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Farm Subsidies Can Threaten Biotechnology In African Countries

There is growing consensus that modern biotechnology holds the key to sustainable development. This is, especially, in the light of the fact that the world's population is fast growing without corresponding land expansion. Modern biotechnology is considered cost effective and therefore very applicable to poor resource farming. Scientific evidence exist that associate genetically modified crops with high yields. This explains why Sub-Saharan Africa, long ravaged by drought and famine is being encouraged to embrace modern biotechnology.

Modern biotechnology is already dominant in the US, Canada, Spain, Mexico, China, Argentina, and Brazil. These countries not only produce enough for their domestic consumption but also for export. Perhaps, this is the most significant aspect of GM cultivation. For without ready market surplus yields would go to waste. I raise this issue because the current trade imbalance threatens to imperil North-South technology transfer. This is especially critical in Africa, which for many years has been struggling to penetrate oversees markets with little success.

Let me illustrate this point. Currently, the US and Europe are involved in a bitter trade war with four West African countries - Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad and Mali, over subsidies they offer their cotton farmers. The four West African countries, popularly known as C4 attribute low cotton prices, which are seriously strangling their farmers, on these subsidies. Subsidies are meant to ensure that farmers always get value for their farm investments. They don't have to worry about price fluctuations for they are guaranteed of compensation by their governments.

The current arrangement where the US and Europe heavily subsidize their cotton farmers heavily disadvantages their counterparts poor countries whose governments cannot afford subsidies! Their cotton ends up fetching little money, effectively making its farming unsustainable. The once white gold of West Africa is about to turn to dust. This is unacceptable for it means bankrupting the economies of these already poor countries. Twelve out of the 15 Economic Commission for West African States (Ecowas) states are considered least developed. Don't rich countries feel that they have a contribution to make to extricate these countries from the yokes of poverty?

In Benin and Burkina Faso, cotton accounts for about 40 per cent of merchandise export earnings, while in Mali and Chad it accounts for 30 per cent. Cotton, is, therefore the back bone of the economies of these countries.

It is instructive to note that direct losses to West Africa as a result of US and EU subsidies are estimated at $250 million per annum. The US, alone, in the 2001-2002 season subsidized its cotton farmers to the tune of $2.3 billion. The economic damage wrought on these countries by subsidies is unfathomable. Action is urgently needed and the US and Europe must come to their rescue.

These West African countries have now petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) to correct this trade imbalance. Sadly, the US and Europe are busy digging their heels to frustrate them. Their action is ill-advised and in bad faith.

During the September 2003 WTO Cancun ministerial conference, the US government proposed that the West African countries diversify from cotton growing. Why should these countries diversify from cotton farming? This defeats the very spirit of modern biotechnology which, among other benefits, guarantee farmers high yields.

As one of the strategy to help cotton farmers improve their cotton farming, the US, through the powerful International Cotton Advisory Committee and United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) is offering to share biotechnology breakthroughs with them. This transfer of technology, as a matter of fact, will lead to high yields. Where are they expected to take their surplus cotton if the global market for this product remains tilted in favor of the US and Europe?

There is general goodwill on the part of African countries to embrace modern biotechnology. Some West African countries, notably Mali and Burkina Faso, are already experimenting on Bacillus thurigiensis (Bt) Cotton in the hope of improving their cotton farming. The best way for the US and Europe to encourage poor countries to embrace modern biotechnology is to guarantee them ready market for their farm produce. Removing farm subsidies is the first step towards achieving this goal.

Submitted by:

James Wachai

James Wachai is a communication specialist who uses his expertise to increase public understanding of science and technology, specifically biotechnology. Read more from James at http://www.gmoafrica.org.




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