Kisumu/Kampala — Even as food insecurity continues to afflict impoverished and disaster-affected populations around the continent, African policymakers and consumers remain deeply divided over the potential harms and benefits of genetically modified (GM) foods, which advocates say could greatly improve yields and nutrition.
A recent study published in the journal Food Policy, titled Status of development, regulation and adoption of GM agriculture in Africa, shows that heated debates over safety concerns continue to plague efforts to use GM crop technology to tackle food security problems and poverty.
Yet results from the four African countries that have implemented commercial GM agriculture - Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan - suggest an improvement in productivity. In South Africa, a 2008 study showed an 11 percent grain yield advantage when using GM maize, and in Burkina Faso, the technology has led to a 15 percent increase in cotton.
"Compared to conventional plant breeding methods, GM technology is less time-consuming and more accurate in acquiring the desired objectives," said Carl M.F. Mbofung, a professor at the University of Ngaoundere, Cameroon, said at a 2010 conference on agriculture in Africa.
A 2011 report by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, which strongly supports the use of GM technologies, noted that the average yield of cereal per acre was seven times greater in the US, where GM crops are widely used, than it was in sub-Saharan Africa. While better infrastructure can account for some of this difference, the report argues that a failure to invest in GM crops is partly responsible.
Still, there remain significant challenges across the continent regarding the need to build robust regulatory frameworks and to bridge the knowledge gap between scientists, policymakers and the public to allow for informed decisions.
The Food Policy report suggests that when effective biosafety regulatory frameworks are in place, GM is more likely to be widely adopted and accepted.
The authors interviewed 305 respondents from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia - countries that are already cultivating GM crops or have large research and development programs devoted to it.
Only South Africa had European-style risk assessment frameworks, according to the report, and of the six countries, stakeholders there expressed the most support for GM technologies and said that GM crops had a high level of adoption.
By contrast, a US Department of Agriculture 2012 Agricultural Biotechnology report noted that, "Tunisia still has no legal framework dealing with the introduction, use and marketing of agricultural biotechnology."
"In view of the challenges identified in developing and regulating GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in Africa, there is an urgent need for all countries to establish a regulatory framework that will lead to a comprehensive and balanced evaluation of GM products," said the Food Policy report.
The Food Policy also study suggested that following the European Union's (EU) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment model is one possible way to reduce the perceived risks associated with GM crop cultivation. Having a centralized continent-wide agency would reduce the individual cost of each country creating a separate regulatory risk assessment board.
"Aside from this, I do not see the advantage of copying or adopting the EU model of the EFSA as it has not enhanced the adoption of the GE [genetically engineered] crops in the EU. We are more concerned [with] meeting our food and nutrition insecurity needs in Africa, which are non-issue[s] with the Europeans," Diran Makinde, director of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), told IRIN.
Issues of political will could also threaten to undermine a continent-wide regulatory project, according to the report.
Bridging the knowledge gap
In recent months Kenya has stepped up campaigns on biotechnology education and awareness.
At a seminar organized by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Governor Benjamin Cheboi of Kenya's Baringo County released a statement saying the technology holds great promise for the holistic economic development of a nation.
"It has become crucial for sustainable development in every biological sector including agriculture, forestry, medicine and environment, yet lack of information undermines its adoption in the country," his remarks stated.
Makinde agreed that there are not enough avenues for farmers to get information about GM crops and biotechnology. "Africa needs to put regulations on information resources, training and education that will involve short- and long-term trainings in biosafety, tailor-made workshops, internships and study tours - as seeing is believing - linkages and networking," he said.
The Food Policy report notes that some countries, such as Ghana and Kenya, are likely to use a three-step approach - known as Fiber-Feed-Food, or F3 - to adopt GM crops.
Through this method, Bt cotton will be adopted first, followed by livestock feed, before producing GM foods for human consumption. This allows time for the necessary risk assessments to be carried out.
"Farmers and consumers need to experience the benefits of the technology in terms of the economic benefits to farmers, and quality of food for human/animals, and environmental benefits with the decrease use of pesticides," said Makinde.
