- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 12 (UPI) — A coalition of private institutions and corporations called Wednesday for a second Green Revolution to address the crippling problem of hunger in Africa.

Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway, speaking at a forum on African hunger, said his organization is creating the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, an endeavor that will be Africa-based, African-led and African-directed. The public-private partnership will allow agricultural technology to revolutionize farming across the continent, he said.

Conway cited the Green Revolution, the first major thrust to overhaul agriculture in developing nations, as a cautionary model because it increased food production but nevertheless failed to solve world hunger. Begun in the 1960s, it offered farmers crop varieties that allowed significant increases in crop yield.

Mexico, India and the Philippines benefited from the new seeds, Conway explained but "the Green Revolution passed Africa by, focusing on wheat and rice" while African staples included sorghum, cassava and millet. Also, the seeds and fertilizers necessary to grow the higher-yield crops were expensive. Only farmers who were relatively well off could afford the novel products.

Now, through an initiative to make intellectual property developed by universities available for humanitarian purposes and the AATF, Conway said, new technologies could be developed on a country-specific basis to improve yields and nutritional values of staple crops in Africa.

If successful, the effort would come not a moment too soon. "By 2015, Africa will have 73 percent of the world's hungry," Conway said.

The reasons for this trend are many and complex, he continued. Infrastructure and crop-unfriendly soils are two examples. Only 20 percent of roads in Africa are paved, making transportation of food difficult. Also, Africa has some of the oldest and most depleted soils in the world. Moreover, during the first agricultural revolution, "we essentially gave up on Africa," he said.

Although factors such as drought, infrastructure and political corruption contribute to hunger on the continent, poor food production is a major problem that can be addressed with partnerships among African scientists, policy makers and biotechnology companies, Conway said.

"Africa is predominantly a rural continent," Conway noted, adding, "The health of agriculture determines the health of nations in Africa. Without an increase in agricultural income, we won't get an increase in non-farm income."

Conway said the foundation's initiatives have built upon the first Green Revolution's successes as well as failures. For the AATF and intellectual property initiative to work, Conway described four "sub-revolutions" that would have to underlie the "doubly Green Revolution" — dubbed "doubly" because not only would it help small farmers but also would be environmentally sound.

— The first sub-revolution would involve farmers in the design of new crop varieties.

— The second would improve resource management to combine organic with inorganic fertilizers effectively.

— The third would make African products more competitive in global markets.

— The fourth would implement the new biotechnologies.

Although many African farmers are weary of genetic engineering, Conway said — some fear misuse or dependence on multinational companies — part of the fourth sub-revolution would involve building a strong scientific community in the developing countries to create domestic regulations and educate scientists and policy makers on the issues so they can make informed decisions.

"I hope this foundation can be a catalyst for the next revolution in Africa," Conway said. Discussions already have begun with major biotechnology companies such as Monsanto, in St. Louis, and DuPont, in Wilmington, Del.

"The needs of Africa are so great," said Jill Montgomery, director of technology cooperation at Monsanto. This is an opportunity for multiple companies to pool their resources to help out, she said, adding the initiative should permit a sea change in the rate that small farmers in underdeveloped lands acquire new technology.

"There won't be a lot of financial incentives — it's good will," Montgomery noted. "We'll probably go without royalties."

Nevertheless, this is an important initiative, said Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute who has done development and poverty work in Latin and Central America.

"Technology is not a silver bullet … but anything that can promote the accumulation of scientific knowledge for Africa will help. The issues (in Africa) go way beyond technology," Diaz-Bonilla said. "It has to be done the right way" and people seem to be more cautious now about how to bring change to developing countries.

Some concerns were raised about monopolies and possible harmful effects of genetically modified crops.

"The difficulty is to have an open appetite on the part of investors to ensure adequate returns and not excessive returns, to ensure there is no monopolistic trend," said John Knubel, senior fellow at Virginia Polytechnic Institute's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy in Alexandria.

Eugene Terry, implementing director of AATF, responded there is enough competition to prevent monopolies.

Some environmental groups worry about the ecological and health effects of genetic engineering.

"There is concern about the health effects of GE crops but the funding is not there," said Bill Freese, research analyst with Friends of the Earth. Safer alternative agricultural methods exist and they can be as effective, but they tend to be ignored because new technology was not used to develop them, he added.

Beyond these concerns, "the initiative is not getting to the core of the problem in Africa," said John Kilama, president and CEO of the Global Biodiversity Institute, a non-profit organization in Wilmington, Del., that trains African professionals to facilitate economic development.

"All these initiatives, even though they have good intentions, are not going to be very successful," Kilama said.

Kilama explained that although he did not want to be critical, he thinks only changes within governments will help the poor in Africa. Instead of focusing funds on agriculture, he said they should go toward leadership programs to empower African people with the ability to turn their countries around.

"I wish people would focus seriously on how to change governments in Africa," said Kilama, who is originally from Uganda.

"I'm a strong proponent of biotechnology," the former DuPont employee said, "but other things need to be done that are more critical than giving seeds to farmers. If you've ever been to Africa, you've seen a lot of stands to sell but not a lot of buyers. If people know they can make money from agriculture, they will grow food."

To upgrade the standard of living in Africa, the concentration needs to be on internal government change, not technology, Kilama said. "Everything else is temporary relief."

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