Africa's renaissance for the environment: genetically modified crops

March 4, 2013, 7:27 pm


The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Africa probably equals the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listing of the African elephant as the most divisive issue among policymakers in the region. Already there is an apparent split with some countries taking a lead in introducing GMOs in agriculture, and others opposed to even importing GMO food which is unprocessed. The issue is not limited to Africa but has international dimensions involving agricultural production and food security, pesticide use and environmental pollution, organic agriculture and the risk to biodiversity, as well as the role of the private sector and international trade. Controversy revolves around:


caption Consumers protest about genetically modified foods and assert their right to choose. (Source : Biowatch)


  • The interpretation of science, specifically whether GMOs are inherently safe or inherently dangerous from a human and environmental perspective;
  • Economic analysis and in particular how to evaluate the cost-and-benefits associated with GMOs; and
  • Socio-cultural impacts and biosafety implications concerning food production and security, livelihoods, and human and environmental health.

Already, IUCN-the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which brings together government, civil society, and experts from a wide range of disciplines, has declared “a moratorium on further environmental releases of GMOs until this can be demonstrated to be safe for biodiversity, human and animal health beyond reasonable doubt.” A further concern is that the introduction and promotion of GMOs “are driven primarily by the private sector, whose interests in development and marketing may be greater than in assessing potential risks to biodiversity, human and animal health”. But this decision is controversial, with some members such as Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden opposed to the resolution. The United States Government and its agencies did not take part in the deliberations. Recognizing the controversy around this issue, IUCN also called for “substantive work, within reasonable time and within reasonable resources, to develop credible knowledge and information concerning biodiversity, nature conservation and associated risks of GMOs.” It further requested IUCN to promote and support initiatives to ratify and implement the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

IUCN has more than 1,000 members, of which more than 30 are African government departments or statutory bodies. Many of these, including departments and civil society organizations, would have participated in the debates on these two resolutions at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Bangkok in 2004.


Although GMO technology is relatively new and many countries still do not have strong governance structures for monitoring and enforcing its use, it is poised to gain more ground over the coming decades. Data and information on GMOs' impacts on the environment will possibly lag behind and it may take even longer for the region to have comprehensive knowledge of such impacts.

Controversy over whether or not it can be a panacea to food insecurity in Africa as well as potential risks to the environment will continue to rage. More governments may follow the lead of South Africa, which in 2004 passed the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, which regulates the release of GMOs in the environment. The new law requires an environmental impact assessment to be approved before the government will permit any GMO to be released into the environment, either on a trial or a general basis. The effectiveness of such laws, however, depends on national and regional capacities for enforcement as well as scientific assessments of risks and benefits.



caption Genetic improvement of coffee (coffea spp.) through hybridization is used to enhance yield and quality. However, the success of the hybrid Catimor (above) grown in Malawi in achieving this is disputed. (Source: A. Conti/FAO)


African governments, individually and collectively, are faced with an enormous challenge given the high levels of uncertainty surrounding this technology. At the center of a government’s response package should be a commitment to making the best decision possible based on all relevant available information, and taking into account the priorities and values of its people.

Governments will need, according to their development priorities and values, to develop appropriate laws, policies and regulations to govern GMOs and strengthen the institutions for effective decision making as well as the monitoring and enforcement of such decisions. The AU’s Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology is a valuable starting point for all countries in developing national frameworks. This will include incorporating legal principles and processes that they have adhered to in multilateral environmental agreement (MEA), including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Cartagena Protocol. In particular, legislation will need to incorporate the precautionary approach. This will require investing in building individual and institutional capacity. Where appropriate, governments shall introduce measures requesting manufacturers to label all food products which contain GMOs. They shall also ensure that consumers are provided with adequate information to exercise their product choice right.

Those governments that opt to allow genetically modified products onto their markets will need to provide the relevant legal framework for the private sector to operate, and in some cases to undertake research. Regulation will need to fully incorporate a precautionary approach, including measures to evaluate risk and monitor the release of genetically modified products into the environment.

The following immediate actions are required:

  • Develop and implement national biosafety frameworks comprising national biosafety policies, regulatory regimes, systems for making informed decisions, mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation and public participation mechanisms.
  • Require the private sector to engage in substantial monitoring and evaluation (M & E) of the impact of GMOs releases on the environment. This will need to be complemented by governments investing in their own capacity to evaluate such M & E activities and enforce regulations.
  • All M & E evaluation of all GMOs should be ongoing from “cradle-to-grave".
  • Introduce measures to ensure that food security is not compromised by monoculture. The measures should also decouple GMO technology from fertilizers and pesticides manufactured by the supplying manufacturer. Such measures should also contain anti-trust provisions.
  • Protect indigenous crops from biotechnology manipulation which may threaten biodiversity and also lead to the inaccessibility of new varieties to the majority of indigenous farmers.
  • Guarantee for farmers the choice to either use GMO technology or refuse it. Accidental cross-pollination should not be subject to intellectual property legal challenges.
  • Work with the private sector, farmers and scientists to make reliable and appropriate information on GMOs available to all stakeholders.


In addition to governments, other stakeholders include the private sector, civil society, research organizations, universities, farmers and consumers. Each of these stakeholders should work to ensure that relevant information is accessible for informed decision making. Regular consultations among these groups should be facilitated.

Result and target date

The desired result is a comprehensive regional strategy on genetically modified organisms which should be ready by 2010. The strategy should be the basis for sub-regional and national strategies on GMOs. Countries which are already advanced in this area are encouraged to share their experiences in order to strengthen capacity in the region.


Further Reading


This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Africa's renaissance for the environment: biodiversity  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Africa's renaissance for the environment: invasive alien species


Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.








Programme, U. (2013). Africa's renaissance for the environment: genetically modified crops. Retrieved from


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