“During the past decade, Africa’s population increased from 760 to 970 million, pushing farmers to encroach on fragile ecosystems. Climate change is increasingly manifest through erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged drought spells, and unprecedented floods, making rain-fed agriculture even more risky, thus aggravating food insecurity among resource-poor smallholder farmers. Compounding this scenario are post-harvest pests that devour their meager harvests. Indeed, the challenges are great, sometimes disillusioning, but certainly not insurmountable. Under these circumstances, GM technologies have a role in addressing challenges that were previously elusive to classical breeding on its own.”
Dr. Daniel Mataruka
African Agricultural Technology Foundation,
Old Naivasha Road, P.O. Box 30709, Nairobi, 00100 Kenya
Genetically modified (GM) crops conjure up varying emotions worldwide. Nevertheless, their acreage is increasing, reaching 125 million hectares in 2008 (James, 2008). Ground breaking work by Mendel in 1860’s took advantage of natural genetic recombination within species, resulting into superior harvests for successive generations. The discovery of Agrobacterium tumefaciens in 1907 offered a unique tool to transfer genes into plants, ushering in a new era of gene transfer across species.
Recently, use of GM technology to produce medicines has risen steeply. Between 2001 and 2006, 60 to 70% of drug approvals in the US and European Union, involved GM technology (Clearant, 2006; EMEA, 2006). Paarlberg (2008), noted that about 25% of new drugs going into the global market are produced using GM technology, while in agriculture, 80% of all cultivated hybrid maize in the US is GM (Cox et al. 2008). In his book Starved for Science: how biotechnology is being kept out of Africa, Paarlberg (2008) further articulates that, unfortunately most African countries have adopted an anti-GM stance, that appears to be influenced by European colonial linkages. Yet, it’s the application of science to agriculture that enabled Europe to produce surplus food. Consequently, while Europe may not require GM technologies to bolster their agriculture, they however, readily embrace them for improved healthcare.
But, where exactly is the role of GM crops in Africa? During the past decade, Africa’s population increased from 760 to 970 million, pushing farmers to encroach on fragile ecosystems. Climate change is increasingly manifest through erratic rainfall patterns, prolonged drought spells, and unprecedented floods, making rain-fed agriculture even more risky, thus aggravating food insecurity among resource-poor smallholder farmers. Compounding this scenario are post-harvest pests that devour their meager harvests. Indeed, the challenges are great, sometimes disillusioning, but certainly not insurmountable. Under these circumstances, GM technologies have a role in addressing challenges that were previously elusive to classical breeding on its own.
In Africa, benefits from GM technologies have already been demonstrated; in South Africa, under rain-fed conditions, Bt maize increased yield by 11% that translated into US$ 35/ha more revenue (James, 2008). In Burkina Faso, field trials on Bt cotton resulted in a two-thirds reduction in insecticide usage and a 15% higher yield, (Vitale et al., 2008), thus promoting farmers’ and environmental health while promoting prosperity. More recently, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation initiated several public-private partnerships to enhance agricultural productivity in Africa, including the development of:
- Bt cowpea for protection against the Maruca-pod borer with potential to increase yield from 0.3 to 2.5 kg/ha.
- Water Efficient Maize for Africa that is expected to provide about 30% more yield under moderate drought.
- Nitrogen-Use Efficient Rice for better performance under lower soil N.
- Bananas resistant to bacterial wilt in the Great Lakes region of East Africa, where the disease is causing upto 100% crop loss.
There is a romantic notion that African farmers ought to continue using seed they inherited from their ancestors, and not improved seed from conventional breeding or biotechnology. There appears to be safety concerns around the adoption of GM seeds. However, despite over 12 years of increasing adoption of GM crops worldwide, there have been no adverse effects to humans and the environment (EFSA, 2006; James, 2008). Yet, the un-improved seed is the same seed that succumbs to a range of biotic and abiotic challenges, resulting in low productivity and even crop failure. It is the same seed that has ensured that African farmers remain trapped in poverty and reliant on food relief. Although this un-improved seed is a gem, it need not be grown on African farmers’ fields in that form, but ought to be improved and/or be archived in gene-banks for conservation of biodiversity.
From the foregoing, the important role of GM technology on modern medicines, attainment of food security and improvement of farm profitability cannot be overstated. Clearly, this technology is complimentary to other classical approaches and not a panacea.
- Clearant (2006). http://www.clearant.com/recombinant.shtml
- Cox, Bill, Atkins,P., Shields,E., and G. Bergstrom. 2009. Field-Scale Studies Comparing the Base Genetics of Corn Hybrids with Double and Triple-Stacked Hybrids. Newsletter For New York Field Crops & Soils. Vol.19, No.3, May-June, 2009. Cornell University
- European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) (2006). Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms on a request from the Commission related to genetically modified crops (Bt176 maize, MON810 maize, T25 maize, Topas 19/2 oilseed rape and Ms1xRf1 oilseed rape) subject to safeguard clauses invoked according to Article 16 of Directive 90/220/EEC: EFSA Journal (2006) 338, 1-15 http://www.efsa.eu.int
- European Medicines Agency (EMEA) (2006). http://www.emea.eu.int
- James, Clive, (2008). Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008. ISAAA Brief No. 39 – 2008. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. ISBN 978-1-892456-44-3
- Paarlberg, Robert L. (2008) Starved for Science: how biotechnology is being kept out of Africa. ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02973-6
- Vitale, Jeffrey, Harvey, G, Greenplate, J., Abdennadher, M., and O. Traoré. (2008) Second-Generation Bt Cotton Field Trials in Burkina Faso: Analyzing the Potential benefits to West African Farmers. Crop Sci. 48:1958-1966