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Improved Seeds for Africa, Blessing or Curse?

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- Piero Morandini and Ingo Potrykus. Zenit,  Oct. 14, 2009 

There is fear among the media, the public, as well as bishops, that new seed varieties will make African farmers economically dependent on seed companies. This possibility is applicable not only to seeds, but also to many products of biotechnology, as well as of several other technologies.

Most products nowadays are "black boxes." People have little understanding of what happens inside (think of cell phones, TV, engines, etc.) and have therefore little or no control to repair or alter them in any way. For older technologies it is easier, think for instance of a bicycle, because you see all the details and understand the function of each part; you can see the pedals and the wheel, see the chain connecting the two, you could disassemble the brake and the tires and remount them back again.

In one word, you have more control and understanding over this technology, although one must admit you could not create it by yourself. Things such as computers and seeds are much more complicated to understand, and as a result we are less able to either create them, or even repair them ourselves. This increased dependency may not be welcome, but it is quite irreversible and pervasive.

It should not be considered bad in itself, as it allows us to benefit from many technologies, even though we have less control over them. It is thus unjust to express concerns about dependency only with regard to seeds, and specifically to seeds produced through the methods of modern biotechnology (usually called genetically modified or GM seeds).

The sterility question
One of the myths circulating for more than a decade on these seeds reappeared recently in ZENIT in an article by Robert Moynihan.[1] The myth is that seeds of crops produced through modern biotechnology are sterile. This is simply not true.

First, all breeding methods create and use genetic variability to obtain crops with improved characteristics (e.g. resistance to pathogens or pests, better yield, resistance to adverse conditions, such as drought or floods, or tolerant to herbicides) and therefore all crop varieties are significantly genetically modified. New varieties improved by modern biotechnology are thus better described as genetically engineered (GE) crops, because the genetic modification is more precise and predictable than the modifications made in the past.

Second and most importantly, no GE crop on sale to date has been made sterile to prevent farmers from reusing the seeds.

Third, most crops, especially in more developed countries, are grown from commercial seeds. Farmers buy seeds for several simple reasons. In some cases the biology itself dictates the choice: many crops (maize, sugar beet, rice, sunflowers, and most vegetables) are typically or often, depending on the species, grown as F1 hybrids. What that means is that the seeds used for planting are the outcome of a cross between two parents that are similar (usually different varieties, but same species), but distinct for several characters (height or yield, for instance).[2]

The outcome of the cross is usually a vigorous plant, often much more vigorous than both parents, and yields are thus greatly increased.

The strongest example is maize, where yield can increase two to threefold compared to the non-hybrid parents. Unfortunately the vigor of the hybrid diminishes rapidly in subsequent generations.

In summary, the data overwhelmingly show that GE plants offer great benefits. They do it today all over the world, and they do it particularly well for millions of farmers in developing countries. In fact, the great majority of farmers using GE crops (90% of about 13 million) are poor farmers from developing countries, some of them in African nations such as Burkina Faso and South Africa.[4]

This is something that people should think twice before spreading falsehood to African people regarding their options for agricultural development. Unconvinced readers are suggested to read Robert Paarlberg's book "Starved for Science."[5]

Given all of the above, we strongly believe that it is not only "a moral obligation to permit these countries to do their own experimentation," as said Father Gonzalo Miranda, a professor of bioethics at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university, but also to provide them with the tools (education) to do it.

Also, it is an unnecessary luxury, and therefore a sin on the part of Western countries, to demand complete safety from a technology when a partly stagnant African agriculture means death and undernourishment for many. Safety for Africa begins with growing more food. Now.