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AGRICULTURE REPORT - West African Leaders Discuss Genetically Engineered Crops - 2004-06-28

Broadcast: June 29, 2004

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

For three days last week, West African leaders and government ministers met in Burkina Faso to discuss agricultural technology. Members of the Economic Community of West African States came to Ouagadougou, the capital, to discuss several issues. But the main subject was genetically engineered crops.

Some leaders said they support the idea in general. They want proof that such crops are safe for people and the environment.

The president of Mali, Amadou Toumani, told the conference that progress requires new technology. But he said the leaders must be careful, because they also have a duty to their people to keep food safe.

The government of Burkina Faso and the American State Department organized the Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology. Burkina Faso is one of the poorest nations in West Africa.

Last year, it also became the first West African nation to begin testing genetically engineered crops. The American company Monsanto planted cotton designed to protect against insects. Cotton is Burkina Faso's main export crop.

The president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, expressed interest in the possibilities of genetically engineered crops. But he said he wants Africans to have the finances and training needed to use such products.

President Tandja said he hopes that Niger can restart its cotton industry with genetically engineered cotton. He said his country may cooperate with Burkina Faso.

The president of Ghana, John Kufuor, said Africa is losing its fertile land because of traditional farming methods and overproduction. He too expressed support for biotechnology.

The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, said testing such crops is like testing new medicines. Mister Compaore said safety is always a concern. But he says it is important for Africa to use new technology that meets the needs of its people.

Some non-governmental organizations, however, say genetically engineered crops are not the answer to food shortages in Africa. They say transportation and water projects would be more useful.

They also say that such crops could force African farmers to depend on big companies for seed. Some groups are even calling for a five-year ban on genetically engineered crops in Africa.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by Mario Ritter. This is Steve Ember.