Use of genetically modified crops in Africa, where yields lag far behind the rest of the world, is a decision best left to individual nations, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said.
Annan, in an interview, said high prices and safety concerns stand in the way of the adoption of genetically modified crops in Africa, which is the only continent yet to attain food self sufficiency.
"What is important is that these governments develop the (expertise) that is necessary to determine whether [genetic modification] poses problems for health," Annan said on the sidelines of the World Food Prize Conference in Iowa. "The decision of whether they use [genetic modification] or conventional methods is up to the government."
Annan noted that some countries, including Zambia and Zimbabwe, refused aid shipments of genetically modified crops last decade despite an ongoing famine. Farmers are concerned, he said, that if genetically modified grains contaminate supplies, they would lose Europe as a potential export market.
Large seed companies such as Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont Co., are making a push to increase their presence in Africa.
Annan, now chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, said a lot of potential exists in boosting yields through conventional breeding. He added that small, independent seed companies are key to improving farmer yields. The alliance focuses on increasing crop yields and food self-sufficiency in Africa.
"The large seed companies are not very big players" in Africa, he said. "First of all, the African farmers cannot afford their seeds."
Annan said the recent run up in agricultural commodity prices will have an impact on African populations, given many people there already spend 70% to 80% of their salaries on food. Corn and wheat prices at the Chicago Board of Trade have soared in recent months on supply concerns in the U.S. and places such as Russia and Pakistan.
"If this continues, I think you'll see some more social unrest," Annan said.
He said the use of food crops for ethanol remains a concern. Annan has "no problem" with Brazil's use of sugar cane for ethanol, but questioned government subsidies for corn-based ethanol, which he said pushes food prices higher.
"Some people say it has no impact," he said. "I'm not convinced."
Little action has been taken to guard against supply shortages since record-high food prices caused food riots in some parts of the world in 2008, Annan said. And while the establishment of a global grain reserve is a good way to safeguard against a supply crisis, it would be "extremely difficult" to get governments to agree on the structure and management of such a system.
"We missed an opportunity to exploit the (last food) crisis, just as we've done with the financial crisis," he said.
DowJones News Wire