Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Thursday, 14 July 2005 16:45 UK

Africa 'losing out in GM divide'

By Ishbel Matheson
BBC News, Nairobi

Researchers say GM crops have the potential to combat hunger

A genetic divide could be opening up between nations adopting GM crops to produce higher yields and those, mainly in the developing world, that are not.

The warning has come from the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

The groups says genetically-modified crops have the potential to increase food security across the world.

But it has found that so far, only a few African countries are investigating the technology's possibilities.

Although GM crops are widely grown in North America and parts of South America, the technology remains controversial.

In Europe in particular, campaigners have questioned the risk to human health and the environmental impact of these new crops.

Poorly-funded research

But scientists say GM has great potential for the developing world.

Higher yields, less reliance on harmful pesticides and new drought-resistant plants could help African countries to combat hunger.

"They're very successful in confronting the diseases and pests that they've been designed for," said Dr Joel Cohen, an IFPRI researcher.

Dr Cohen said banana plantations could be saved from potential extinction by creating plants with built-in resistance to the black sigatoka pest. "But without these new genetically-modified bananas, that just will never be possible," he added.

In sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa has approved the commercial use of GM crops. Farmers there are growing maize, cotton and soya beans.

Zimbabwe and Kenya are trialling the safety and feasibility of staple foodstuffs such as sweet potatoes and sorghum.

But scientific research institutes in Africa tend to be poorly-funded and governments have been slow to put in place the legal frameworks for licensing these controversial crops.

Other developing countries are further down the road.

Dr Cohen says China has worked hard to put in place a strong regulatory system. It is now poised to start widespread cultivation of GM crops, notably insect-resistant rice.

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