Margaret Karembu, Director of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Africa regional office (ISSSA) AfriCenter based in Nairobi | February 23, 2017
• European politicians and anti-biotech groups lobby to prevent Africa from adopting or trading GE crops
• Africa remains laggard in food security and faces growth, population and climate change pressures
• African farmers fared poorly using family agro-ecology techniques
• ‘Smart’ farming fueled by technology can attract youth back into farming
• Farmer experiences with handful of approved GE crops overwhelmingly positive
I grew up in rural Africa, in Central Kenya, in a small village deep down the slopes of Mt Kenya called Gaikundo. For most parts of the year, it was a struggle putting food on the table for our family of 12 and those in the neighborhood. I now know we practiced subsistence farming or what European “greens” have fashionably coined ‘agro-ecology family farming’. This is the type of farming in which farmers focus on growing enough food to feed themselves and their families within their localized ecosystem. The output is mostly for local requirements with little or no surplus to take to the market.
For many of the villagers, we hardly produced adequately to last to the next harvest. Seeds were exchanged freely or barter-traded. It was worse for vegetatively-propagated staple crops— bananas, sweet potato and cassava where, exchanging planting material also meant transferring diseases and pests of mother plants from one neighboring farm to another. Seed systems and hybrid seeds were only slowly being introduced. The majority of farmers were locked up in unsustainable food production modes that further perpetuated the poverty cycle.
That was 50 years ago. Now, farmer practices are beginning to modernize—but we are facing political opposition, mostly from other countries, who seem determined to prevent Africa from joining in a global agricultural revolution.
It was disheartening to learn in June 2016 that the European Parliament adopted a report on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN) stating that any support to African agriculture should be confined to the “agro-ecology family farming level”—the very practices that modern-focused farmers are trying to move away from. Adopted by a large majority of parliamentarians—577 to 24—the report attacked ongoing efforts to introduce advanced technology into African agriculture.
The parliamentarians sharply criticized the bloc of industrialized democracies known as the ‘Group of Seven G7’s (G7) resolve on intensification of agriculture to address food insecurity. “We have already made the mistake of intensive agriculture in Europe. We should not replicate it in Africa because this model destroys family farming and reduces biodiversity,” said Maria Heubuch, a German Green MEP and rapporteur on what has been dubbed “The Heubuch Report”.
The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN) in Africa is a public-private partnership (PPP), launched in 2012 under the auspices of the G7 to leverage private sector investment in agriculture, with an overall goal of improving food security and nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. Critics, mainly from the EU Green parties, argue that NAFSN would marginalize small-scale farmers by replicating in Africa the model of the 1960s/1970s Asian ‘Green Revolution’, based on monoculture, mechanization, biotechnology, dependence on fertilizers, long distribution channels and the production of export crops that may compromise the environment. This is far from the truth. Small scale farming dominates the majority of Asian agriculture. Moreover, African governments are seeking to change the “tired narrative” about poverty and hunger-stricken Africa by adopting proactive proven approaches, research, and modern farming practices with increased private sector participation.
One paragraph in the Heubuch Report argued that introduction and spread of certified seeds in Africa increases smallholder dependence, makes indebtedness more probable and erodes seed diversity. G7 member states were urged not to support genetically engineered crops in Africa.
African Crop Biotech Adoption
Corroborating other findings from credible institutions including the European Food Safety Authority, the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found no difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized GM crops and conventionally (including organic) bred crops. These reports have documented that GE crops have allowed farmers to reduce chemical pesticide, translating into more money for farmers who are better able to support their families and lower food prices for consumers.
The accumulated hectarage of biotech/GM crops planting between 1998 and 2015 in Africa stood at 3.5 million with an estimated economic benefit of ~ USD $2 billion (Brookes and Barfoot, 2016). Three countries maintained the lead in adoption: South Africa at 2.3 million hectares, Burkina Faso with 350,000 hectares and Sudan at 120,000 hectares.
Heavy reliance on rainfed agriculture makes farming in Africa unpredictable. A devastating drought in South Africa in 2015, for example, contributed to a massive 23 percent decline in intended plantings, demonstrating the vulnerability of the continent to climate change. The drought led to a decrease in the production of biotech crops from an anticipated record of 3.0 million to 2.3 million hectares. An approval of drought tolerance trait in maize under WEMA—the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in 2015, was a timely development. The public-private sector partnership is being implemented in five countries: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
African scientists are conducting GM crop trials on key food security crops, which include: banana, cassava, cowpea, sweet potato, maize, potato and rice—some of which are nearing commercialization. In addition to South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan, which have commercialized biotech crops, eight others—Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda and Swaziland—are conducting trials on crops with traits relevant to African agricultural challenges. They include: drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, nutritional enhancement, nitrogen and water use efficiency and salt tolerance for which the 11 African countries are conducting trials on. Africa could contribute five new biotech crops to the global food security basket in the coming years.
