Can GM Technology End Hunger in Africa?

governance Hunger food insecurity genetically-modified organisms
Wednesday, 3 September, 2014 - 09:27

African nations appear reluctant to embrace the GM bandwagon that promises to fight hunger and poverty, writes Cheong 

For centuries, biotechnology has been used to modify food for human consumption. In recent decades, scientists have created transgenic crops, (2) which are widely promoted as solutions to world hunger. Commonly cultivated genetically-modified (GM) crops exhibit traits such as pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, or both. (3) Other traits, such as drought resistance, nutrient enrichment and enhanced robustness lead to further improvements in food productivity and quality. While some countries have readily embraced GM technology (USA, Canada, China), others have taken deeply wary positions against it (Japan, France, Germany).

GM technology enables crop cultivation using less chemical and labour inputs. It also boosts agricultural production from marginal soils. (4) These qualities are especially pertinent for Africa, which is gearing up to feed a fast-expanding population on diminishing environmental resources. Yet, two decades after the commercialisation of GM technology, only four African nations are commercially cultivating GM crops.(5) Several African countries, such as Madagascar and Zambia, have banned GM food imports, including food aid, completely.(6) This CAI paper discusses why African nations appear reluctant to embrace the GM bandwagon that promises to fight hunger and poverty. It explores the extent to which GM food contributes to food security, as well as the role it plays in the sustainable development of African nations.

GM technology and food security

More than two billion people suffer nutritional deficiency,(7) and many of them live in Africa.(8) When framed in the discourse of food security,(9) the benefits of GM technology appear irresistible for many African nations. Supporters of GM technology promote the agricultural enhancements from GM cultivation as the vital boost to end hunger.(10) Apart from improving food availability, GM technology further improves access to and utilisation of food by increasing farmer incomes and enhancing the nutritional content in grains.

However, scholars attribute the persistence of famines in Africa to institutional failure and geopolitics (11) and agree that current food production is more than sufficient for meeting the calorific needs of the world.(12) Food security is not limited by food availability but by access and stability. Furthermore, about 30 percent of current food produced ends up wasted.(13) Improving food distribution to the poor, eliminating food waste and arresting over-consumption in wealthy nations advance food security through directly addressing problems with the current food system. GM technology is one of numerous pathways towards improved agricultural productivity.

However, “Agricultural technologies, however productive, cannot resolve what are by definition social, political and economic questions.”(14)

Sustainable development in Africa: Cause(s) for concern

The choice of a development pathway towards greater food security is a political one, and will ultimately be value-laden and contestable. Leaders can work at correcting the problems with current systems and institutions that have resulted in present states of social inequality and environmental degradation, or they can ignore the problems and seek new technical fixes, which may potentially introduce other problems. The precautionary approach, as prescribed in the Cartagena Protocol (15) requires the recognition of areas of uncertainty and the extent of ignorance.(16) In the presence of scientific uncertainty, precaution advocates actions to prevent potentially irreversible harm, even in the absence of scientific evidence.(17)

The results of GM cultivation in Africa so far have been largely positive, in both yield and income. Smallholder farms cultivating Bt cotton (18) in South Africa and Burkina Faso have reported net increases in farmer incomes compared with conventional cotton.(19) Improved yields, as well as cost savings on chemicals and labour, offset the higher seed and harvesting costs. However, these tests assessed only economic outcomes and neglected environmental effects. Among some of the common objections to GM crops are concerns about gene transfer to wild species (20) and the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance,(21) giving rise to super-bugs and super-weeds. These pose real and considerable risks for ecological balance as well as the future viability of agriculture. Studies on the cultivation of Bt crops in China found that the eventual rise of secondary pests necessitated increased applications of pesticide to levels matching those for conventional crops, resulting in the loss of profits for farmers.(22) It is yet premature to determine whether GM crop cultivation results in net gains or losses for African farmers.

In addition to the uncertain long-term economic effects, there are also fears of the impact on food safety arising from unintended gene mutations.(23) As GM technology develops in sophistication and complexity, regulatory oversight becomes increasingly challenging, as the associated risks could be indirect, cumulative and detectable only over long-term horizons.(24) The adoption of a precautionary approach,(25) as most African governments have done through the Cartagena Protocol,(26) is prudent, as GM-owning companies view the agricultural sectors in developing countries with immense interest. Understanding the limitations of existing knowledge (27) and managing risks responsibly within those limitations is the challenge facing current governments.

