A Trump administration official is visiting Africa this week to promote government acceptance of genetically engineered crops.
Peter Haas, a State Department trade-policy specialist, told a three-day biotechnology conference in South Africa that use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in agriculture can help meet the continent’s food needs while also fostering improvements in human health.
Mr Haas is travelling next to Ethiopia to discuss adoption of GMO products with African Union officials at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
His visit follows a warning in June by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer that the Trump administration intends to file cases in international forums against governmental restrictions on GMO imports that are not “science-based.”
Africa could be a target of that US legal offensive.
“The take-up of genetically-engineered products has been relatively slow” in Africa, Mr Haas told reporters prior to embarking on his August 27-31 trip.
He added, however, that the US is “encouraged by the increasing use of them throughout the continent.”
Mr Haas cited Ethiopia, where he will also meet with government officials, as a leader in African adoption of GMO technology.
Kenya is gradually easing its opposition to genetically engineered crops.
Prodded by activists, the government has previously cited potential health concerns and negative impacts on native seed varieties and smallholders as issues requiring careful study.
But Kenya is likely to permit planting of GMO cotton on a commercial scale next year.
Kenya is also a leader in East Africa in confined field trials of genetically modified maize and cassava crops.
In his recent press briefing, Mr Haas argued that GMO technology has been proven safe.
Farmers in the US plant grow genetically engineered maize resistant to infestation by the fall armyworm, which poses a major threat to Kenyan agriculture, Mr Haas noted.
Plants can likewise be modified to increase their Vitamin A content, thereby potentially reducing incidence of blindness in Africa, he added.
Drought resistant crops
Scientists are also engineering drought-resistant crop varieties that could enable Kenya and other countries to avoid food shortages.
Smallholders account for a majority of the 18 million farmers worldwide who use genetically modified plants and animals, Mr Haas observed.
They “truly see their bottom line and their income increase by the use of these products,” he said.
“Countries that choose to use these end up with higher yields, more nutritious food,” while also expending fewer resources, Mr Haas remarked.
The United States, a world leader in the biotechnology industry, is home to multinational corporations eager to fatten earnings through increased GMO exports.
Anti-GMO groups such as the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition argue that smallholders risk loss of “sovereign control of their seeds” as US companies push to enhance their access to African markets.
Kenyan biotech champion
Some Kenyans have championed biotechnology applications in Africa.
Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor who died last year at age 64, was one of Kenya’s most prominent proponents of GMO agriculture.
As an essential step toward broad adoption of biotech farming methods in Africa, the US is offering to help governments establish GMO research, monitoring and regulatory mechanisms.
“In many cases,” Mr Haas said, “the issue is simply the ability to create a regulatory environment that looks at the science behind it and looks at whether these products are safe, both to plant, to grow, to consume.”
“Study after study” by US and European Union regulators “have all almost unanimously determined that these products are safe, and that they’re effective, and that they do what they’re supposed to do,” Mr Haas declared.