Opportunities and risks of genetically modified crops in Africa

November 11, 2012, 11:59 pm


File:Farmers in Côte d’Ivoire.JPG

There is much controversy about the opportunities and risks posed by genetic modification (GM) technology. This results in part from the lack of information to support policymakers and the public in evaluating the options. Much of the information that is available is oversimplified and may focus on just one aspect of the debate, thus making it an unreliable source. Better scientific information is often inaccessible to non-GM specialists. A key challenge facing African countries is how to deal with this information gap and how to evaluate the contradictory information that is available.

An IUCN – The World Conservation Union (IUCN) report finds that the controversies are essentially in three areas:

  • The interpretation of science and specifically whether genetically modified organisms (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 revolving around issues of food production and security, livelihoods, and human and environmental health.

Markets and trade

The uncertainty about the impact of growing GM crops on markets for other crops is a concern for many countries. The European Union’s de facto moratorium on new approvals for the production and import of GMOs is particularly important.

Traceability requirements, such as the EU’s 2003 initiative on country of origin labelling, have impeded imports from the US where many GM crops are produced. Traceability requirements are designed to address problems of contamination of organic crops by GMO pollen drift, the use of contaminated seeds and sloppy handling. Such practices have been reported (Riddle 2002) and are a trade concern. Increased commercialization of GMOs in Africa could threaten organic agriculture and agricultural exports to, for example, EU countries where GMO use remains restricted (Pruzin 2004).

An additional issue is the relationship between national safety standards and labelling requirements and global agreements. While the Cartagena Protocol allows members to develop more stringent safety standards than those it provides, there is the risk that such standards could be found to violate provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements.

Food security

caption Farmers in Côte d’Ivoire select the NERICA rice varieties to grow during PVS trials. Here they compare panicles of rice varieties during post-harvest evaluation.
(Source: World Bank)

An important challenge for much of Africa is how one improves food security. Determining appropriate strategies requires a clear understanding of the nature of the food security problem and an understanding of what exactly GM crops can bring to addressing this. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1, target 2 seeks to reduce chronic hunger by half from the 1990 baseline by 2015. Genetic modification technology may contribute to food security goals through increasing crop yields, producing hardier crop varieties that can withstand heat and drought, enhancing nutritional and medicinal value, and improving storability (UN Millennium Project 2005b). Increasing crop resistance to insects and diseases and reducing weeds could help reduce crop losses and reduce dependence on costly fertilizers and herbicides, resulting in valuable savings for resource-poor farmers (Bernsten 2004). For example, the European corn borer destroys 7-20 percent of the world’s annual maize harvest. If Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can successfully control the corn borer, maize yields in Africa could increase significantly. However, the potential of such innovations is highly contested.

However, as the Brundtland Report cautioned as early as 1987, the challenge of improving food security is more than just increasing food production. The Brundtland Report noted that globally agriculture does not lack resources but lacks the policy to match need and production. Food production is closely linked to cultural and livelihood systems. Crucial issues that need to be addressed include:

  • The impact of reliance on GMOs to solve social and economic problems;
  • The impact of the cost of GM crop production;
  • The implications of expensive research and development (R&D) processes;
  • The equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic materials conserved primarily in the developing countries;
  • The impact of GMOs on local livelihood systems; and
  • The impact of GMOs on agricultural biodiversity.

The assumption that food shortages stem from a gap in food production and population growth is now widely challenged. The problem of world hunger is not a problem of food production but one of distribution. The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before: enough food is available to provide 1.9 kilogram (kg) for every person every day: 1.1 kg of grain, beans and nuts, about 0.4 kg of meat, milk and eggs and the same amount of fruits and vegetables (Altieri and Rosset 1999). The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access to food and land. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available (but often poorly distributed) or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves (Lappe and others 1998 in Altieri and Rosset 1999).

Genetically modified crops may be important from a developing country perspective because specific nutritional values can be added (UN Millennium Project 2005b). One of the best known genetic enrichment food crops is vitamin A improved rice, also called “Golden Rice.” Insufficient vitamin A intake by children in developing countries is the leading cause of visual impairment and blindness, affecting over three million children in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Pregnant women with vitamin A deficiency (VAD) face an increased risk of mortality as well as high risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission. Thus, if effective, nutritionally enhanced “Golden Rice” could be one important tool for addressing the MDG 5 on maternal health. While genetically enriched crops can be an important nutritional strategy, the efficacy of this approach is contested. It remains to be seen whether these crops will live up to the nutritional values demonstrated in the laboratory in real life. “Golden Rice” is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. For beta-carotene to be converted to vitamin A, it requires a functional digestive tract, adequate zinc, protein and fat stores, adequate energy, and protein and fat in the diet. However, in populations that suffer from VAD, the overall dietary deficiencies act as barriers to the conversion. The question also arises as to whether this is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to address nutritional deficits. An alternative is to promote the use of existing varieties of food crops with high levels of beta-carotene such as sweet potato. One of the main factors constraining the inclusion of adequate fruit and vegetable in rural peoples’ diets is the problem of food storage. Research in some countries, including Zimbabwe, is attempting to address these shortcomings.

