Is Africa Sitting Out The Gene Revolution?

Genetic Modified organisms are those whose genetic material has been engineered and modified through biotechnology such as recombinant DNA. The reasons for genetic modification are varied but in agriculture for example crop production, it is predominantly done to produce crops with new traits including herbicide tolerance, disease and insect resistance, higher yields, easier production techniques, enhanced quality crops, with better storage and easier processing.

The GM process keeps evolving with new technology but essentially involves gene identification, isolation, amplification, multiplication, integration and inheritance of modified genes through generations. As simple and straight-forward as this latter sentence reads, it belies a complex and very contentious issue which splits opinion from government and academia to the population at large.

Commercial production of genetically modified crops commenced in the 90s, after the United Nations recognised biotechnology’s potential in its 1992 Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro and to date some popular GM crops include corn, cotton, soyabean and rapeseed.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) brief on the Global Status of GM Crops notes that close to two decades after commercialisation of GM crops, there are now 170 million hectares of biotechnology crops in 28 countries and counted 17.3 million farmers globally. The United States tops the list with 69.5 million hectares followed by Brazil, Agentina, Canada, India and China the top five making 89.5% of global hectareage for GM crops.

The ISAAA also notes benefits which could be gained from biotechnology(bt) crops include increases crop yields, a reduction of pesticide use, conservation of biodiversity, and ultimately an alleviation of poverty. Globally, bt crops have generated economic returns of approximately US$ 98 billion between 1996 and 2011. However not everyone is convinced of these espoused benefits or even if they are, in their view, the risks by far outweigh any accrued benefits and therein the fundermental split of opinion in the GM debate.

These opponents to biotechnology argue that the recombinant genes can “escape” and pass into the ecosystem, for example herbicide genes can get into weeds to make them hardy. They cite the unknown effects on pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies and argue further about the unintended consequences from mutations, and sleeper gene activations. Ultimately, they point to the effect on human health through a possible transfer of allergenic genes and probable increases in drug resistant bacteria.

Many commentators say the 1980 US Supreme Court ruling on Diamond V. Chakrabarty, that “a live human-made microorganism is a patentable subject matter” threw open the commercial gates for biotechnology to become big business. But the involvement of large corporations has created room for biotechnology critics to raise fears of a dominance by private companies with a stranglehold on farmers beholden to them for seeds – the ISAAA puts the global value of biotec seeds at US$ 15 billion.

While critics of biotechnology crops have found no traction in countries like the United States or Brazil, the map of GM Crop Countries which shows low participation in Europe and Africa is an indication that the opponents of biotechnology have been more successful in keeping Agriculture GM free in these two continents.

Feeble participation of the EU in commercialisation of biotechnology crops is due to the long-standing hostility of the European Union stalwarts such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom where respective farmer and consumer groups opposed to GM agriculture have successfully lobbied their governments to keep the door shut on biotechnology and GM foods. A case in point being BASF which in 2012 threw in the towel and stopped biotechnology crop development in Germany. The difficulties they gave as reasons were vindicated by the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN ) Report of June 2013 which notes that German rejection of GM crops is widespread and that the government has even banned the planting of some EU-approved GM crops.

With the Germans being the most influential country in the European Union it is difficult to see how EU biotechnology policy can change without a sea change from the Germans. Likewise Francois Hollande in September 2012 pledged to maintain a French ban on GM Crops and in the United Kingdom, public hostility at what many environmentalists call “Frankenstein foods” has put the frighteners on successive governments. However, the debate for and against rages on despite pronouncements from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in the EFSA Journal that various GM maize such as MON 810, and Maize 59122 were “safe as its conventional counterpart and commercial maize varieties with respect to potential adverse effects on human and animal health”.

Many European organisations, academics, researchers would like to see a reversal of what a columnist at Forbes Magazine called “legistlation-by-panic” but the key to the problem lies with the electorate which remains overwhelmingly biotechnology-sceptic.

However, in what is seen as an initiative to wrest the argument from the “no” camp, the UK Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson MP, this month made an empassioned plea for GM foods. Citing the case of “golden rice”, which Tang et al (2009) reported in The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition that human consumption of the genetically engineered rice was an effective source of Vitamin A, Mr. Paterson made a plea about young people who would “wake up this morning being able to see and go to bed blind”.

Cynics could take the view that Mr. Paterson was simply trying to draw sympathy from millions of Radio 4’s Today audience and put the vociferous GM opponents on the defensive. But the Secretary of State was making a real point. The World Health Organisation notes that VAD (Vitamin A Deficency) affects about 250 million pre-school children every year and notes further that 250, 000 to 500, 000 children who are vitamin A deficient lose their sight every year.

While GM crops like Golden Rice are not panacea to the problem of VAD, (which according to a WHO report is prevalent in Africa and South East Asia) but further research by Tang et al (2012) reported that Golden Rice was not only better than popular sources of Vitamin A such as spinach but was as effective as pure beta-carotene in oil, noting in their conclusions that a 100g bowl of cooked Golden Rice could provide about 60% of the recommended Vitamin A intake in 6-8 year olds. For proponents of GM crops the argument pins the opponents into a corner in which, according to a UNICEF report (2010), at stake is the lives of 1.9 – 2.7 million undernourished children.

