Can Africa handle GM?

One of the biggest concerns raised by critics and enthusiasts for GM alike is that African countries do not have the capacity to “handle” GM. In other words, many African nations lack the robust regulatory environment and infrastructure for wide-scale adoption of GM crops.


One of the biggest concerns raised by critics and enthusiasts for GM alike is that African countries do not have the capacity to “handle” GM. In other words, many African nations lack the robust regulatory environment and infrastructure for wide-scale adoption of GM crops.

“Seed companies are finding that countries lack the necessary regulatory framework to introduce GM,” says Kinyua M’Mbijjewe, the head of corporate affairs in East Africa at the multinational seed company Syngenta.

“There’s no regulatory infrastructure in which GM seeds can be assessed and approved. Without that, companies cannot really invest because they would then expose themselves to allegations of entering a market without due diligence and the other necessary regulations,” M’Mbijjewe says, adding that only two countries in Africa are growing a variety of GM crops partly because countries simply lack the necessary regulatory architecture.

Potential oversights in South Africa, such as the failure to set up refuge areas to prevent insects from becoming resistant to GM crops, also highlight that even African countries with stronger biotech capacities can run into serious difficulties.

It is perhaps even more worrying that developing countries have struggled to keep up with the pace with which nature is able to develop resistance to GM crops. For example, in the US, since cultivating GM crops with a tolerance of glyphosate-based herbicides, many farmers have been beset by “super weeds” that have a resistance to herbicides and farmers have had to turn to ever more toxic herbicides to tackle these weeds, claims Mayet. Nonetheless, M’Mbijjewe claims that reports of pests’ increased resistance to GM crops in South Africa and elsewhere need not be a sign of the industry’s failure:

“I am not too worried to hear about cases of resistance because technology evolves as nature evolves,” says M’Mbijjewe. “Insects develop a resistance to things just like us humans. It is about having an innovation chain, whereby new technologies come out in response to nature’s robust ability to protect itself,” he goes on.

“Companies have robust research and development projects and stewardship programmes to monitor how crops are developing and they are responding and trying to find new solutions. Ultimately it is in the companies’ interests that GM seeds deliver on their promises so they are going to do whatever they can to ensure that this is the case,” M’Mbijjewe adds.

There are, however, signs that many African countries are keen to improve their regulatory environments in order to boost their biotech industries.

“Tanzania and Uganda, for example, are looking at developing regulations and some of these measures are going before parliament,” according to M’Mbijjewe. Kenya is also in the process of getting approval for new biosafety laws with a view to introducing Bt cotton for commercial cultivation this year.

Biosafety legislation has been adopted in Ghana. Meanwhile, in Nigeria a Biosafety Bill, which the country’s Senate passed in 2011, is awaiting the President’s approval.

That said, there are now worries in South Africa – where biotech regulation seems to be most developed – that progress could be reversed. “Worryingly, the Department Of Science and Technologies Bioeconomy strategy has called for a review of the GMO Act. It is more likely than not that this review would call for some form of streamlining, or weakening of the Act, given the strategies avowed goal is to increase the amount and variety of GM crops grown in South Africa,” says Mayet.

Continent-wide regulation?
Some experts think that a centralised, pan-African approach to biosafety regulation could help strengthen regulation across the continent as a whole. A study published in Food Policy, ‘Status of development, regulation and adoption of GM agriculture in Africa’, argues that African countries should work together to standardise GMO risk analysis and regulation relating to biosafety.

The report outlines that many stakeholders have very constrained capacities and there is a dearth of trained scientists for the monitoring of GM crops.

The paper suggests that Africa could emulate an EU model – namely the European Food Safety Authority. It also outlines how countries with less scientific capacity could benefit from a regional organisation carrying out regional studies. This could prevent a situation whereby many countries are pouring money and resources into similar research and monitoring projects.

Transparency is a further potential issue. Currently in South Africa, an advisory council of experts helps an Executive Council made up of officials from a number of government ministries to make decisions about GMOs in accordance with the country’s GMO Act.

“Previously, certain members of the advisory council with close links to the biotech industry have been removed due to lobbying from the African Centre for Biosafety,” claims Mayet. “However, the composition of the current AC is unknown, despite repeated attempts by the African Centre for Biosafety to access this information over the previous 18 months.”

Others have also expressed fears that Africa could become a dumping or testing ground for unproven and potentially unsafe GM crops for large multinational biotech companies. M’Mbijjewe argues that such fears are unfounded: “It’s nearly 20 years since the first GM crop was planted in Africa in 1996 and there are still today only two countries cultivating GM food. Where is the worry?” he says.

Another source of anxiety is the potential health implications of GM crops grown in Africa. There is currently a lack of research into health effects of particular crops being cultivated on the continent – even in South Africa, not a single study has been published in this area.

M’Mbijjewe of Syngenta, however, argues that “there have been many studies of GM crops and nothing untoward has been found and scientifically validated. In terms of GM crops on the market in Africa at the moment, there have been no reported health issues.”

Nonetheless, some studies do report that GM crops could have long-term health risks. For example, the paper ‘GMO Myths and Truths’ by Earth Open Source refers to evidence that suggests GM can pose health risks in three different areas.

Firstly, the GM gene product in a crop could in itself be allergenic or toxic. Secondly, the GM transformation process could also mean higher levels of toxins or allergens in the body. New farming methods associated with using GMOs could also lead to traces of toxins lingering in crops, the findings say.
In conclusion, the verdict is still out for GM in Africa. Due to both problems with capacity and lingering hostility, GM seems unlikely to make quick, dramatic inroads into the continent.

That said, support for GM in Africa is steadily gaining momentum. Even proponents of GM warn that it is no silver bullet, however. As Kinyua M’Mbijjewe puts it, “GM seeds are just part of the solution. Farmers need better irrigation and financing as well as higher quality seeds. The tragedy of African agriculture is that it has suffered from inadequate investment in all areas. That needs to change.”

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