Lessons from South Africa

As a continental pioneer in GM crop cultivation, South Africa offers lessons for other African countries contemplating the use of this technology. The first of these is that extensive support needs to be provided to farmers throughout the cultivation process of GM crops. Studies have found that many South African farmers are unaware of potential environmental threats from cultivating GM crops.(28) This information gap applies to farmers in other African countries.(29) Poor compliance with requirements on chemical applications and refuge establishment by South African farmers resulted in the development of widespread resistance among stem borers to the Bt toxin.(30) Although this resistance is observed in other GM crop cultivating countries, the non-compliance accelerated the process in South Africa. Before distributing GM seeds on a large scale, African governments need to provide for the training and ongoing extension services for farmers in the appropriate management of GM crops.

Another lesson is the institutional challenges in governing and regulating GM technologies and products. With many African nations already struggling with weak institutions and lack of technical expertise, (31) the task of regulating the complex and evolving field of GM technology is no mean feat. GM monitoring is costly and time-consuming, and regulatory breaches are frequently reported in African countries. (32) A third lesson is the need for increased public funding for developing GM technology that is relevant and suitable for the local context.(33) Transnational corporations focused on markets in developed countries have funded most of the GM research to date,(34) and they own most of the commercially-available GM products. The South African model of bilateral collaborations in scientific research can promote knowledge sharing and technology development that is useful and applicable locally. (35)

A final, but no less important, lesson from South Africa is the need for transparency and broad participation in regulating GM food. Complaints about the lack of regulatory transparency and civil engagement resulted in strong opposition to GM food in Europe in 1990s.(36) Much of this resistance still persists today. In South Africa, outspoken opposition to GM food prevents widespread acceptance of such food among the public.(37) Aware of the general disconcert towards consuming GM food, corporations vehemently resist regulations requiring the labelling of food products containing GM content.(38) African nations have more at stake in the GM debate than developed countries,(39) which can decide for or against GM products based purely on ethical or philosophical grounds.

Concluding remarks

For the large pockets of African communities who lack food security, GM technology appears to answer the need for improved yields and enhanced nutritional quality. However, the environmental and health risks of the technology are not yet fully understood, and the wide aversion to GM food may limit its marketability. Moreover, food security is a multi-dimensional problem, with food availability being the area of least concern in the current global situation. A pertinent question then, is whether increasing agricultural yields under current economic and legal regimes will improve the food security of the people who have been rendered food insecure under the same structures and institutions.

Sustainable development requires addressing economic, social and environmental priorities comprehensively. Science and technology play a critical role in this.(40) However, technical solutions need to be accompanied by long-term commitment in policies towards social protection for the poor and vulnerable, without depleting environmental resources. In the quest for sustainable development, African leaders need to identify the key problems that they are trying to solve. With the environment, public health and trade relationships at stake, there is much to consider before deciding whether large-scale cultivation of GM crops is the way forward. Faced with funding and technical limitations, the policy to ‘wait and see’ could turn out to be the most appropriate one for many African nations, for now.

 - Christina Cheong is a research associate with the Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI) This CAI discussion paper is republished here with permission from CAI, a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see In addition to topical discussion papers and tailored research services, CAI releases a number of fortnightly and monthly publications, examining the latest developments in Africa, across a wide range of interest areas. Notes:

