Will Africa cotton to bioengineering?

By G. Pascal Zachary, Fortune

(Fortune Magazine) -- Lorence Nyaka hacks at the root of a cassava plant, slicing away one fresh tuber after another until he has a small pile, enough to make a midday meal for his wife and three young children.

Drought ruined the Malawian farmer's crop in 2005, and his family went hungry for weeks before the end of the dry season. This time the cassava are plentiful, but because the tubers spoil quickly after harvest, Nyaka leaves them in the ground, running a risk that disease will destroy his crop. Each Wednesday afternoon he holds a prayer service with his neighbors in which, he says, they "ask God to protect our cassava."

Halfway around the world, at Ohio State University, scientists think they have found a better way to protect African cassava from the malignant forces of nature: insert genetic traits into the cassava plant that will allow the tuber to flourish during drought and to resist disease.

The new and improved cassava remains in the lab and is years from production. Field trials, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are expected to begin later this year in Nigeria. Those trials - and similar ones for drought-tolerant corn developed by Monsanto of St. Louis - are critical to paving the way for genetically modified crops to at long last assist African farmers, the least productive and poorest in the world on average.

"The question is no longer whether genetically modified crops will come to Africa, but when and how," says Wisdom Changadeya, who heads a biotech advocacy group in Malawi. Changadeya lives fewer than 30 miles from Nyaka's farm and knows well both the worries and the needs of Malawians. "Local farmers aren't interested in abstract debates," he says. "They will use seeds that address a specific problem, and anything that helps them cope with droughts will be welcomed."

Genetically modified crops have been blocked in Africa for the past decade, the victim of well-organized European opponents who have convinced African governments that they pose an environmental hazard and are a new form of Western colonialism. South Africa is alone among sub-Saharan countries in allowing bioengineered crops. But in the rest of Africa the tide is turning. Burkina Faso, a major cotton producer, may begin switching to genetically modified seeds this year. In November the African Union released a report trumpeting the virtues of biotechnology. "There's a new openness to genetically modified crops in Africa, but that doesn't mean we accept everything on offer," says Theresa Sengooba, a plant scientist in Uganda. "We have to always ask, 'Where are the benefits?'"

Genetically modified cotton offers the most immediate benefit for African farmers, who collectively export more cotton onto global markets than anyone besides American farmers. In Burkina Faso, where the country's cotton sector is heavily regulated, farmers are likely to switch en masse, hoping to reap higher profits because of greater yields and lower use of pesticides.

Africa's move into genetically modified cotton will be a vindication for Monsanto, which has been selling bioengineered cotton, corn, and soybeans in South Africa since the mid-1990s. "In the rest of Africa, progress has been slow, but it is happening," says Kinyua M'Mbijjewe, Monsanto's government affairs chief for Africa. The company is negotiating with Burkina Faso on royalty terms for its cotton seeds, which must be localized to suit the various climates and geographies of sub-Saharan Africa. M'Mbijjewe won't comment on the talks, but whatever deal is struck will have long-term ramifications. "A few countries will lead," he says, "and then the market will explode."

Analysts agree, citing the experience of India, where cotton growers are switching quickly to genetically modified seeds and posting large gains in output and profits, according to Sam Mohanty, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. Mohanty predicts that unless Africa - where millions of farmers grow cotton for cash - switches to bioengineered crops, "the region will have difficulty remaining in the business."  Top of page