By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
July 13, 2005
Joel Cohen, a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said many African countries are conducting aggressive research into using biotechnology to develop disease and insect-resistant plants, but the seeds they are developing aren't reaching farmers because government regulatory institutions in those countries aren't familiar with how biotechnology works.
"The resistance is not with the farmers," said Cohen, who looked at biotech research in Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. "Farmers have been adopting this technology rapidly."
Cohen said researchers in Africa are studying how to genetically modify 20 different crops, including maize, sugar cane and bananas. Approval of genetically modified cotton plants has taken Africa 10 years, even though the same insect-resistant cotton already is grown in Argentina, China, India and Mexico.
Idah Sithole-Niang, a biochemist at the University of Zimbabwe, said the major and unanticipated bottleneck is that regulatory agencies in African countries aren't familiar with the technology and getting the new seeds approved for use is taking too much time. "The difficulty is moving from the laboratory to the farmer's field," she said.
The researchers released a report on their findings Wednesday and urged more funds to bolster the expertise of African regulatory agencies. International agencies contend genetic modification is one method of making Africa more self-sufficient in producing food by reducing crop losses due to disease and insect infestation.
Genetic modification also provides other benefits to farmers, who don't have to rely on costly pesticides and agro-chemicals for their crops, and can grow drought-resistant crops. One goal of grant programs to Africa is to increase food production. Economists predict a 10 percent increase in African agricultural productivity would result in a 7.2 percent reduction in the continent's poverty rates.
Although genetic modification of plants has sparked a controversy over the last decade, the researchers noted that more than 1 billion acres of crops from genetically modified seeds were planted this year. Nearly all the crops are grown in developed countries like the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, and China
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