Nutritional diversity may be threatened by GM licensing agreements and production systems which push farmers to monoculture and thus reduce the variety of crops planted for household consumption.

The livelihood implications of adopting GM technologies are still not fully understood. Biotechnology is a technology under corporate control, protected by patents and other forms of IPR, and therefore contrary to farming traditions of saving and exchanging seeds; consequently there has been considerable resistance by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations to the adoption of GM crops. There are concerns about the impacts of the changing nature of agribusiness and its impact on poor people and their food security. Because hunger is primarily linked to poverty, lack of access to land, and the maldistribution of food, one concern is that biotechnology may exacerbate inequalities underlying the causes of hunger. Leading GM companies have been rigorous in enforcing contractual agreements around the use, storage and sale of GM seed and products. Small-scale farmers have been prosecuted in developed and developing countries.

Chemical use

caption Cajanus cajan (Pigeon Pea) is a perennial legume. This plant is drought-resistant, nitrogen fixing, and enhances soil fertility. It requires low inputs and can be intercropped with traditional crops.
(Source: A. Conti/FAO)

Modern agriculture has had negative impacts on the environment. The high level of chemical inputs required for improved varieties, developed under the green revolution, which replaced traditional varieties has had a heavy toll.

Transgenic agriculture promises to limit the environmental releases of damaging chemicals (Cullen 2004, Bernsten 2004, and FAO 2002) by reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, and fertilizers. However, these claims remain contested, as discussed, for example, in relation to Bt cotton, in Box 1. Whether the incorporation of the pesticide into the crop itself rather than application on the soil will be environmentally friendlier is not known (Young 2004). The challenges and opportunities associated with chemical use are considered more fully in Chapter 11: Chemicals.

Africa currently uses 3.6 million tonnes of fertilizer, but the potential requirement to maintain average levels of crop production without depleting soil nutrients is 11.7 million tonnes per year (Henao and Baanante 1999). The negative environmental aspects of mineral and organic fertilizers include accumulation of dangerous or even toxic substances in soil. This includes cadmium pollution from mineral phosphate fertilizers or from town or industrial waste products; eutrophication of surface water, with its negative effect on oxygen supply, which threatens fish and other forms of animal life; nitrate accumulation in groundwater, diminishing the quality of drinking water; and unwanted enrichment of the atmosphere with ammonia from organic manures and mineral fertilizers, and with nitrogen oxide (N2O) from denitrification of excessive or wrongly placed nitrogen fertilizer (Finck 1992).


It is not known how GM technologies will impact upon biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biodiversity as: “The variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”

caption Box 1: Will the use of Bt cotton result in less pest threats and pesticide use?
(Source: GRAIN 2005)

The introduction of a transgene into a recipient organism is not a precisely controlled process and can result in a variety of outcomes with regard to integration, expression and stability of the transgene in the host (FAO and WHO 2003). The risks associated with modifying the genetic structure of crops are not well understood and there is little agreement on either the severity or likelihood of potential risks. This controversy emanates from a scientific dispute about how “stable” GM crops are. Several concerns can be identified.

First, GM technology could result in the contamination of crops through gene transfer – “genetic pollution” – and the development of “super weeds” (Altieri 2002, Porter 2005) and therefore have a negative impact on biodiversity. A further concern about GM crops is that the genes could “escape” and, through cross-pollination, mix with non-GM crops or their weedy relatives. For example, an herbicidetolerant gene could be transferred to weeds in wild habitats, turning them into “super weeds” (ERA 2005). There is evidence of the unintentional spread of genes from GM crops (Monroe 2004).

Second, transgenic crops modified to be resistant to a particular pest or disease may have a negative effect on non-target species that are harmless or beneficial. For example, Bt maize pollen may be toxic to the Monarch butterfly (Losey and others 1999). Although the Monarch butterfly is native to Mexico, the United States the of America and Canada (Manos-Jones 2004) it is possible that other butterfly species in Africa can be similarly affected. On the other hand, the alternative to transgenic crops could be as harmful to the environment. For instance, the practice of routine spraying of broad-spectrum insecticides is non-selective, and therefore kills all insects regardless of whether they are beneficial or harmful to the crop. A British study on oilseed has recently concluded that it is not the GM crops that harm wildlife but the herbicides sprayed on the crops that significantly reduce the broad leaf weeds such as chickweed, a major bird food. The magnitude of these GMO risks to non-target organisms, including beneficial insects, is largely unknown as there have been no comprehensive studies in Africa to date.

