ROME (CNS): African farmers should be able to use new biotechnology, including genetically modified organisms, to help lift their continent out of poverty, Vatican officials and agricultural experts said.
Focusing on agricultural development is the key to improving the lives of Africans and their economy, and all tools must be considered to further that goal, according to speakers at a symposium on September 24 in Rome on the topic “For a Green Revolution in Africa”.
The participants agreed that one of those tools could be genetically modified products, the use of which is widespread in the United States but controversial in Africa.
Former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi said under-development and hunger in Africa were due in large part to “outdated and inadequate agricultural methods”.
Therefore, he said, new technologies “that can stimulate and sustain African farmers” must be made available, including “seeds that have been improved by techniques that intervene in their genetic make-up”.
Professor of bioethics at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University Fr Gonzalo Miranda, which sponsored the symposium, said in support of new biotechnology that, “if the data shows that biotechnology can offer great advantages in the development of Africa, it is a moral obligation to permit these countries to do their own experimentation”.
The symposium was held just before the Synod of Bishops for Africa, which was set to begin at the Vatican on October 4. The question of genetically modified foods has been a controversial one in the pre-synod discussions.
The synod’s working paper, released by the Vatican in March, called for a commitment to development in Africa but warned against the belief that genetically modifed products were the answer to the continent’s hunger problem.
It said that using modified crops risked “ruining small landholders, abolishing traditional methods of seeding and making farmers dependent on the production companies” selling their seeds.
But speakers at the Rome symposium spoke in favour of the responsible use of new biotechnology methods and emphasised that genetically modified products made up only a part of those new techniques.
Deputy director of the Plant Production and Protection Division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation Eric Kueneman said “biotechnology is not an evil empire” but was an element of a group of tools that also included traditional farming methods.
With regard to genetically modified foods, he said the FAO allowed each country to decide and provided guidance to countries that wanted to use them.
“It’s not that they are good or bad; their use needs to be evaluated in (a) local context and on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Sylvester Oikeh, a Nigerian who manages an improved corn project for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a non-profit organisation that assists farmers, said Europeans tended not to embrace genetically modified products because they have a surplus of food.
But that is not the case in Africa, he said.
“More than 200 million starving people urgently need appropriate technology for survival,” Oikeh said. “There is no choice.”