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Study assesses costs of forgoing GMO food crops in Africa

By Joan Conrow

Cowpea is an important source of protein in Africa.

A new study has theoretically quantified the costs — in both human lives and dollars — of delaying the introduction of genetically engineered food crops in five African nations.

The study, published July 31 in PLOS One journal, used modeling to calculate how delays in the introduction of three genetically engineered crops — disease-resistant cooking banana (matoke), insect-resistant cow pea and corn (maize) — have impacted Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Benin and Niger.

As researchers Justus Wesseler, Richard D. Smart, Jennifer Thomson and David Zilberman explained:

Unfortunately, the use of GE crops has been very controversial. African governments are in a dilemma as they face contradicting statements from international organizations. While those organizations (e.g. the United Nations) stress the importance of addressing malnutrition and urge countries to use modern biotechnology, they also warn about the environmental risks of using the technologies. Unsurprisingly, governments are uncertain about which is the right strategy to follow.

We have calculated the economic value of this uncertainty, which is substantial and costs lives. Scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders have raised concerns that the approval process for these new crops causes delays that are often scientifically unjustified.

The researchers determined that delays in approving these three crops have resulted in significant economic and human health costs, including malnutrition and stunting:

Kenya and Uganda (and many other African countries) had the chance to follow South Africa’s example of adopting GE crops. If Kenya had adopted GE corn in 2006 … between 440 and 4,000 lives could theoretically have been saved. Similarly, Uganda had the possibility in 2007 to introduce the black sigatoka resistant banana, thereby potentially saving between 500 and 5,500 lives over the past decade.

Though insect-resistant Bt cowpea is scheduled to be made available this year to farmers in Benin, Niger and Nigeria, new concerns are being raised that this goal will not be met due to opposition from anti-biotech activists.

“A one-year delay in approval would especially harm Nigeria, as malnourishment is widespread there,” the study noted. “A one-year delay is estimated to cost Nigeria about 33 million USD to 46 million USD and between 100 and 3,000 lives.”

The study did not assess the environmental and health benefits from reduced pesticide use associated with growing disease- and insect-resistant crops, which the authors characterized as “an important area for future research.”

The researchers further reported:

The effect of alleviating malnutrition by using GE crops can be substantial. In Kenya, the benefits from reduced malnutrition can be larger than the total economic surplus. The benefits from reduced malnutrition can be up to about 1,150 million USD for matoke in Uganda, followed by about 795 million USD for corn in Kenya. The effects are also substantial for cowpea in Nigeria with about 475 million USD, while they are smaller for Benin with about 13 million USD and Nigeria with about five million USD.​

Despite the clear link between agricultural productivity and malnourishment, many countries in Africa are reluctant to approve GE crops. African governments find themselves juxtaposed between the opponents and proponents of the technology. The effect on malnutrition of GE crops and other yield increasing strategies deserve attention, so that their economic and humanitarian effects are not underestimated.

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