Third, pest resistance can occur with frequent use of any pest control product. Insects can develop resistance to toxins such as the Bt bacterium, reducing the effectiveness of this control method. In Australia, India and China, for example, pests are becoming resistant to some GM cotton crops that have Bt genes inserted. Research into the safety of GM crops using genes that produce toxins should precede commercialization and not follow it. Inbred pest resistance might also be toxic to people in the long term. For example, long-term consumption of peas, Lathyrus sativus, can cause paralysis if a toxin in the peas accumulates in people, as has happened in Bangladesh and India (Messons cited by Sawahel 2005). Bt crops have proven to be unstable and ineffective; some insects, which survive Bt, transmit genetic resistance to their immediate offspring. If Bt becomes ineffective as an implanted pest control strategy within one insect generation, then organic farmers will be robbed of a valuable biopesticide. Regional cases of Bt resistance have already been reported. Insects resistant to the genetically modified Ingard Bt cotton were reported in Australia. Indeed, GM plants are not behaving as intended: in 1996, Monsanto’s pest-resistant Bt cotton succumbed to a heat wave in the southern US and was destroyed by bollworms and other pests. In 1997, farmers who grew Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant cotton saw the cotton balls fall off their crops.

Fourth, GM crops engineered to be resistant to specific herbicides enable farmers to spray weeds without damaging crops. Weeds are developing resistance to these herbicides, and rogue GM plants that grow after a harvest (volunteers) have appeared and spread widely. In particular, GM oilseed rape volunteers have spread quickly, and some plants have become resistant to several herbicides through cross-pollination. Elsewhere, GM cotton crops have failed to impart protection from pests resulting in increased use of chemical sprays: farmers are making more frequent applications and reverting to older and more toxic chemicals.

caption Figure 1: Biodiversity in mountain regions
(Source: Fleury 1999)

Fifth, GMOs could impact on genetic diversity. The increased competitiveness of GMOs could cause it to damage biologically-rich ecosystems. Transgenic crops could encourage biodiversity loss through the establishment of monoculture agriculture which replaces traditional crops and other established varieties. Currently, the main potential cause of loss of biodiversity is agricultural expansion, which destroys habitats. The needs of a growing global population have largely been met by bringing more land into agricultural production. Proponents of GM crops highlight this and suggest that transgenic crops may be able to help preserve uncultivated habitats by increasing yields on land already under cultivation, reducing the need for conversion.

Sixth, ecological and health hazards are also posed by genetic use restriction technologies (GURT) which are commonly known as terminator technology. These organisms do not flower and fruit and therefore provide no food for the multitude of insects, birds and mammals that feed on pollen, nectar, seed and fruit, and will inevitably have huge impacts on biodiversity. Sterile trees can still spread by asexual means and the genes can spread horizontally to soil bacteria, fungi and other organisms in the extensive root system of the trees, with unpredictable impacts on the soil biota and fertility. As transgenic traits tend to be unstable, they could break down and revert to flowerdevelopment, spreading transgenes to native trees, or creating pollen that poisons bees and other pollinators as well as causing potential harm to human beings. The sterile monocultures are much more likely to succumb to disease, which could potentially wipe out entire plantations. Some companies have developed GM crop seeds that use GURT. As a result, farmers become dependent on large corporations and must purchase new seeds every season. In addition to social equity issues associated with these monopolistic tendencies, GURT may have environmental risks and thus the technologies require further evaluation. GM crops can be unstable posing risks to other plants.

There are counter claims to all these concerns: the use of herbicide-resistant and pest-resistant crops is believed to have positive implications for biodiversity. With nonherbicide tolerant (non-transgenic) soybean, farmers must clear the weeds before planting their seeds. With herbicide-tolerant soybean, however, the weeds can be better controlled; farmers can plant the seeds by sowing them directly in relatively undisturbed soil. This conserves moisture and soil fauna and flora and also reduces water and wind erosion.