He added that so far benefits have been realized from insect-resistant cotton, insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize/soybean for livestock, insect-resistant maize, and nutrient-enriched food commodities like cassava, cowpea, banana, rice and sweet potato for humans.
"The approach is essentially designed to familiarize farmers and [the] public with the new technology and to allay concerns about potential risks of GMOs," said the report.
U-turns on policy
But it is clear that the adoption of GM crops is still highly contentious. Kenya, under former president Mwai Kibaki, in November 2012, ordered a ban on GM food until the government is able to certify that there have been no negative health effects.
"The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health," said a statement by Kibaki's cabinet.
The ban followed a controversial study linking cancer in rats to GM food consumption; the study's methodology was criticized as flawed by independent scientists.
According to the lead agency dealing with the regulation of GMOs in Kenya, the National Biosafety Authority, the ban is only for food and does not include experiments within laboratories or in confined field trials.
The ban carries fines of up to 20 million Kenya shillings (about US$230,000) and a 10-year jail term for traders failing to comply, and also requires that all GM-derived products be labelled from production to marketing.
The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) maintains that the Kenyan government has put in place structures to ensure GMOs are used safely.
"The Kenyan government has taken a forward-looking stance in providing an enabling environment for the safe and responsible application of modern biotechnology," the ABSF report said.
In Uganda, too, legislators have been hesitant to pass laws supporting the development of GM technologies. The 2012 National Biotechnology and Biosafety bill, which aims to provide a regulatory framework for the safe development, research and general release of GMOs, was deferred by legislators in February 2013.
"The whole concept of GMOs has been riddled with fears and misconceptions," Michael Lulume Bayigga, Uganda's shadow health minister, told IRIN. "The owners of these GMOs are whites in the US, Europe and China who are looking for market[s] in Africa. They are creating markets and empowering themselves. These GMOs are tools of imperialism."
He added: "I will cautiously support GMOs as long as they have been developed, modified and tested by our own [African] scientists. But this engineering is worrisome."
"We are going to look at their concerns and have further discussions on it so that [the] bill is re-tabled for debate," Connie Acayo, the public relations officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, told IRIN. "We want the bill in order to enable us to regulate the development and application of GMOs. At the moment, we don't have control over GMOs that enter into the country."
The bill, which would set the legal stage for farmers to buy GM seeds and plants and to export GM produce, has been in approval limbo since 2003.
Uganda is currently carrying out a series of GMO trials at the country's National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) centers. These plants are engineered to be resistant to wilt disease, cassava brown streak virus disease and other common bugs.
Ongoing trials include a vitamin A-enriched banana, disease-resistant cotton, GM cassava plants and drought-resistant maize meant for semi-arid northeastern Uganda, commonly known as Karamoja. These crops take into consideration increasing climate change and global warming.
"GMOs are not contradictory to food safety. All the commodities being worked on by NARO go through all tests for stability, cost effectiveness and safety," Emily K. Twinamasiko, director general of NARO, told IRIN. "No doubt people naturally worry about the new and the unknown, but the regulatory framework provided for in the [Biotechnology and Biosafety] bill will take care of all this."
But the Food Policy report also noted that in South Africa, GM crops had not benefited subsistence farmers, who were not using them because of the cost of the seeds and because of delays in obtaining regulatory approval. "This constraint still represents a significant challenge in developing local GM traits for subsistence farmers," the report said.
Some NGOs argue that there are methods to improve agricultural outputs without relying on GM technology.
The Food Policy report's authors spoke to a Greenpeace campaign director in Africa, who said the risks of GM were too high for uneducated farmers, and that "ecological farming and traditional knowledge methods should form the basis of promoting sustainable development."
She said improving infrastructure and increasing access to regional markets will likely result in greatly increased productivity and enhanced food security on the continent. She further said that empowering women with more efficient methods of farming - provided it is done in a targeted way that accounts for socio-economic context - can also be transformative.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]