SEATTLE, Washington — As the world population continues to grow, advances in agriculture have protected harvests and supported food security in developing countries. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a major agricultural breakthrough that has bolstered crop productivity. GMOs are crops genetically engineered to resist harassing pests or disease to produce a stronger yield. Despite some apprehension toward GMOs in the U.S., more than 90% of corn and soybeans are GMOs and roughly 75% of processed foods in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients. While the U.S. was quick to adapt and commercialize the use of GMOs, many African countries are hesitant to start planting seeds grown in a lab. Currently, only four countries in Africa have legalized the commercial planting of GMO crops.
GMOs in Africa
South Africa and Sudan were quick to jump on the trend more than 20 years ago. The two countries were optimistic that the GMOs would offer an avenue for food security in a region plagued by droughts that can ruin crops and leave the nation starving. South Africa began growing modified maize in 1996, followed by cotton the next year and soybeans several years after.
Since its implementation, the planting of GMOs in South Africa has grown over the years, and armyworm, a pest that attacks crops, has declined dramatically. In Sudan, 98% of cotton farmers have adopted the GMO variant, Bt Cotton, because of its superior performance. Despite the success in South Africa and Sudan, many African countries do not allow the growing of GMOs or even the importation of GMOs. It was not until drought-afflicted Zambia and Zimbabwe faced severe food insecurity did bills pass and GMO foods traded into the country.
Zambia and Zimbabwe are among several other nations on the continent defecting from the strong anti-GMO sentiment that has kept these crops illegal in most nations. Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda are also considering the prospect of GMOs, but challenges are still stacked against organizations, companies, scientists and farmers who want access to these promising seeds.
The Effects of Rejecting GMOs
Although there are many documented benefits for GMOs that can reduce food insecurity, the opposition is founded on several principles. Many are hesitant to introduce genetically modified organisms to their countries out of fear of monopolizing companies that charge high premiums. Many African leaders do not want to grant large foreign companies’ influential power over their farmers.
Aside from the fear of monopolizing companies, GMOs are not greeted favorably in many places because they are believed to suppress the cultural practices in agriculture. Hardi Tijani, the head of the Regional Advisory Information and Network Systems, says that people must realize that food and culture are inexorably intertwined. Replacing natural foods with GMO strains will detract from the identity of the people.
Those against GMOs also warn of the unknown possible health consequences, despite the lack of scientific evidence proving that GMO consumption causes health problems. Another argument perpetuated is that small-scale farmers can grow a variety of foods that keep a diverse and healthy diet, but the high seed prices limit the variety.
In Uganda, a GMO banana has been trying to make it to the table for a couple of decades. Studies have shown that many Ugandans lack sufficient iron and roughly 30% of people do not receive enough Vitamin A.
Scientists have developed this banana crop with increased iron and Vitamin A to serve the undernourished community in Uganda. Additionally, the banana is modified to withstand banana bacterial wilt disease, which has tormented banana crops in Uganda for decades. Bananas are a staple crop in Uganda and an important part of the nation’s identity, which encouraged scientists to select this fruit as the method to nourish Ugandans.
After years of deliberation and redrafting, the Ugandan parliament signed in a bill in September 2018 to address GMOs. While this allowed farmers to plant authorized GMO seeds, the parliament also installed bills that deterred the GMO industry. In November 2018, parliament passed a strict law that held scientists directly liable for any issues related to their GMO research, which will greatly deter future innovations.
Critics of GMO crops still hold a strong authority in legislation, and the past decades have been slow to adopt genetically modified plants for most African countries. As the population continues to grow and food insecurity continues to be a prevalent issue, the legalization of GMOs may be a powerful step toward alleviating hunger in Africa. While there are still many obstacles to be crossed for GMO crops, many await their plentiful yield.