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Africa Should Not Ignore the Potential of GM Crops









In the unlikely event that I had forgotten just how controversial and polarising genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are, the past few days would have provided a very sharp reminder.

Last week, our organisation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), released a 204-page report (pdf) into the state of Africa’s agriculture. It covered, in detail, the wide range of obstacles and challenges facing African countries as they seek to transform their agricultural productivity, as well as considering what opportunities there are to deliver this ambition.

Perhaps inevitably, however, our mention of GMOs dominated coverage of the report. We saw headlines such as “Agra helping agribusiness conquer African agriculture”, and accusations that our organisation was promoting “genetically modified colonialism”.

With hindsight, we should not have been surprised by this reaction. After all, our report noted how the controversial and complex nature of GMOs can make it incredibly difficult to hold a reasoned debate.

It is why companies, organisations and scientists tend, when they can, to steer clear of voicing their opinions on the subject. All fear their position will be exaggerated.

I also have to acknowledge that the words used by the author of that specific chapter were open to misrepresentation, a mistake we must accept.

What they don’t do, however, is herald any change in Agra’s long-established position on GMOs – a position which, I believe, reflects the cautious and balanced approach needed when considering any new technology.

GMOs are currently grown in only three countries – South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. The slow adoption of this technology stems from various factors, not least a cautious approach that recognises all technologies come with risks as well as benefits.

These risks must not be overlooked, particularly as many African countries are still putting in place biosafety regulations – both on paper and in practice. It is no surprise that a number of African governments feel they still lack the capacity to manage GM technology adequately.

Equally important are the controls that many countries outside our continent have placed on GM crops. These controls have an impact on Africa’s current trade and could undermine its potential as a major supplier of food to the rest of the world.

Equally important are the controls that many countries outside our continent have placed on GM crops. These controls have an impact on Africa’s current trade and could undermine its potential as a major supplier of food to the rest of the world.

In the long run, however, Africa – a continent where one in four people still go hungry, and where annual food imports exceed $20bn – must carefully examine the potential of all new technologies to boost food production.

This does not mean pushing GMOs or any other technology on reluctant governments or citizens. Agra believes it is the responsibility and prerogative of African governments to determine their position on GMOs.

But neither does it mean slamming the door shut on discussion, debate or research that might provide real benefits. So why does Agra not fund research, awareness campaigns or the development of GMOs adapted for Africa?

We believe there are cheaper, readily available technologies that can effectively help smallholder farmers improve their harvests and yields.

Through our programme for Africa’s seed systems, we are supporting the development of improved crop varieties – developed through conventional breeding methods – of key food crops, such as maize, cassava and beans.

Importantly, we are also making sure that when these improved crops are developed, they find themselves in the hands of African farmers.

We are working with 16 national research institutes and farmers across Africa to develop seeds suited to our continent’s varied environments.

We are supporting the development of local entrepreneurs and companies who can distribute these seeds, along with fertiliser and other technologies, and helping to improve access to finance so that farmers can buy them.

These initiatives are making a difference. Last year, schemes supported by Agra produced enough seed of improved varieties to plant an estimated 3.85m hectares (9.6m acres).

Throughout the continent, the adoption of our new varieties – none of which are genetically modified – is leading to record yields. For example, a recent study of an improved variety of maize seed in Kenya has shown yields increasing by a third.

We are seeing real progress across the continent; for the time being, therefore, our focus will remain on conventional breeding methods.

For better or for worse, depending on who you ask, GMOs are unlikely to impact African food security in the near future. In the meantime, we need to have an informed, dispassionate conversation that includes all parties.

Jane Karuku is president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. This article was first published in the Guardian newspaper.


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