Summit on Sustainable Development
Department of Public Information - News and Media Services Division - New York
26 August-4 September 2002
30 August 2002
PRESS CONFERENCE BY ECONOMIC COMMISSION FOR AFRICA
African countries must exploit a range of options to ensure that future biotechnology initiatives reached their full potential for alleviating poverty, combating disease and ensuring food security, an official of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) said at a press conference this afternoon.
Patrick Asea, Director of the ECA's Economic and Social Division, said those options included promoting African-focused biotechnology research that emphasized "orphan crops", particularly cassava, millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes and yams, as well as cereals like maize, rice and wheat.
Speaking as the ECA released a report on how emerging technologies could help Africa reduce food insecurity and allow more flexible crop management systems, he said the experience of countries that had deployed genetically modified crops showed that success depended on the extent to which they had pursued such options.
The experiences of South Africa with maize and cotton, Kenya with the sweet potato and Egypt with maize, fava beans and cotton are cited in the report, which was released by K. Y. Amoako, Executive Secretary of the ECA.
A journalist asked whether biotechnology could mark the start of a new era for Africa, given that the market for it had vanished as rapidly as it had grown in North America and Europe. Did traditional African crops not have greater nutritional potential than genetically modified ones?
Mr. Asea conceded that current biotechnological research had not focused on traditional African crops like such as cassava, millet and sorghum, but pointed out that genetically modified crops also had significant nutritional qualities. They were also more resistant to drought.
Asked whether the Government of Zambia had done the right thing in rejecting a shipment of genetically modified relief food, he said that individual countries bore the responsibility for their own food standards. The miniscule risk of harm from genetically modified foods should be weighed against the fact that 14 million people in southern Africa were facing famine, he added.
Another journalist asked why the report contended that the "green revolution" was a powerful tool for poverty reduction, while it had been proven that the revolution had caused a decline in production and increased poverty. Mr. Asea replied that the report argued in favour of an eventual balance between traditional and genetically moddified crops. Agreeing with the correspondent that traditional crops were important for food security, he said the ECA advocated research that would make them much hardier.
Asked whether African countries had the capacity to assess the new biotechnologies and how many of them had ratified the Convention on Biosafety, he said that Kenya, South Africa and Egypt all had excellent facilities. Furthermore, it was not necessary for each country to assess the biotechnologies. He added that 24 African countries had signed the Convention.
Did the report take into account that governments were not involved in funding the research and that Western corporations provided the funding? Mr. Asea said the ECA advocated strategic partnerships that would result in mutual benefits, including the focusing of attention on the African "orphan" crops.
Asked how the ECA could advocate what the rest of the world has rejected, particularly in light of one corporation's role in contaminating Canada's soy bean crop and subverting the contract rights of small farmers, he replied that there was a potential for biotechnology if used effectively in a consistent and balanced framework.
Mr. Amoako added that the greater risk for Africa was to allow the biotechnology revolution to pass the region by without entering the debate. Africa could not afford to sit on the sidelines, he stressed.