAY
Crop flop: Phillip Manoto of the Free State took the painful decision to write off his maize crop and feed the stunted plants to his cattle during one of the recent droughts. Pictur: JAMES OATWAY

The magic trick of putting a rabbit into a hat, making it disappear and pulling out 10 doves is a bit like what genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are to farming. Because GMOs are also magical. They’re transformative. And they work.

Africa suffers from cataclysmic food shortages and many countries have struggled through lost harvests due to drought, man-made land degradation and declining soil fertility, among other things.

Coupled with surging population growth, that’s a bad combination, especially as the number of Africans is expected to double to 2.4-billion by 2050.

According to the UN, more than 230-million Africans, about a quarter of the continent’s population, face hunger and malnutrition.

Importing food to help fill the gap is costly. With government coffers across the continent severely constrained, largely due to the commodity slump, Africa will need to grow more of its own food.

GMOs are a more precise method of plant breeding. They allow scientists to take a desirable trait found in nature, such as tolerance of drought conditions, and transfer it from one plant to another.

They also help to increase crop yield and feed more people. In the western world, where there is generally an abundance of food, eating organically is a "lifestyle" choice that may be healthier. But in much of the developing world, where food is often scarce, multiyear droughts are common and the soil has exhausted most of its value, GMOs help farmers level the playing field against mother nature — or, more precisely, against climate change.

But while GMOs are all the rage in the agriculture sector, they are causing a rage in political circles too, particularly in the West.

On the left, green activists say GMOs make food unhealthy for consumption, promote increased pesticide use and can cause dangerous side effects, including new categories of food allergies. Their associated herbicides can also harm birds, insects, amphibians, marine ecosystems and soil organisms.

On the other side of the argument is Matin Qaim, professor of international food economics and rural development at the University of Goettingen in Germany. After combining the results of several investigations, he found the agronomic and economic effects of genetically modified crops to be beneficial.

On average, according to Qaim, GMO technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use 37%, increased crop yields 22% and boosted farmer profits 68%.

But part of the problem is that many consumers are poorly educated about GMOs. In SA, a government initiative, the Public Understanding of Biotechnology, found that of the 7,000 adults aged 16 and older who participated, eight out of 10 had no knowledge of biotechnology or any real understanding of GMOs.

The study also found that 63% of the respondents were unaware if they had eaten any food containing genetically modified ingredients — 71% of the products in SA labelled "GMO free" or "organic" actually contained genetically modified ingredients.

Africa’s population is exploding. Its skies have been dry. It desperately needs an edge. The rest of the world’s population is growing rapidly too and is expected to hit 9-billion by 2050. We will need to double the world’s food production, according to most accepted projections. And with climate change continuing to diminish the amount of Earth’s arable land, GMOs will be vital.

This will not only require internal support, but significant capital investment. Africa’s leaders need to work closely with leaders in agriculture such as Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont and apply the newest science available.

If they don’t, they will face a gargantuan task feeding their burgeoning populations. But if they embrace biotechnology and GMOs, they too can have a glittering magic show.

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