Human health concerns

caption Genetic diversity in maize.
(Source: CIMMYT)

Given the uncertainty over the risks associated with GMOs, it is not surprising that strong and often polarized opinions are held around issues of food safety and human health. Consumer and environmental organizations and several governments have adopted cautious approaches to GM-derived foods, preferring to err on the side of safety rather than take unknown risks. Similar concerns have been expressed about the use of GM ingredients in livestock production systems via incorporation of GM-derived oilseeds and cereals in animal feed. The UK, Germany and France have eliminated the use of ingredients derived from GM plants from foods manufactured for direct human consumption or that enter the food supply chain.

caption Box 2: Some approaches to GMO foods and food aid in Africa
(Source: Apps 2005, ERA 2005)

Labelling of GM foods is an important consumer concern. It provides information for consumers and users of the product and allows them to make an informed choice. On this basis the EU, for example, has adopted labelling and traceability regulations. In the late 1990s, Austria, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg imposed national bans on a number of GMO products. Poland is the second central European country to ban a GMO maize type after Hungary, which outlawed the planting of Monsanto’s MON 810 hybrid seeds in January 2005. In the United States, labelling has not received the same level of attention. In Africa, several countries have prohibited the import of GM foods, as shown in Box 2. Consumer concerns about GM foods include health and ethical considerations. Some human and animal health risks have been identified. Most of the examples are from regions where GMO technology has been in use far longer than it has in Africa. This information provides important lessons for Africa – a region that is now a target for rapid expansion of GMO technology. The limited experience with GMOs indicates some possible risks.

First, increased use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops may pose new risks for environmental and human health. For example, glyphosate is a major formulation of “Roundup Ready” crops and is now the world’s bestselling “total” herbicide. Due to the introduction of GMO-Roundup Ready crops, human and environmental exposure to the herbicide is expected to increase. However, there is strong evidence that glyphosate-containing products are acutely toxic to animals and humans. Second, there are new medical risks from GM technologies. For example, gene therapy involves the use of a virus to carry a modified DNA segment and the virus is potentially pathogenic. The risks of these treatments are largely unknown. There are concerns that medical applications involving genetic engineering may produce cancer-causing genes from normal human genes.

Third, the insertion of genes from one crop into another may increase allergic reactions, especially where consumers are not informed about the origins of the transgene. For example, soybean seeds genetically modified to include a gene from Brazil nuts in order to fortify a protein supplement containing soy resulted in people allergic to Brazil nuts reacting to the soy product. The modified soy product indicated no negative reactions when it was tested on animals, illustrating the difference between the reactions of laboratory animals and humans to GM food products. This warrants further study of this new technology before it is widely embraced. The soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, from which endotoxin (Bt) genes are extracted and widely incorporated into GM crops as biopesticide, is a close relative of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, and exchanges genes with it. Potentially this can generate more deadly pathogens. Some Bt genes are known to cause toxic or allergic reactions in humans. However, GM technology can also be used to prevent food allergies by deleting the major allergen, such as the case with soybean developed by Pioneer International.

Fourth, increased antibiotic resistance may result. For example, Novartis’ Bt maize contains a marker gene, which codes for antibiotic resistance in E.coli. There is a risk that if animals or humans consume Bt maize-based products such as cattle feed or starch, some antibiotics would be rendered useless. Fifth, vitamin toxicity from nutritionally enhanced crops may be an unintended consequence. When GM crops such as rice and rapeseed with high vitamin A concentrations are planted, there will be no way to distinguish them from normal crops, with the contingent risk of liver damage if too much vitamin A is consumed.


GMO and ethics issues centre among other things on patenting, cloning of life forms and biopiracy. These concerns have a direct bearing on achieving sustainable livelihoods and conservation of environmental resources. In Africa, many communities and consumers express ethical concerns about “playing god” as plants are transformed in unnatural ways and about the implications for traditional beliefs and values. If not properly managed, gene patents could be instrumental in promoting and institutionalizing social inequity. Patenting genetic material traditionally available to a community, without allowing the community free use of the material or providing any return to the community, affects the fair and equitable distribution of resources, a necessity in the development of a sustainable society. There is concern that the access and intellectual property issues related to “terminator gene” technologies will lead to increasing dependence on industrialized nations by African countries, and domination of world food production by a few multinational companies.

Biopiracy is also of growing concern, particularly as many African countries lack the legislative and enforcement systems to control illegal extraction of genetic resources. Additionally, the benefit sharing systems for the use of these assets and of traditional knowledge are poorly developed.

The issues of proprietary science have complicated the ethical and safety issues of GM technology. In particular there are challenges around reconciling the rights of product developers with those of consumers. Many public protests have centred on ethical or ecological grounds, the uncertainty about the impacts of the technology, and the public right-to-know and to have access to information, including through labelling. In several countries, concerns have been raised as to whether “the technology is tantamount to playing god, interfering with nature, contrary to local ethics and also whether gene insertion would play havoc with the totem system that lies at the heart of local cultural association”.

caption Content Source: Wikimedia Commons

Further reading


This is a chapter from Africa Environment Outlook 2: Our Environment, Our Wealth (e-book).
Previous: Genetically modified crops in Africa  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Responses to genetically modified crop use 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. (2012). Opportunities and risks of genetically modified crops in Africa. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155055


To add a comment, please Log In.