We know European Union legistlation keeps GM out of Europe. But what of Africa, why has the African continent, bar the four Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, Sudan largely ignored commercialisation of GM / Biotech crops?

From a first glance, it would seem true that Africa has sat out the biotechnology revolution – after all only four out of 54 are involved in commercial growing of bt crops. But a closer look shows a different picture, one in which Africans are taking into cognisance the importance of biotechnology in fulfilling one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) – reducing extreme poverty and hunger.

The debate in Africa on biotechnology and the genetic modification in Agriculture is no different from that taking place across the world and it would seem for some countries starvation was a better option as was seen when in 2002 Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique in the throes of a severe drought refused grain from the World Food Program for fear of GM contamination from the United States.

Since that stark manifestation of hostility towards GM crops, there has however been a thawing of attitudes as some African states are now carrying out experimentation and GM field trials. Information from NEPAD-ABNE African Biotechnology Network of Expertise reports seven countries doing Confined Field Testing (CFT), including Kenya , Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi and Burkina. Fourteen African countries are involved in Contained Research including Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria and about half of the continent is involved in developing capacity for research and development in which many traits such as insect, viral and fungal resistance, herbicide and drought tolerance, are being developed for many different crops including but not exclusive to cotton, maize, cassava, sweet potato and sorghum.

Also, apart from the fact that most of the African continent (45 countries) are signatory to the Catagena Protocol of Biodiversity, there are various bodies involved with enabling an environment for Biotechnology in Africa including but not exclusive to, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, African Biotechnology Biosafety Policy Platform, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project, Africa Biosciences Initiatives, AU Biosafety Project and the African Biosafety Network Expertise whose efforts in 2011 got a $1.48 Million endorsement from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ABNE is an Africa wide initiative to assist a safe and sustainable deployment of agricultural biotechnology on the continent.

Those objecting to African bt Agriculture are scion to the global anti-GM movement and their arguments are no different ranging from health and environmental to commercial. The commercial concerns are not only domestic but also have export ramifications because Africa’s main agricultural export market is the European Union which is still overwhelmingly hostile to GM produce. Thus opponents argue African countries going down the GM route may find themselves shut out of the all important European market. However biotech proponents can argue that biotechnology friendly countries like China, India and Brazil, which are all playing increasing roles in Africa via trade and investment, are the future.

It is important to recognise that Agricultural Biotechnology alone would not solve all the problems of food security in Africa where the population has crossed a billion and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa is struggling with drought, desertification and declining soil productivity. However it was recognised in the NEPAD’s Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA) – adopted in Khartoum, in 2005, that to feed itself, Africa has to step up its food production through the development and application of biotechnology. A direct result of this was the establishment of the African Bioscienses Initiative and NEPAD Offices Of Science and Technology centres of excellence (NABNet, WABNet, SANBio, BecANet) whose areas of work include Biotechnology.

The increasing pace of adoption of biotechnology around the world, the increasing food insecurity as population increases outstrip supplies with the resultant increases in food prices have fused to increase the urgency of biotechnology. But the global map of biotechnology commercialisation still looks patchy – more so in Africa which needs rapid increases in food supply to offset the growing population.

The ISAAA report (2012) notes that 15 million “small resource-poor farmers” in developing countries grew 52% of the global bt crops outpacing the developed and countries for the first time. The report also points out that in 2012 GM seeds comprised about 90% of all maize, soyabean or cotton planted in the US. On the back of these and other statistics from the report, it can be safe to say biotechnology crops are here to stay or to put it starkly, the rest of the world has to board the biotechnology train or get left behind. Therefore, in answering the titular question if Africa was sitting out the gene revolution, the answer would have to be ‘no’, although those who would rather see a faster pace towards commercialisation may have a different opinion. Nevertheless, African states seem to be taking time to understand the environmental, ecological and socio-economic impact of biotechnology. Time towards education of farmers and consumers as to the benefits of biotechnology cannot be ignored. Success of biotechnology in Africa would not only depend on these but also on transparency of information and a mandatory a regulatory framework. Without regulation, Africa would lend itself to rogue biotechnology companies foreign and domestic who will quickly give biotechnology bad name through malpractices or negligence.

Lloney Monono
Bristol, UK


Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops(2012)
International Service for The Acquisition Of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) Brief 44-2012

European Food Saftey Authority (EFSA) Journal 2010; 8(9):1781

European Food Saftey Authority (EFSA) Journal 2013;11(3):3135

Confined field trials in Africa: a key step to safely perform experiments with genetically modified crops. ABNE Policy Brief No. 2

Freedom To Innovate, Biotechnology In Africa’s Development
© 2007, African Union (AU) and New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)

Guangwen Tang et al (2009), Golden Rice Is an Effective Source of Vitamin A. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition;89: 1776-83

Guangwen Tang et al (2012), Beta-Carotene in Golden Rice as good as Beta-carotene in oil in providing Vitamin A To Children. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition;96:658-64

Categories: Biotech

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