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The estranged relationship between Africa and GMOs

By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

Africa has many challenges including disease, poor infrastructure, rising unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity. Food insecurity is one of the more pressing issues affecting over 30% of the continent. Therefore, the continent needs a way to alleviate the challenge. One of the solutions being pushed forward is using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs use agricultural biotechnology to insert bacteria or virus genes into plants to give them capabilities including resistance to disease, drought, and pesticides. 

GMOs are not new in Africa. In 1996, just as apartheid had ended in South Africa, the country welcomed its first GMO crop, maize. Since then, they have gone on to introduce cotton and soybean GMO crops. A report from the South African National Biodiversity Institute shows that over 2.7 million hectares of land are being used to cultivate the three crops. More so, the crops are approved for general consumption. In South Africa, almost 95% of maize, almost 100% of soybeans, and cotton are genetically modified.

Other countries that have a track record of GMOs include Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Nigeria. 

Burkina Faso passed a biosafety law in 2006 which opened the door to GMOs. Between 2006 and 2018, Burkina Faso was able to convince 150,000 households to shift from planting the local cotton variety to planting Monsanto’s GMO cotton. While genetically modified cotton produced better volumes of cotton than the local variety, it paled in comparison for the quality of fiber.

Due to the quality of fiber issue, the Burkina Faso government changed its mind. It returned to the organic cotton variety that propelled it to one of the top providers of cotton on the continent.

Despite Ghana being late to the party, in the 2000s it wanted to become the first producer of genetically modified food crops in West Africa. In pursuit of this ambitious goal, in 2013, regulators approved field trials of six genetically modified crops including sweet potato, rice, cowpea, and cotton. The projects did not end well. 

The first to suffer was sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, its funding was exhausted shortly after it began followed by the cotton, whose funding was halted. Monsanto, which provided funding and the genetically modified cotton seeds, cited the lack of an intellectual property law. Since 2013, the law had been debated in parliament and strongly opposed by activists which prevented it from materializing. 

The nail in the coffin was on its way. Scientists researching two varieties of genetically modified rice lost funding from USAID. Without sufficient funding, the projects were abandoned. 

From these examples, the challenges that are making it difficult for the rise of GMOs in Africa include the loss of donor funding and regulatory issues. But those have not been the only challenges stopping GMOs. There are about 49 other African countries that have not adopted GMOs. 

Uganda has had a parliamentary bill regarding the regulation of GMOs debated for over 10 years. The bill has been sent to the president twice already and sent back twice. The first time, the president recommended 11 changes he wanted to be amended. The second time, he had seven amendments. The public sentiment in Uganda toward GMOs is negative. Several other African countries have not even had the discussion.

It has not been all bad for the African countries that have attempted to introduce GMOs. As already mentioned, South Africa has been successful in introducing GMOs into their food system to a greater extent. Other recent proponents for GMOs include Nigeria and Kenya. Nigeria has approved genetically modified cotton and cowpeas while Kenya has approved genetically modified cotton.

Some of the reasons why GMOs are contentious on the African continent and elsewhere in the world are due to some of the dangers surrounding them. The risk assessment applications for GMOs are inadequate. The experiments conducted on the safety of the crops have missing scientific controls and poorly described reagents and procedures leading to ambiguous results. This makes it difficult for regulators to understand and therefore, makes them dependent on the applicant’s interpretation. 

GMOs also have negative impacts on human health. There are some links to autoimmune diseases, cancer, and gastrointestinal diseases. The other challenge is that genetically modified seeds are patented by the companies producing them. This means that they can only be purchased from the companies making them like Monsanto. Worse still, if they contaminate another organic farmer’s crops, they may need to pay fees to the company. 

The environment is also at stake with GMO plants. GMO plants consume more pesticides and herbicides and some of them have pesticides in them. These have potential to harm the plant and animal ecosystem including bees, caterpillars, and humans. They also have the potential to pollute water bodies and destroy other surrounding plants. 

It is no surprise that Africa has a negative sentiment about GMOs. Additionally, Some EU and Asian states have strict regulations on their distribution and consumption. Coupled with the speculated dangers, African governments should take precaution while considering GMOs. Africa should focus on working with their variety of crops, creating hybrids, and distributing food better.

The challenge is not a lack of food. It is an issue of poor distribution.

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Simon Mwebaze

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