Genetically modified crops in Africa

April 17, 2011, 3:11 pm


caption Box 1: Genetic modification-just on biotechnology
(Source: CBD and UNEP 2003, Mackenzie and others 2003, UN 1992, UN Millennium Project 2005b)

There is growing debate about the potential value of modern biotechnology, and in particular of transgenics, in helping to achieve Africa’s development and food security goals. The challenge facing policymakers is not only to understand what the technology can do, or has done elsewhere, but also to establish what opportunities it presents to Africa.

There are three critical issues. First, whether or not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offer a sustainable food security option; second, what the implications are of transgenic technologies for biosafety as well as for human health and well-being; and third, the extent of existing African capacity to undertake research, and effectively monitor and evaluate genetically modified (GM) products and their use.

caption Box 2: GM crops in Egypt
(Source: Mansour 2005)

Genetic modification techniques allow novel traits to be introduced into animals, crops and microorganisms. These techniques can be used to improve livestock, poultry and fish productivity as well as their resistance to disease. Genetic modification is being used in the forest sector to create pest resistance, herbicide tolerance and wood quality traits. Crops can be genetically engineered to improve appearance, taste, nutritional quality, drought tolerance, and insect and disease resistance. Thus, GM crops are often held up as the solution to yield deficits. However, achieving food security is about more than just fulfilling yield deficits. Food security is having sufficient physical, social and economic access to safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food at the household level, without having to resort to emergency supplies. This demands either adequate food production or food imports. Agricultural choices are as much about food quantity as they are about nutritional needs, livelihoods, culture, poverty, trade and sustainable development. Genetic modification technology may be useful in addressing some of these aspects. However, the potential of such technologies is controversial. There is considerable uncertainty about the impact on human and environmental health, and also whether these products will provide a sustainable solution to food problems. The risks and benefits associated with GM technologies are difficult to quantify.

As resources for public sector research decreases, and the values that promote private sector development and interests become entrenched in global governance instruments, the growth of GM technology and applications seems certain. However, the potential role of GM crops for Africa in promoting food security and improved human well-being is far from clear, and it is uncertain how their adoption will impact on the sustainability of livelihoods and food production systems. This article focuses exclusively on the debates around GM and food security; its other possible uses are not discussed.

The challenge for policymakers is how to respond to this uncertainty about the relative opportunities and threats posed by GM technologies: the dilemma is whether to adopt this new technology and face criticism for lack of precaution, or to require thorough study of potential risks and face criticism for failing to act promptly.


Global growth in commercializing of GM crops

caption Figure 1: Global area of biotech crops
(Source: James 2004)

Despite a steady increase in global plantings of transgenic crops from 1996, when they were first introduced, the global percentage of land under GM crops remains relatively small. Figure 1 shows global plantings. Genetically modified crops account for only 4 percent of total global cultivation. Global plantings of GM crops jumped by 20 percent in 2004; this was the second largest yearly increase since commercial plantings began in 1996. In that year, land under GM crops rose to 81 million ha. For the first time, the hectarage growth in GM crop areas was higher in developing countries than in developed ones, developing countries accounting for slightly more than one-third of the world’s GM crop area. Land under GM crops is expected to continue increasing as the sector grows in India and China and new countries introduce GM crops. In 2004, soybean accounted for 60 percent of all GM crops, maize for 23 percent and cotton for 11 percent. In the near future, GM maize is projected to have the highest growth rate as more beneficial traits become available and are approved.

caption Figure 2: Biotech crop countries and mega-countries 2004
(Source: James 2004)

In 2004, there were 8.25 million farmers involved in GM crop production in 17 countries. Although 90 percent of these farmers were from developing countries, only one of these countries, South Africa, was in Africa. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) predicts that by the end of the decade, up to 15 million farmers will grow GM crops on 150 million ha in up to 30 countries. The global biotech crop market was worth US$4,700 million in 2004, and is projected to rise to US$5,000 million in 2005.

As shown in Figure 2, there are 14 countries growing over 50,000 hectares (ha) of GM crops. In 2004, Paraguay, Spain, Mexico and the Philippines joined this group. However, global production is dominated by five countries. The USA with 59 percent of global sowings has the largest share of total land under GMO production. It is followed by Argentina with 20 percent, Canada and Brazil with 6 percent each, and China with 5 percent of land under GM crops globally.

caption Box 3: Bt cotton in South Africa
(Source: Glover 2003, Pschorn-Straus 2005)

In Africa, the use of GMO technology and its products is still in its infancy. South Africa is the only African country that is commercially producing GM crops. However, Egypt is approaching commercialization of four GM crops; these are potatoes, squash, yellow and white maize, and cotton.

In South Africa, under the Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997, three transgenic crops – insect or herbicide resistant cotton, maize and soybean – have been approved for commercialization (Department of Health undated). GM crop plantings are growing: in 2004 South Africa had 500,000 ha under GM crops and growth continued in white maize used for food and yellow maize used for feed; soybean plantings increased from 35 percent adoption rate in 2003 to 50 percent in 2004, whilst Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton stabilized with about 85 percent of producers adopting it.

Research and development

Globally, GM research and development (R&D) is led by six large multinational life science companies independently or in collaboration with the Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs) in the industrial countries. These companies include Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, CropScience and Dupont. A number of developing countries (such as Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Malaysia and the Philippines) have significant R&D programmes in biotechnology and transgenic crops. An increasing number of African countries have GM R&D capacity. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt and Uganda are widely acknowledged as being the lead countries. As many as 24 other African countries have some GM R&D capacity and at least 20 are actually engaged in such research. These countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

caption GM trial potatoes in Makhatini, South Africa
(Source: Biowatch)

Nine countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are known to have conducted field trials. Supporting legislation and policy to regulate research and commercialization processes have not kept pace with these developments.

caption Table 1: CM crop research in Africa
(Source: Odame and others 2003, Glover 2003a, GRAIN 2005, Mansour 2005)

Private sector dominance has meant that most agricultural biotechnology research focuses on developed country concerns such as improved crop quality or management rather than drought tolerance or yield enhancement, and innovations that save labour costs (such as herbicide tolerance) rather than those that create employment (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 1999). With the shift away from public sector research to private sector research, agricultural research has become increasingly profit-driven and less focused on needs fulfilment. There are an increasing number of research initiatives of African interest. In Africa, the main GM crops of research and commercial interest are sweet potato, maize, cotton, soybean, pigeon peas, bananas and tobacco. Much of this research is based on public-private-partnerships (PPPs) as shown, for selected countries, in Table 1. These include projects on vitamin A rice, virus-resistant sweet potato and insect-Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA). Insect-resistant research is seen as particularly important given the losses that are suffered as a result of insect infestations. In Kenya, for example, farmers lose about 15 percent of the maize crop to stem borers.

caption Figure 3: Distribution of cassava mosaic virus
(Source: University of Arizona/College of Agriculture and Life Sciences 2003)

Research cooperation between developing countries and institutions or companies based in the developed world has been important in promoting transgenic research in Africa. For example, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (SFIT) in Zurich plans to collaborate with researchers in Kenya, Nigeria, the UK and the USA on the African cassava mosaic virus. This virus is transmitted to cassava by whiteflies when they feed on the plant. In parts of Eastern and Central Africa, epidemics of the disease can lead to total loss of harvests. Researchers at SFIT have used genes from a virus that periodically devastates cassava crops to create cassava plants that can resist the virus. Cassava is an important food crop in many parts of Africa and is strongly affected by genetic erosion, pest infestation and plant disease because it is a vegetatively propagated crop. Genetically modified cassava could save African farmers large economic losses. So far, the only way to curb the virus is by intensive use of insecticide to kill whiteflies. But this can be prohibitively expensive for subsistence farmers and can threaten their health and that of surrounding plants and animals.

Given biosafety concerns, some countries are investing in improving their research and monitoring capacity. Zambia, for example, has begun building a modern molecular biology laboratory to detect GMOs entering the country. The goal of this US$330,000 laboratory facility is to be accredited as a regional and national referral laboratory that will provide research and training in collaboration with the University of Zambia and the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology. Other countries such as Madagascar have taken a more cautious approach, banning the growing or importing of GM foods due to concerns over their effect on human health and the environment.

Despite the growing interest in GM crops, nontransgenic agricultural research remains the backbone of agricultural research in most African countries. In Kenya, for example, of the 17 biotechnology research and training projects only 2 use transgenic technologies. Researchers in Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar are engaged in non-transgenic rice research to improve yield. In Côte d’Ivoire, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) West African Rice Development Association (WARDA) has used an “embryo rescue” technique to cross-breed African and Asian rice. The new variety has several advantages over conventional African varieties including early maturity, improved pest resistance, drought- and acid soil-tolerance and greater height (which makes it easier to pick by hand). Madagascar has implemented a system of rice cultivation which through improved agronomic practices, and without the use of GM varieties or chemical inputs, has shown improved yields.

GM food aid

caption Box 4: Some approaches to GMO foods and food aid in Africa
(Source: Apps 2005, ERA 2005)

Drought, inadequate water resources and poor soils, along with other economic and social pressures, have made food shortages a problem in many parts of Africa. From 2002, GM crops have been offered as food aid. In Southern Africa, several countries have expressed concern about the use of GM crops as food aid, given the lack of clarity about their potential impacts. During the drought of 2002-03, several countries opted to reject GM food aid. In making their decisions, countries considered not only the immediate issue of food shortages and the overall implications of GM crops for human and environmental health, but also future directions in agriculture, the implications of private sector-led research, livelihood and development options, ethical issues and rights concerns. Similarly, public concerns are raised about the relationship between GM crops and sustainable agriculture. Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM-Tanzania, PELUM-Kenya, and PELUM-Zimbabwe), Biowatch South Africa, and national consumer councils have all been key players.

Some approaches to GM food aid are identified in Box 4. Mozambique raised concerns about accepting GM maize aid on biosafety and human health grounds and opted to ban its import. Zambia refused to accept GM food aid in any form; Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique refused to accept GM food aid unless it was milled, this being seen as a precaution to avoid any germination of whole grains and to limit impacts on biodiversity; Lesotho and Swaziland authorized the distribution of non-milled GM food, but not before it warned the public that the grain should be used strictly for consumption and not for cultivation; and in 2004, Angola and Sudan introduced restrictions on GM food aid.

Global anti-GM food campaigns have influenced public attitudes to GM foods in Africa. Consumers International (CI), a worldwide federation of consumer organizations with 38 member organizations in about 22 African countries, has played an important role in shaping the debates around GM foods. It advocates a legal regime in which all GM foods are subject to rigorous, independent safety testing, labelling and traceability requirements, and in which producers are held liable for the environmental or health damage which their products may cause. There is growing acceptance of this approach globally.

Drivers and constraints

caption Box 5: Intellectual Property Rights: potential conflicts and opportunities for resolution
(Source: GBDI and IITA 2000)

As elsewhere, globalization, trade liberalization and deregulation, and the privatization of agricultural R&D lie at the heart of the push of GM technologies into Africa. Africa’s receptiveness is shaped by concerns about food insecurity, growing poverty and inadequate nutrition as well as declining public agricultural research budgets and capacity.

Declining public sector African agricultural research, combined with the privatization of agricultural research, has led to a focus on providing hi-tech solutions, including transgenics, over other agricultural options. Globally-driven agricultural research and technology development, which defines Africa’s food security problems as being primarily about yield, poses the “quick fix” of GM crops as particularly attractive. The multiple stressors that are driving food insecurity, including the interplay between inadequate access to water, poor soil fertility, climate change, inadequate infrastructure, weak markets, poverty, HIV/AIDS and civil war, are inadequately taken into account in developing solutions. The shortcomings of such an approach and the value of interlinkages in problem analysis as well as in defining solutions are discussed in Interlinkages: The environment and policy web in Africa.

caption Figure 4: GM status in Africa
(Source: African Centre for Biotechnology 2005, CBD 2006, James 2004)

Although human development, food security and environmental health issues are often the focus of the marketing strategies of the main R&D companies, it is unlikely that such altruistic concerns are driving their investment. The developing world, including Africa, is an important potential market, as consumer and producer, given that Europe is not receptive to GM products and that more than 70 percent of Africa’s people are engaged in agricultural production.

The high level of investment needed in GM research and its application has constrained African participation and has led to research that primarily focuses on developed country needs. Transgenic research is very expensive when compared to more traditional biotechnology techniques. For example, the IRMA project is estimated to have cost US$6 million over 5 years and the transgenic sweet potato research US$2 million, compared to the average funding of tissue culture and marker technology projects costing on average US$300,000.

The absence of a supportive policy and legal framework is often cited as an inhibiting factor for the development of biotechnology. On the one hand, biotechnology companies may be reluctant to invest in costly research without the legal guarantee that they will be able to commercialize their products Supportive legislative frameworks for research include not only clear rules for risk assessment and commercialization but also intellectual property rights (IPR). Although IPR standards have been developed through the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), domestic IPR legislation in many African countries remains weak. Many countries struggle with how to reconcile IPRs with farmers’ rights and other local interests. There are concerns that strong IPRs will entrench global domination of world food production by a few companies and increased dependence on industrialized nations. IPR may place restrictions on farmers, including on their existing rights to store and exchange seed. Some of the challenges regarding IPR are discussed in Box 5. On the other hand, in some instances the absence of a legal framework has encouraged research as biotechnology companies can act with few restraints and responsibilities. For example, in 1998 Monsanto engaged in the planting of GM crops in Zimbabwe as there was no regulation, although these crops were subsequently destroyed when the government established what had happened.

At a national and regional level, the lack of adequately inclusive policy processes has contributed to a polarized GM debate. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, civil society has been increasingly recognized as an important partner in the development of environmental policy and practice. Civil society organizations, globally and within Africa, have been very active in claiming this space around issues related to genetic modification. A range of concerns has been raised related to the debates around human health and biosafety as well as to the socioeconomic implications, especially as they relate to issues of food security, livelihoods and human well-being. As discussed in the Human dimension of development in Africa, an increasing number of intergovernmental African agencies, international organizations and national governments are recognizing the value of such approaches. For example, Benin has established a five-year national moratorium on the importation, commercialization and utilization of all GM products or products derived from GMOs to give the country time to effectively debate, develop and implement national biosafety legislation.

Another set of concerns relating to policy-making processes is the growing influence of the scientific and private sector in policy development and how to balance this with public concerns. Issues of public trust, accountability and transparency, as well as farmers’ and consumers’ rights, underlie much of this.

In many arenas, public objection to and concerns about GMOs are important constraints to GM research and the commercialization of GM products. Globally, these concerns focus on health and environmental implications. These concerns stem from the continuing high levels of uncertainty around impacts and risks as well as the poor dissemination and communication of available information. No technology or human activity is completely risk-free; people accept new technologies because they believe the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks. Public mistrust of private sector motives resulting from past private sector behaviour in potentially risky areas such as tobacco, pharmaceuticals and chemicals is also a factor. Some are concerned about possible dumping by companies or nations in efforts to dispose of surplus stocks or to recoup the cost of R&D. In Southern Africa, some governments have expressed similar concerns about GM food aid. In Africa, public concerns have revolved around ethical issues, food security and livelihood concerns, farmers’ and consumer rights, and non-inclusive policy processes. Farmers’ organizations in West African countries have, in voicing their objection to the introduction of GM crops, focused on a range of factors that undermine the productive agricultural sector, including European Union (EU) and US cotton subsidies, and are beginning to look more critically at the dominant model of cotton production, questioning the need for chemical inputs and looking for means to reduce their dependence on cotton. Researchers and farmers are successfully rebuilding agricultural practices based on farmer knowledge and local resources that greatly reduce the use of pesticides.

Given the magnitude of what is at stake, these concerns remain, despite the policy and regulatory frameworks on environment and biosafety developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 and its Cartagena Protocol in 2000, which specifically regulates the transboundary movement of living modified organisms.

Further reading

This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Seizing opportunities in Africa: interlinkages in environment for development  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Opportunities and risks of genetically modified crops in Africa

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. (2011). Genetically modified crops in Africa. Retrieved from


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