HARARE A scorching drought in Southern Africa that led to widespread crop failure could nudge African nations to finally embrace genetically modified (GM) crops to improve harvests and reduce grain imports.
The drought, which extends to South Africa, the continent's biggest maize producer, has been exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern and follows dry spells last year that affected countries from Zimbabwe to Malawi.
Aid agency Oxfam has said 10 million people, mostly in Africa, face hunger because of droughts and poor rains.
That has brought GM crops to the fore, especially maize, a staple crop grown and consumed in most sub-Saharan countries.
Many African countries have banned GM crops, arguing that they will cross contaminate other plants, pollute the environment and could have long-term health effects for humans.
Zimbabwe, for instance, says although GM crops may initially be resistant to pests, the resistance could breakdown over time.
GMO advocates, however, say the fears are not scientifically proven, adding that poor African farmers are likely to benefit most from reduced use of pesticides, lower production costs, higher yields and high prices for crops.
The African drought's impact is particularly serious for Zimbabwe, where the economy has struggled for five years to recover from a catastrophic recession marked by billion percent hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.
Zimbabwe does not accept GM maize imports, and when it has accepted emergency GM maize aid, it has been milled under security watch.
"GM crops are one of the alternative solutions for reducing hunger on the continent among many others which include good agronomic practices," Jonathan Mufandaedza, chief executive at National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, a government agency, told Reuters.
The United States, Brazil and India are the world's largest growers of GM crops while in Africa, South Africa is the only country producing GM maize on a commercial scale.
Sixteen percent of Zimbabwe's population require food aid this year. The government plans to import up to 700,000 tonnes of maize and with its usual sources of maize like Zambia and Tanzania facing lower harvests this year, Zimbabwe could end up receiving GM maize after all.
This year, South Africa, which produces more than 40 percent of Southern African maize may need to import up to 5 million tonnes of maize due to drought, the country's largest producer group, Grain SA said this week.
Perceptions are shifting, with Burkina Faso in West Africa, and lately Sudan having started to grow GM cotton commercially, Getachew Belay, an African expert on GM crops told Reuters.
"Historically, Africa has been a laggard to accept new agricultural technologies. For GM crops, much of the problem lies in the perception, exaggerated fear and conflicting messages sent to policy making," said Belay.
GM POLICY FLIP-FLOPS
In 2002, Zambia experienced a severe drought that left millions in need of food aid but it rejected GM maize offered by donors, citing inadequate scientific information.
But last month, Zambia's Higher Education Minister Michael Kaingu told parliament his country was embracing GM crops.
"We recognize that modern biotechnology has advanced worldwide and, as a nation, we cannot afford to ignore the benefits of this technology. We are alert and prepared to deal with possible adverse risks," said Kaingu.
It is a growing trend on the continent and Belay said Ethiopia had amended its biosafety laws to allow tests on GM cotton, thanks to pressure from the textile industry that is advocating for the production of cheaper cotton in that country.
Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria and Ghana have all been carrying out trials on different GM crops, he said.
Agrichemicals groups such as Monsanto , the world's largest seed company, and Syngenta are well placed to benefit from increased use of GMOs in Africa. Monsanto conducted trials of GM maize and cotton in some African countries, including Zimbabwe between 2001 and 2005.
But the transition from tests to commercial growing has been slow, a reminder of the die hard attitudes towards GM crops.
Belay said a major factor that could influence Africa to start growing GM maize was whether China would grow GM rice, which it has developed but not released for production.
"The real issue seems to me is lack of capacity, both physical and human, to enforce regulation, thus attitude is changing from 'rejection' to a kind of 'wait until we have capacity to regulate!'," said Belay.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mfula in Lusaka and Nqobile Dludla and Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg; Editing by James Macharia and Toby Chopra)