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Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) likely to play a significant role in tackling malnutrition and reducing poverty in Africa? Our short answer is "it depends." In a new CGD policy paper and brief, we examine the evidence and conclude that currently available GMOs are of limited relevance for most developing countries, especially in Africa. And while new crop varieties under development could do far more to address global poverty and hunger, technological and political obstacles may stand in the way of GMOs advancing a new green revolution in Africa.

Multinational companies developed today’s GM varieties primarily for large-scale commercial agriculture. Plants engineered to tolerate herbicides like Glyphosate comprise more than half of the global acreage planted with GMOs. This trait is helpful for farmers with ready access to affordable, chemical inputs. But buying improved seeds and herbicides may be out of reach for many smallholder farmers. Soybeans and maize, grown primarily for livestock feed and biofuels in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, account for a majority of global GM cultivation. Only insect-resistant varieties of cotton have been widely adopted in developing countries, mainly in India and China.

But even if the current generation of GM crops are of limited value to smallholder farmers, a new wave that could more directly address developing country challenges is under development. Disease-resistant bananas, rice enriched with Vitamin A to prevent blindness, and staple grains more resilient to drought are a few examples of crops in the research pipeline. And the balance could certainly shift if genetic modification is proven capable of producing new, more effective varieties faster than conventional breeding. But scientists producing these varieties are encountering technological difficulties. Conveying drought tolerance, for example, involves manipulating multiple genes, which is more complicated than the techniques used to produce insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant varieties.

But perhaps the real question is this: how many African governments will be in a position to take advantage if a new breakthrough GMO comes along that holds promise for reducing food security or alleviating poverty? At the moment, not many. In addition to long-standing obstacles to agricultural investments in general, such as inadequate infrastructure and high input costs, a number of African countries have not yet developed national biosafety policies or passed legislation to regulate growing or importing GMOs.

To help prepare the ground for a new green revolution in Africa, and leave the door open for GMOs to play a part, we offer five recommendations for African governments and donors:

  1. Increase public support for agricultural R&D without precluding GMOs.
  2. Develop cost-effective regulatory policies for GMOs, regionally where possible to reduce costs.
  3. Promote information exchange among developing countries about environmental and other experiences with GMOs. The open access Biosafety Clearing House is one possible platform.
  4. Pursue South-South cooperation on GMO trade and regulatory policies to prevent trade disruptions.
  5. Donors, including the European Union, should provide technology-neutral support for R&D for food security, as well as capacity building to facilitate trade in GMOs.

Africa’s agricultural challenges are heterogeneous, requiring investments in rural infrastructure, seed and input markets, as well as access to credit. Therefore, the continent needs an all hands on deck approach that draws on a range of technologies to address lagging agricultural productivity. And it would be unfortunate if an overly cautious approach foreclosed the opportunity to use GMOs where they can contribute to reducing poverty and malnutrition.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.