* European fear of GMOs eases after decades of safe use
* Change seen having an impact on African GM attitudes
* African trials focussed on new, local GM varieties
* Increase in EU cultivation seen as unlikely
By Charlie Dunmore and Olivia Kumwenda
BRUSSELS/JOHANNESBURG, June 5 African countries keen to improve crop yields, reduce hunger and protect themselves from climate change have begun to reassess their objections to genetically modified crops, after following Europe's lead in largely banning the technology.
While North and South American producers enthusiastically embraced genetically modified crops nearly two decades ago and use is spreading in Asia, many European and African countries have banned it, in part because of public fear of health risks.
For many governments, those health concerns have eased after years in which genetically modified food has been grown and consumed safely around the world.
In a sign of changing attitudes, European authorities had only a muted response last week when U.S. officials said that an unapproved strain of modified Monsanto wheat had been found growing on a farm in Oregon.
Yet public opposition to GM foods still remains intense in some countries, and European officials say the easing of health concerns is unlikely to yield a big change in their policy any time soon. Countries such as Austria and France have blocked proposals to make EU cultivations rules more flexible.
But in Africa, where governments are increasingly searching for ways to feed growing populations, there are signs that restrictions could be gradually lifted.
"There is growing recognition that African countries will need to use a range of modern technologies, including biotechnology, to adapt crops to new ecological conditions," Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor of international development at Harvard University in the United States told Reuters.
Approving GM crops in Africa has so far been slow. Until 2008, South Africa was the only country on the continent that allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops, such as maize, cotton and soybeans.
That year Egypt started growing small quantities of altered maize and Burkina Faso allowed GM cotton. Last year, Sudan also began allowing GM cotton. They are still the only four African countries that allow GM crops to be grown commercially.
South Africa still accounts for the nearly all of the 3 million hectares of GM crop plantings in Africa, dwarfing the 129,000 hectares in largely GM-free Europe but still a tiny fraction of the 170 million hectares of global GM crops.
According to the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, an African Union-run network for regulators, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda have taken the step of approving confined trials of genetically altered plants.
Parliament in Africa's most populous country Nigeria has voted to loosen the country's ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with a bill awaiting presidential approval.
"The bill's quite cautious. The government's concern is that it does not want to make Nigeria a testing ground for GMOs, as has happened in the past with pharmaceuticals," said Kola Masha, who advises the government on agribusiness.
Genetically modified cotton has been a test case, seen as safer than other crops because it does not enter the food chain.
"We don't eat our clothes, so people are less concerned about cotton. This would be the first way in for GMOs," said Masha in Nigeria.
Caroline Theka, an environment officer in Malawi, said that country had approved trials for modified cotton but not for modified food crops.
Elsewhere, trials are focused on crops tailored to local markets and conditions, like insect-resistant black-eyed peas and bananas that contain high levels of vitamin A, which helps physical growth and development.
However some African countries are moving in the opposite direction. Kenya set up a biosafety authority in 2009 which approved a few applications for import of genetically modified crops, mainly humanitarian aid for neighbouring countries.
But last November, citing potential health risks, the government imposed a ban, over the authority's objections.
EUROPE PLANTING STILL FAR OFF
In Europe, the prospects for increased cultivation remain remote, even though health arguments are no longer at the forefront of opposition to GM crops.
"When I speak to people who are very unhappy with the idea of GM technology, they're no longer saying to me 'I think it's dangerous'," the European Commission's chief scientific adviser, Anne Glover, told a seminar in Brussels in April.
Despite national restrictions on growing GM crops, Europe is one of the world's major buyers of biotech grain, importing more than 30 million tonnes of mostly GM animal feed each year.
With no evidence of health effects to seize on, opponents have turned in part to economic and political arguments, saying that GM food puts too much power in the hands of the firms that develop it and control the market for seed.
"Public opposition to GMOs is still alive in Europe. The concerns are clearly focussed on the companies and the role they play in the deployment of GMO products, as well as the lack of benefits," said Greenpeace's EU GMO campaigner Marco Contiero.
Campaigners estimate that 2 million people in 50 countries took part in demonstrations last month against Monsanto.
Monsanto says its products help improve yields and produce more food, while reducing the amount of water, land and energy needed to grow it.
"Monsanto spends more than $4 million a day in research and development to deliver higher yields and improve the sustainability of farming. Intellectual property is an important and completely legitimate means to that end," said spokesman Brandon Mitchener.