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In a strongly worded editorial in Science magazine this week, Calestous Juma, the director of the Agricultural Innovation in Africa program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, called for a government-led initiative to introduce biotechnology into Africa. “Major international agencies such as the United Nations have persistently opposed expanding biotechnology to regions most in need of its societal and economic benefits,” he wrote.

Genetic modification has had a huge impact on agriculture worldwide. More than 15 million farmers now plant GM crops on almost 370 million acres, boosting yields by 10% to 25%. Despite opponents’ fears that the technology would poison people, spread superweeds and entrench corporate monopolies, it’s now clear that the new crops have reduced not only hunger but pesticide use, carbon emissions, collateral damage to biodiversity and rain-forest destruction.

Yet, while much of North and South America, Australia and Asia are expanding the use of GM crops, only three African countries have adopted them (a further four are conducting trials). Mr. Juma argues that Africa is the place that most needs a boost from biotech: Many of the continent’s farmers cannot afford to buy pesticides, so corn and cotton that are genetically insect-resistant could make a big difference there. Over the past five decades, while Asian yields have quadrupled, African yields have barely budged.

Yet political squeamishness abounds. In an article this week for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), John Kufuor, the former president of Ghana, argued that “Africa’s agriculture has been cut off from the scientific advances which have transformed yields in many other parts of the globe”-but he did not mention GM crops. AGRA, whose chairman is former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says that the group “does not fund the development of GM crops.”

Africa grows a diverse range of crops as staple foods: not just corn, rice and wheat but cassava, yams, black-eyed peas and bananas. Genetic modification has so far focused mainly on the big commercial crops. Ironically, this is because of immensely complex biosafety regulations demanded by environmental pressure groups in the West, which don’t apply to crop varieties produced by other means, including mutation by irradiation.

Only big firms can afford this ordeal by red tape, and only for big crops. The pioneering Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus, who has watched his not-for-profit invention of vitamin-enhanced “golden rice” tied up for 13 years by regulatory procrastination, is no longer in the mood to mince words. He recently wrote that he holds “the regulation of genetic engineering responsible for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.”

Biotechnology’s potential in Africa is illustrated by the case of the black-eyed pea, a crop that is attacked by an insect called the Maruca pod borer, which causes $300 million in annual losses to small-scale farmers there and can be controlled only with expensive pesticides that many cannot afford. A university in Nigeria has developed an insect-resistant GM black-eyed pea, but Nigeria does not allow the commercial use of GM crops.

In Uganda, where people often eat three times their body weight in bananas a year, a GM banana that is resistant to a bacterial wilt disease, which causes $500 million in annual losses and cannot be treated with pesticides, is being tested behind high security fences. The fences are there not to keep out anti-GM protesters, as in the West, but to keep out local farmers keen to grow the new crop.

“By creating institutions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity that seek to smother biotechnology at birth,” Calestous Juma tells me, “sections of the U.N. are no more than the Pontius Pilate of innovation.”

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist