Opportunities and constraints from genetic modification technologies in Africa

March 4, 2013, 7:25 pm


Africa’s experience with genetic modification (GM) technologies is still relatively new compared to other regions and it is faced with many challenges on how best to proceed. Knowledge, transparency, fairness and containment are four key points in formulating a sound African policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Inclusive policy processes

Inclusive policy processes, based on adequate information, are essential to developing appropriate national and regional responses. The potential risks and opportunities posed by GM technologies are immense.

Decision making is a process of accountability – to one’s constituency, one’s country and the world – and as such it must necessarily be based on a weighing of evidence, not only evidence that a decision might pose a particular risk or benefit, but also evidence about the potential dimensions of that risk or benefit, about the likelihood of harm or advantage, about the efficacy of available measures to prevent or mitigate risks, and about other factors and situations within and outside the decision-maker’s jurisdiction that affect the decision. Thus it is crucial for decision-makers, legislators, governments and the civil society, to have access to adequate supporting information.

Given the complexity of the issues at stake from biosafety considerations, human health concerns and socioeconomic implications, it is essential that policy processes use a range of techniques that are able to support effective valuation in these areas. In it is also important, given the range of interests at stake, that policy processes become more deliberative, transparent and accountable.

Weighing the choice of agricultural options

A crucial issue facing African governments is determining what kind of development and agricultural strategies can best meet long-term objectives and medium- to short-term goals. A viable agricultural strategy should contribute to the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and targets including:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability;
  • Reducing child mortality;
  • Improving maternal health; and
  • Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

Defining such a strategy and identifying appropriate solutions is dependent on research that accurately understands the nature of the problem. Declining African agricultural research has meant that, increasingly, research priorities are often externally driven on the basis of assumptions that are not shared. Much global agricultural research is based on models which focus on production deficits and fails to take into account the multiple factors that are driving food crises including globalization, environmental degradation and HIV/AIDS. The opportunities of and challenges faced by agricultural production systems are discussed in Land resources in Africa and Freshwater resources in Africa. The problems of food security are complex and can probably not be resolved through a “technological fix.” Instead they require multisectoral and multilevel (local, national, international) interventions. Nevertheless, GM technologies offer promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge in Africa. Benefits to the environment can be summarized to include: “friendly” bioherbicides and bio-insecticides, and conservation of soil, water, and energy. Increased food security for the growing populations may result from GM enhanced crop and livestock productivity.

New GM technological advances may create ethical controversies around tampering with nature, from, for example, mixing genes among species and related objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa.

Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Potential environmental impacts include: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (eg soil microbes) and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity. Traditional agricultural systems have played an important role in maintaining crop diversity. Certain human health impacts have been identified. The impacts on livelihoods, food security and rural options are not well understood.

Although genetic engineering may offer important opportunities for development and achieving the MDGs, it is important to strengthen existing local production systems and not compromise the existing systems. Clear cost-benefit analysis about the efficacy of different kinds of technological options need to be undertaken alongside locally-driven priority-setting exercises. The question remains as to whether development of genetic engineering is a priority for African governments at this point in time.

The value of existing agricultural approaches and non-transgenic approaches for Africa need to be considered. Achievements that have been made, including improving yields, better management of insects. pests, plant diseases and weeds without the use of synthetic pesticides, and the maintenance of soil fertility without chemical fertilizers, should be consolidated. The value and productivity of traditional agriculture in development and its genetic diversity should not be underestimated. Africa has more than 2,000 native grains, roots, fruits and other food plants (National Research Council 1996).

The issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs) will need to be addressed to ensure that there are no adverse consequences for food productivity, through, for example, the weakening of farmers’ rights. In addition to directly protecting farmers’ rights, measures to protect genetic resources and ensure benefit sharing may be valuable. These may include:

  • Fair and equitable allocation of profits to local communities from which genetic material was obtained;
  • Adhering to local law and respecting and protecting local cultures and resources; and
  • Adhering to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), particularly Article 8J, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

In 1998, the Council of Ministers of the AU adopted the Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers, Breeders and Regulation of Access to Biological Resources. This serves as a basis for African countries to develop national law which fulfils their obligations to TRIPS and to the CBD, while protecting the collective social process of knowledge and technology generation.

Biosafetey and risk assessment

A biosafety approach would include taking measures to minimize risks to human and environmental health. This could include:

  • Ensuring that thorough information is available and that risks are understood and mitigated;
  • Products containing GMOs must be clearly labelled and information readily available;
  • Clear and fair liability laws and producer responsibility; and
  • Genetic and biological material should be managed and contained to high standards.

Evidence-based GMO risk assessments to assure transparent decision making based on human health and ecological data need to be developed. Risk assessments should be on a case-by-case basis as results obtained from other countries might not be replicable. Deliberative approaches should be considered.

The controversy around risks and opportunities demonstrates the need for effective multilevel assessment procedures that incorporate a precautionary approach as envisaged under the Cartagena Protocol. This policy and legislative approach needs to be complemented by capacity development. Countries need to have the capacity to identify GMOs and also to evaluate the risks associated with them.

Risk management

Possible mitigation plans should be in place in case undesirable outcomes are experienced. This requires that African countries should establish efficient traceability systems as part of their mitigation measures.

Research priority-setting

Agricultural research, including transgenic research, needs to focus on African realities and needs. African agriculture is largely small-scale and relies on polycultures, which consists of many crops being grown on the same plot with possibilities of symbiotic leguminous relationships providing nitrogen fixation (Makanya 2004). In addition to intercropping, trees and shrubs (agroforestry) are the anchor perennial species, providing mycorrhiza for mobilizing phosphorus and other nutrients. and these trees and shrubs promote soil protection against erosion by wind and water. Also, each of Africa’s main staples and about 300 leafy vegetables have perennial cultivars and provide a starting point for the genetic selection and breeding of the best cultivars to incorporate into the traditional tree-and-shrub polyculture in farming households (Odhiambo 2001).

Development of GMOs should aim to tap these special qualities of Africa’s native flora and fauna in the efforts to improve food security and make genetic engineering beneficial to Africa’s environment and development. Research will need to be based on meaningful partnerships between users and researchers if it is to be more responsive to local needs (Jones 2005). Given the multiplicity of civil society organizations (CSOs) and other public interest groups. there is considerable opportunity for developing such partnerships.

Partnerships with the private sector are essential for the sharing of technologies, information and knowledge.

Sound legal and policy framework

A sound legal and policy framework for assessing risks and benefits, regulating research, monitoring research and commercialization, as well as protecting rights, is essential. There needs to be complementarity between the various levels of law and policy, from the global to the local, as well as across different sectors (eg agriculture and technology) and different sets of rights (eg IPRs and farmers’ rights).

Legal frameworks need to recognize key legal principles and rights that are applicable to the development and application of GM technologies. These include precaution; rights to participation and access to information; rights to development as well as a safe and healthy environment; IPRs, indigenous knowledge and farmers’ rights; and issues of legal responsibility. Useful measures that can support an effective legal framework could include labelling and risk assessment and management. For traceability of GM products, country of origin labelling should be fully enforced also for the purposes of record-keeping and informing the public who can then make a choice whether or not to use the products.

Although, under World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, countries need to adopt IPR legislation, in doing so they have a fair amount of latitude. They need to tailor IPR legislation so that it supports them in achieving their development objectives. They can address concerns about domination of world food production by, for example, excluding plants and animals from patent protection. Farmers can be protected by explicitly allowing them to save, re-use and exchange harvested seed. There may be a need to engage and negotiate with multinational corporations through their global federations (such as Crop Life International). Lessons can be learnt from the experience of countries such as India which have succeeded in attracting investment in this area while at the same time protecting the interests of small farmers.

Capacity building

Building capacity in biosafety is a broad task. It includes training individuals in the scientific, legal and policy aspects of risk assessment as well as enhancing research capacity. There needs to be capacity-building of existing institutional talent and establishment of sound research, development, and extension, marketing and monitoring units. Efforts to foster cooperation and scientific advisory committees at subregional levels are encouraged.

Agricultural research throughout Africa has yielded high returns financially and improved livelihoods. However, today agricultural research is under threat from decreasing capacity as a result of inadequate government investment and a series of externally imposed conditionalities. Privately driven research and development (R&D) has been unable to fill this gap and it is crucial that Africans increase investment in research systems. Partnership is central to building capacity in R&D. The application of modern biotechnology to agricultural research systems across the developing world calls for new investments, changes in resource allocations and new responsibilities for policymakers, research managers and scientists alike. Improving research capacity through developing partnerships, to solve local problems, with institutions that have advanced technologies, human resources, laboratory infrastructure and funds for routine administrative work are necessary. African countries might benefit from the pooling of resources for R&D of GMO technologies. Where patentable products are developed, there will be a need for serious consideration on the subsequent equitable utilization of the accrued income. African countries need to increase their own investment in capacity-building.

The application of biosafety principles serves to minimize the risks of GM technologies. Agenda 21, and the CBD and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000) are international instruments that address biosafety issues. Many African nations do not have the capacity to implement this protocol; they lack capacity in terms of expertise, equipment, infrastructure, legislation and regulatory systems (Diouf 2001).

Capacity needs to be built to enable African countries to engage more effectively in global policy fora so that multilateral instruments do not compromise Africa’s interests.

caption White Sorghum; Image by Thamizhpparithi Maari

Further reading


This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Responses to genetically modified crop use in Africa  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Invasive alien species 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. (2013). Opportunities and constraints from genetic modification technologies in Africa. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155054


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