Many African scientists, farmers and policy makers are eager to see GE crops more widely embraced. I have been tracking African farmers who have started growing GE crops and their testimonies are inspiring. Take the case of Maria Swele, a 35-year-old woman from Limpopo province in South Africa. Maria has won the local award for youth and technology adoption twice in a row, becoming a role model for many young people in her region.
Her story underscores the changing agricultural narrative within Africa’s small-scale agricultural scene:
I was inspired into Bt cotton farming 4 years ago by my former employer Mr. Frans Mallela — himself a large-scale farmer .He discouraged me from taking up a clerical office job but instead try out 5 hectares of Bt cotton and that has made all the difference in my life. In 4 years, I have increased area of production tenfold to 50 hectares of Bt cotton. Venturing into Bt cotton enterprise has been rewarding, enabling me to purchase 2 tractors, a car and a house. I have also managed to pay for my younger sister’s education. Attending to our crops is so much easier and has drastically reduced labour. We no longer need to carry crude tools to weed and spray as most of this is now done mechanically.
Elameen Alzain, 45 years old, is a cotton farmer from Sudan who uses seeds engineered with the natural bacteria Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which fights bollworms (and is used in spray form by organic farmers):
“When you plant Bt cotton, you are assured of high quality and quantity. There is no guarantee with the old varieties. I saw an opportunity to improve my lifestyle. The yields were very high and with no bollworm damage, I realized I could make big savings.”
In Burkina Faso, 38 year-old Sibiri Antoine Nikiéma, a farmer in Lado (Saponé), began growing insect-resistant cotton. With the increased proceeds, he has acquired a bicycle, a motorbike and built a family house, and now comfortably pays school fees for his children:
“I am very satisfied with Bt cotton due to its many advantages, especially in terms of monetary returns. Bt cotton has improved the quality of our lives and the labour is not as tedious as before since we don’t spray that much now – from 8 sprays to just 2. My colleagues and I are relieved from harmful chemicals sprayed to Bollworm.”
If we could replicate these scenarios and extend it to 60 percent of the African population that is now directly engaged in the agricultural sector, Africa could make a quantum jump in productivity and draw back many young people who are shunning farming in favor of elusive “smart” technology-driven enterprises in big cities. Every farmer in Africa and indeed farmers everywhere are looking for better tools, competitive yields and socioeconomic empowerment, not the reverse!
The biosafety regulatory landscape has improved significantly, but challenges remain. In 1998, South Africa was the only country with a biosafety law. By 2016, 19 African countries had developed biosafety legislation, and even Zambia, long a center of hostility toward GM crops, has responded to the ongoing drought crisis by indicated it is favorably inclined to allow imports of GM food. . Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, enacted its law in 2015, and four crops–insecticide resistant Bt cotton; Bt cowpea (a legume); iron, zinc, protein and Vitamin A fortified and nitrogen efficient sorghum; and salt tolerant and water efficient rice–are undergoing confined field tests. The same year, Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority received for the first time two applications for open field cultivation of genetically modified maize and cotton. Initiatives to operationalize biosafety laws in other countries as well as regional biosafety harmonization efforts have continued.
Despite these gains, counter-productive debates and political misgivings continue to slow down progress with the technology—mostly perpetrated by non-African based groups, and often from Europe. NGOs such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, GeneWatch UK, ActionAid and GM Freeze and their affiliates in Africa claim GM crops would mortgage the agricultural sector to large multinational corporations, harm biodiversity, undermine small farmers and expose their populations to the potential health hazards of consuming GM food.
According to Greenpeace, “GMOs should not be released … since there is not an adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment and human health.” Zakiyya Ismail, a campaigner for the African Center for Biodiversity, has said, “There is no consensus around the safety of GMOs and there should be long term studies into them before they are released into the food supplies.” Jason Tutu, the communication leader of Food Sovereignty Ghana claimed, “GMO products carry known health risks such as organ damage, sterility, infant mortality, birth defects, low sperm quality and increase risk of cancer.”
No health or science agency in the world has documented links between GM foods and any health hazard, let alone cancer.
For more information on the report, click here