Africa has been reluctant in the past to adopt genetically modified food technology for crop production, but that’s changing, says Steven E. Cerier, a freelance international economist writing for the Genetic Literacy Project. Recent developments suggest that many African countries are prepared to overcome domestic and international opposition to GM technology, embracing it as a way of boosting their agriculture sector.
Just four African countries — Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa –allow the cultivation of GMO crops, specifically, Bt cotton. In Africa, only South Africa grows GM food, allowing the cultivation of GM corn and soybeans.
GM opponents have urged African countries not to commercialize GM crops, saying it will put their agricultural sector in the hands of large multinational agri-businesses, hurt biodiversity, hurt small farmers and expose people to the potential health hazards of consuming GM food.
GM crops are as safe as all other crops, according to the International Society of African Scientists (ISAS). ISAS since 2001 has said that “agricultural biotechnology represents a major opportunity to enhance the production of food crops, cash crops, and other agricultural commodities in Africa and other developing nations.”
These are 10 African countries doing field tests for genetically modified crops.
Cameroon conducted its first field trials for Bt cotton in 2012. A second trial being conducted in three locations is expected to be completed in 2018.
Ethiopia revised its Biosafety Law in 2015 to allow field tests of Bt cotton. Those tests are concluding, and cultivation of Bt cotton is expected to begin in 2018.
Ghana is conducting field tests for Bt cowpeas and cotton, nitrogen and water-efficient and salt-tolerant rice and nutritionally fortified sweet potatoes. The trials will be completed in 2018. If successful, the government is expected to allow farmers to use them. Ghana passed a biosafety law in 2011. “With these guidelines, Ghana can be a model in Africa. We are telling the world, and Ghanaians, that we have opened the door and we are making ourselves open and ready to receive and consider applications for GMO use,” said Eric Okoree, head of Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority. The guidelines for the release of GMOs were issued in December.
Cowpeas are an important food crop in sub-Saharan Africa but yields are often reduced by more than 80 percent due to pests and diseases, according to CSIRO.
On Feb. 21, the Kenyan government appeared to reverse its opposition to growing GMOs when it indicated it would approve the commercialization of Bt cotton. “We are fully behind home-grown solutions to food insecurity and therefore support local biotechnology research,” said Noor Mohammed, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Cooperatives. “Research and trials on other crops like corn, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and virus-resistant cassava should continue unhindered.” He also said the government should lift its 2012 ban on importing GMOs.
Malawi is field testing disease-resistant bananas, Bt cowpeas and Bt cotton. In most developed countries, bananas are a very important agricultural product. After rice, wheat and milk, they’re the fourth most valuable food. In exports, bananas rank No. 4 among all agricultural commodities and they are the most significant of all fruits, according to The American Phytopathological Society.
Mozambique planted its first confined GMO field trial for drought resistant corn in February 2017.
Nigeria has lagged in GM development, but could emerge as a leader in African biotech development two years after passing a landmark biosafety bill. Field tests are being conducted for four GMO crops: insect-resistant Bt cotton; Bt cowpea; iron-, zinc-, protein- and vitamin A-fortified and nitrogen-efficient sorghum; and salt-tolerant and water-efficient rice. If the trials are successful the government hopes to commercialize these crops within three years.
Trials have been approved for Bt corn. The government wants commercial production to begin within five years. Research is underway on vitamin A-fortified and disease-resistant cassava.
South Africa, the only country in Africa producing GMO food crops, has conducted successful field tests of GMO drought- and insect-resistant corn. The seeds were developed by The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project in a public-private partnership with U.S.-based Monsanto, a leading producer of GMO seeds. The seeds are given free to small-scale South African farmers, who began commercial production in 2016.
Tanzania is conducting field tests for GM drought- and insect-resistant corn with commercialization possible by 2021 if the liability regulations of the Biosafety Law are amended by Parliament. The “government intends to revolutionize agriculture by introducing biotech crops to improve the quality of yields…the country has the required capacity for research in GM crops,” said Forens Turuka, permanent Secretary of Agriculture Food Security.
Uganda has conducted field tests on 15 GM crops including disease-resistant bananas, sweet potatoes, cassava and potatoes, rice that can grow in nitrogen-deprived soil, Bt cotton and drought-resistant corn. Commercialization is pending a Biosafety Law, which has been delayed by anti-biotech NGOs. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni asked parliament to “modernize its thinking” towards new scientific technology including biotechnology.
Zambia was opposed to growing and importing GMOs, but that’s changing. In April 2016, South African supermarket Shoprite started importing food containing GMOs to its stores in Zambia. “We recognize that modern biotechnology has advanced worldwide and as a nation, we cannot afford to ignore the benefits of this technology,” Higher Education Minister Michael Kaingu told Parliament in December 2015.