Nature 456, 421-422 (27 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456421b; Published online 26 November 2008

A fruitless campaign


Another protracted fight over genetically modified crops in Africa will be costly and wasteful.

The global food crisis that came to the fore last spring may have been overshadowed by the global financial crisis that erupted this autumn, but it has certainly not been solved. That is one reason why many governments and philanthropic foundations are now looking to agricultural biotechnology to improve future food production. Despite the virulent opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops in some quarters, many believe that progress in areas such as drought-tolerant or nutritionally fortified plants could make a big difference in many of the poorest countries.

Indeed, environmentalists, policy-makers, scientists and industry representatives have been meeting both formally and informally over the past few years — first to establish a degree of common ground, and then to approach the trickier business of bridging some of their differences on the role of GM technology in agriculture.

A prime example is the work of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology, which was charged with charting a way forward in what have become known as Africa's GM wars. For well over a decade, companies such as Monsanto have sought to create African markets for GM crops such as insect-resistant Bt cotton, while against them have stood European environmental groups and not a few African political leaders, for whom multinational businesses evoke the spectre of colonialism. The two sides have waged a war in parliaments, in the media and even on the streets.

Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture.

Fed up, the African Union eventually brought together a group of key individuals and institutions who might otherwise be talking to each other through a megaphone. The group included Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, who is a leading environmental campaigner and a vocal critic of multinationals in developing countries. Sat next to him was Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University and a passionate proponent of technology's role in economic development. And next to him was Cheick Modibo Diarra, chairman of Microsoft in Africa.

The group eventually came to a consensus that Africa's nations cannot afford to do without new technologies in agriculture — but that all new technologies would need appropriate safeguards to protect human health and the environment. This seemingly obvious statement was, in fact, a rare example of successful collaboration between multinationals and environmentalists.

The fragility of that consensus is illustrated by the fate of a much larger initiative, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. That effort attempted to forge a similar consensus among the major players in world agriculture, but fell apart in January when industry representatives chose to walk away from the table (see Nature 451, 223–224; 2008). They felt unable to sign a document that did not list biotechnology as a high enough priority.

From the other side, meanwhile, GM opponents are trying to rekindle the controversy. A new opposition campaign — http://www.bangmfood.org — was endorsed in the November issue of The Ecologist magazine, an influential voice in the global environmental movement.

In that context, the magnitude of the African Union panel's achievement is clear — as are the challenges it still faces. Its report, Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa's Development, has not yet officially seen the light of day, even though it was published more than a year ago. Ordinarily, a document from the African Union would be expected to be harsh in its criticism of multinational industry. As this report is more measured, senior officials in the African Union's Commission based in Addis Ababa are nervous about releasing it.

Happily, the report is in wide circulation and freely available on the Internet (http://www.nepadst.org/doclibrary/pdfs/biotech_africarep_2007.pdf). But the African Union should have the courage of its convictions and give the report its formal endorsement. Indeed, it should use it as a model for ongoing attempts to address the food crisis. Both the successful negotiations of the African Union panel and the failure of the international assessment show that there is no alternative to a grown-up discussion with all parties in the same room.