* 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