Africa is potentially missing out on the poverty- and famine-thwarting benefits of genetically modified organisms because of the influence of anti-GMO crop regulations from Europe, political scientist Robert Paarlberg told the International Association for Plant Biotechnology (IAPB) 12th World Congress in St. Louis.

In Africa, only the Republic of South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt legally allow planting GMO crops, Paarlberg said.

“In most of Africa it’s not even legal to conduct research on genetically engineered plants,” he told the Congress, attended by some 800 scientists, science policy leaders and others from more than 50 countries around the world.

The issue is important because of the propensity for drought to cause famine and starvation across the region. Genetically engineered crops can resist drought and reduce the risk of food shortages. But most of Africa has rejected GMO plants because it follows European regulatory models, said Paarlberg, Ph.D., professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa.”

“In Africa, political resistance to GMO food and plant crops remains particularly strong. Even Sudan took time out from its genocidal war to demand that the World Food Bank keep genetically engineered foods out of its shipments,” he said.

He cited several reasons: strong European financial aid (three times greater than U.S. aid), influence of European technical assistance, nongovernmental agency advocacy campaigns that use scare tactics against GMOs, fear of loss of African commodity exports to Europe; and Africans’ belief that Europe is more educated and knowledgeable than Africa.

“This is a political factor, unfortunately,” Paarlberg said. “It’s a larger challenge than the scientific challenge facing the technology today.”

One solution is for African scientists to speak out in favor of the adoption of genetically engineered crops. Their opinions will have greater impact because they are homegrown rather than those from foreign experts whose motives could be considered suspect by African officials.

“Unfortunately, because the ties between Europe and Africa are so close, we will see transgenic crops moving to China and Asia before Africa,” he said. “But if restrictions on these technologies loosen in Europe, it will only be a short time until they loosen in Africa.”

Paarlberg’s presentation was one of 60 major presentations by invited speakers and more than 200 short talks. Presenters discussed biotechnology in terms of agriculture challenges as a result of climate change and global population growth. More information is available online at www.iapb2010.org.