(1) Christina Cheong is a research associate with CAI, with an interest in food security and urban poverty issues. Contact Christina through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa unit ([email protected]). Edited by Liezl Stretton. Research Manager: Angela Kariuki.
(2) Transgenic crops are produced by transplanting genes from foreign organisms to conventional crops in order to imbue them with desired characteristics.
(3) ‘Transgenic crops by trait’, GMO Compass, 19 January 2007,
(4) ‘Possible benefits of GM crops in developing countries’, Nuffield Council on Bioethics,
(5) James, C., ‘Executive summary: Global status of commercialized biotech/GM Crops’, ISAAA Brief 44, 2012,
(6) UNEP, 2006. Africa Environment Outlook 2 – Our Environment, Our Wealth. Progress Press Ltd, Malta.
(7) Muthayya, S., et al., ‘The global hidden hunger indices and maps: an advocacy tool for action’, PloS one, 12 June 2013,
(8) ‘The state of food insecurity in the world’, FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2013,
(9) Food security is a complex issue with several dimensions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes food security in terms of availability, access, utilisation and stability. ‘The state of food insecurity in the world’, FAO, IFAD and WFP, 2013,
(10) Berman, J., et al., 2013. Can the world afford to ignore biotechnology solutions that address food insecurity? Plant Moelecular Biology, 83(1-2), pp. 5-19.
(11) Devereux, S., 2009. Why does famine persist in Africa? Food Security, 1(1), pp. 25-35; Molesley, W., 2012. Famine myths: Five misunderstandings related to the 2011 hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa. Dollars and Sense, March, pp. 17-21.
(12) Godfray, H.C.J., et al., 2010. Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science, 327, pp. 812-818.
(13) Cederberg, C., et al., 2011. Global food losses and food waste: Extent, causes and prevention. FAO: Rome.
(14) Zerbe, N., 2004. Feeding the famine? American food aid and the GMO debate in Southern Africa. Food Policy, 29, pp. 593-608.
(15) The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement on risk management arising from modern biotechnology.
(16) UNEP, 2006. Africa environment outlook 2 – Our environment, our wealth. Progress Press Ltd: Malta.
(17) Myhr, A. and Traavik, T., 2003. Genetically modified crops: Precautionary science and conflicts of interests. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16, pp. 227-247.
(18) Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton is a GM cotton variety produced by Monsanto. It contains an insecticide that is harmful to certain insects and is one of the most popular GM crop properties.
(19) Vitale, J.D., et al., 2011. The commercial application of GMO crops in Africa: Burkina Faso's decade of experience with Bt cotton. The Journal of Agrobiotechnology Management and Economics, 13(4), pp. 320-332; Morse, S., Bennett, R. and Ismael, Y., 2004. Why Bt cotton pays for small-scale producers in South Africa. Nature Biotechnology, 22, pp. 379-380.
(20) Azadi, H., and Ho, P., 2010. Genetically modified and organic crops in developing countries: A review of options for food security. Biotechnology Advances, 28, pp. 160-168.
(21) Van den Bergh, J., and Holley, J., 2002. An environmental–economic assessment of genetic modification of agricultural crops. Futures, 34, pp. 807-822.
(22) Lang, S., 'Seven-year glitch: Cornell warns that Chinese GM cotton farmers are losing money due to 'secondary' pests’, Cornell Chronicle, 25 July 2006,
(23) Levidow, L., 2002. Ignorance-based risk assessment? Scientific controversy over GM food safety. Science as Culture, 11(1), pp. 61-67.
(24) Hussey, K. and Dovers, S., 2013. Uncertainty. Routledge Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, pp. 231-245. Extensive animal feeding trials are conducted in developed countries to ascertain the safety of GM crops prior to marketing. See,EFSA, 2008. Safety and nutritional assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed: The role of animal feeding trials. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 46(1), pp. 2-70.
(25) Mayer, S. and Stirling, A., 2002. Finding a precautionary approach to the technological developments – Lessons for the evaluation of GM crops. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 15(1), pp. 57-71.
(26) UNEP, 2006. Africa environment outlook 2 – Our environment, our wealth. Progress Press Ltd: Malta,
(27) Westley, F., et al., 2011. Tipping toward sustainability: emerging pathways of transformation. Ambio, 40, pp. 762-780.
(28) Kruger, M., Van Rensburg, J.B.J. and Van den Berg, J., 2012. Transgenic Bt maize: Farmers’ perceptions, refuge compliance and reports of stem borer resistance in South Africa. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136(1), pp. 38-50.
(29) Bifubyeka, E., ‘From Curitiba to African farms, spreading biosafety knowledge’, Appropriate Technology, June 2006.
(30) Kruger, M., Van Rensburg, J.B.J. and Van den Berg, J., 2012. Transgenic Bt maize: Farmers’ perceptions, refuge compliance and reports of stem borer resistance in South Africa. Journal of Applied Entomology, 136(1), pp. 38-50.
(31) Adenle, A., 2014. Stakeholders’ perceptions of GM technology in West Africa: Assessing the responses of policymakers and scientists in Ghana and Nigeria. Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 27, pp. 241-263.
(32) ‘Below the belt, below the breadline – South Africa’s inequitable and GM contaminated bread industry’, African Centre for Biosafety, 20 May 2014,; Roger, D.D. and Gone, S., 2014. Evidence of the presence of genetically modified foods in the Sudano-Sahelian Zones of Cameroon. Food and Nutrition Sciences, 5(10), pp. 922-928.
(33) Morris, J., 2011. Modern biotechnology – Potential contribution and challenges for sustainable food production in sub-Saharan Africa. Sustainability, 3, pp. 809-822.
(34) UNEP, 2006. Africa environmentoOutlook 2 – Our environment, our wealth. Progress Press Ltd: Malta,
(35) Morris, J., 2011. Modern biotechnology – Potential contribution and challenges for sustainable food production in sub-Saharan Africa. Sustainability, 3, pp. 809-822.
(36) Frewer, L., et al., 2004. Societal aspects of genetically modified foods. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 42, pp. 1181-1193.
(37) ‘Nestle folds to consumer pressure over GMOs in South Africa’, Sustainable Pulse, 12 May 2013,
(38) Meadows, D. H., ‘Poor Monsanto’, Whole Earth Catalog, 1999,
(39) Paarlberg, R., 2010. GMO foods and crops: Africa’s choice. New Biotechnology, 27(5), pp. 609-613.
(40)Beddington, J., 2010. Food security: Contributions from science to a new and greener revolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365, pp. 61-71.

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