Why Are More African Countries Accepting Genetically Modified Food?

Written by Kevin Mwanza

Apart from South Africa — which is considered by most standards an emerging economy — genetically modified food is viewed with a lot of suspicion all across Africa with vicious debate across the continent on its benefits and pitfalls.

For most countries the pro-GMO proposers are facing nothing but an uphill task to convince a mostly conservative populace that food that has been “tampered with” can be good for their health. Most people don’t buy it – literally.

For Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a Melinda-Gates Foundation funded organization that seek to increase farm productivity across the continent, farmers in the region do not need GMO seeds to improve yields.

“AGRA’s position is we don’t deal with GMO’s. We can still do a lot with non-GMO’s,” George Bigirwa from the AGRA told AFKInsider on the sidelines of a recent TASAI event in Nairobi.

“First of all Africa is not ready for GMO’s. There are no laws, there are no frameworks and we can just take advantage of what we have like hybrids.”

“Finding new methods”

AGRA also aims to increase farmers’ incomes by finding new methods for solving problems with unproductive soil, unreliable water supplies, low-quality seeds, and scarce markets for smallholder farmer crops.

Smallholder farmers in Africa produce the majority of the continent’s food, and are the focus of aid and development groups from all over the world seeking to improve the lot of these poor communities.

Big seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta, the pioneers of GMO across the world, are however pushing all the buttons including lobbying in government corridors for countries across a region that has lagged in global adoption of modified crops technology, to at least give it a chance.

Faced by rising food prices and drought a number of African countries have over the recent years allowed growing and  importation of GMO food under strict regulation.

According to the UN conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2010 report, Africa’s capacity to provide food has declined by one-fifth over the past 40 years. This has been proposed as a reason why the continent should adopt genetically engineered crops.

South Africa was the continent’s sole cultivator of GM maize, cotton and soybeans until 2008, when Egypt began growing GM maize, and Burkina Faso started growing GM cotton.

Other countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana have since allowed the importation of genetically modified food.

These countries are also at an advanced stages of conducting research and field trials with numerous GM crops including maize, rice, wheat, cassava, bananas, sorghum and cotton.

Softening stance

State agencies, politicians and industry experts remain divided on if these countries should go for full GMO adoption, even after their governments approved it and instituted rules of importation for the food stuff.

“By being resistant to production constraints such as pest and drought they come cheaper than the ordinary crops and will definitely boost our overall national food security going forward,” Romano Kiome, Kenya’s former Agriculture permanent secretary said.

“This technology attracts cost savings of up to 30 percent in the case of maize production because expensive items such as herbicides and pesticides are struck off the budget. The margin of savings is even higher in cotton produced through this method.”

Kiome’s views however are not taken well in some quarters of the country’s civil society.

Anne Maina, of the Africa Biodiversity Network, said it was wrong for the east African nation to run into buying genetically modified maize from South Africa, yet it can still get organic maize from countries like Malawi and Zambia.

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