Can GMOs Play a Role in a New Green Revolution for Africa?

This brief is based on the policy paper, Can GMOs Deliver for Africa?.

The world will struggle to achieve the goals of ending extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 unless there is a sharp increase in agricultural productivity in Africa. Across sub-Saharan Africa, most people live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their livelihoods; most of them are poor and many are hungry. Could genetically modified organisms (GMOs) help to address some of the causes contributing to Africa’s lagging agricultural productivity? Our answer is a qualified maybe. To help prepare the ground for a new green revolution in Africa, and leave the door open for GMOs to be a part of it, we offer five recommendations:[1]

  1. Increase public support for agricultural R&D without precluding GMOs.
  2. Develop cost-effective regulatory policies for GMOs, regionally where possible.
  3. Promote information exchange about experiences with GMOs.
  4. Pursue South-South cooperation on GMO trade and regulatory policies to prevent trade disruptions.
  5. Provide technology-neutral support from donors for R&D for food security, as well as capacity building to facilitate trade in GMOs.

GMOs Could Be Part of the Solution

Without a substantial increase in agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa, the goals of ending extreme poverty and hunger by 2030 will be hard to achieve. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could be part of the solution. While GMOs on today’s market mainly benefit large commercial farmers producing crops for livestock feed and biofuels, GMOs now being developed, such as drought-resistant maize, insect-resistant cowpeas, and disease-resistant bananas, could do far more to alleviate rural poverty and hunger in in Africa.

GMOs are just one technology among many that could play a role, and a range of technical, political, and economic obstacles stand in the way of boosting African agricultural productivity. Many African governments are following the precautionary approach Europe has taken to GMOs and discouraging them. We offer several recommendations for African governments and donors on preparing the ground for a new green revolution in Africa, while leaving the door open for GMOs to be a part of it.

Limitations of GMOs Today versus Tomorrow’s Promise

Large multinational corporations developed most currently available GMOs with large-scale, industrial agriculture in mind. These GMOs have had clear benefits for some farmers, seed companies, and herbicide producers (the latter two are often the same), but less tangible benefits for consumers. Soybeans and maize (corn) account for 80 percent of the total area under GMO cultivation (figure 1), and these crops are mostly used for livestock feed and biofuels, not to feed people.[2] Three-fourths of that acreage is in just three countries: the United States, Brazil, and Argentina (figure 2). And almost all of these crops have been modified to either resist insect predation or tolerate herbicides used to kill weeds, which is helpful only to farmers with access to those chemical inputs.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Where modified varieties have been approved, the benefit of these crops to farmers is evident in the high adoption rates. In the United States and Brazil, 90 percent of maize and soybean acreage is planted with modified varieties. Similarly high shares of cotton farmers in China and India use seeds genetically modified to resist insects. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, only three countries (Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Sudan) grow modified crops. All three cultivate insect-resistant cotton, while South Africa also grows modified varieties of maize and soybeans.

A number of crops and traits that would be more broadly relevant for producer and consumer needs in developing countries are in the pipeline. As of 2014, field trials were ongoing in seven African countries for modified varieties of maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava, and sweet potato. [3] Scientists are also researching different traits that that could prove far more useful in addressing agricultural challenges in developing countries, such as maize that is tolerant to drought, bananas that are resistant to tropical pests or diseases, sugarcane varieties that use nitrogen more efficiently, and biofortified staple crops such as vitamin A–enhanced “golden rice” to address micronutrient deficiencies.

Some traits are more difficult to introduce than others. Introducing herbicide tolerance or insect resistance involves inserting or modifying a single gene; making a plant more drought tolerant, in contrast, requires manipulating multiple genes. Additional challenges arise when scientists work on varieties whose main aim is to benefit consumers, such as the biofortified golden rice. In addition to improved quality of the final product, researchers also need to ensure the seeds produce yields that are at least comparable to their conventional counterparts or farmers will shun them.

Preparing the Ground for a New Green Revolution

Even if the technological challenges can be overcome, there remain economic and political obstacles that have long impeded the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies and practices in much of Africa. One particular obstacle to GMOs in Africa has been fear of trade losses because the European Union, which remains skeptical of GMOs, is a major export market. Our analysis of African trade data suggests those concerns are exaggerated because African agricultural exports, with the exception of bananas, remain concentrated in coffee, tea, cocoa, and other tropical products that are not prominent in the GMO development pipeline. Rather, many of the same obstacles that prevented Africa from participating in the first green revolution still need to be addressed.

The disincentives to invest in African agriculture include inadequate infrastructure and poorly functioning markets for inputs as well as outputs. More than 40 years after the first green revolution, African farmers still lag behind the rest of the world in yield growth and adoption of improved seed varieties.[4] Specific obstacles include underdeveloped seed markets and low purchasing power of smallholder farmers, inadequate access to credit, weak property rights, and the fact that African farmers often grow more than one staple crop, with each having a relatively small market share. These conditions make it hard for farmers to invest in raising productivity, and deter the private sector from investing in improved seed varieties adapted for African conditions, genetically modified or not.

Given the disincentives, the first part of preparing the ground for GMOs, or any other productivity-improving technology, is to address the policy and institutional weaknesses that discourage private investments in agriculture. Public investment will also have to play an important role because of the small size of agricultural markets, especially with respect to support for smallholder farmers. The fact is, however, that public support for R&D in the sector has been stagnant or declining in most of Africa for more than two decades.

Our first recommendation, therefore, is to increase public support for agricultural R&D. This applies to research generally into new crop varieties and other approaches to improve productivity in African agriculture. But governments should not preclude investments in biotechnology, including GMOs, that could lead to important benefits for food security or smallholder incomes.

Leaving the Door Open to GMOs

In addition to general policy reforms to lay the foundation for a new green revolution in Africa, we have four specific recommendations that would allow GMOs to contribute if the technology evolves in helpful directions. The first three are for governments in Africa while the fourth is for donors.

First, develop cost-effective regulatory policies for GMOs, regionally where possible. Regulatory policies for developing, testing, commercializing, and importing GM crops are absent in many parts of Africa and highly precautionary in others. In recent years, a handful of African countries have developed national biosafety laws and regulatory mechanisms, and a few have progressed as far as confined trials for GMOs. Having clear policies that are rigorous but not overly burdensome would help reduce uncertainty for potential investors and ensure that any breakthroughs that occur can be safely disseminated and put to use by farmers. To further reduce uncertainty and costs, governments should collaborate with each other to develop regional policies, especially with respect to trade in GMOs.

Second, promote information exchange about experiences with GMOs. Countries should have a platform to share information about the risks and opportunities associated with different GMO traits under various conditions. This could help governments make more cost effective decisions aboutegulatory policies and the targeting of R&D investments. The existing Biosafety Clearing House could be adapted for this purpose. [5]

Third, pursue South-South cooperation on GMO trade and regulatory policies. While the European Union remains the largest market for African agricultural exports, trade with emerging markets is growing much faster. Governments in Africa should promote dialogue and cooperation with countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and China to facilitate information sharing and cooperation as they develop regulations for trade in GMOs.

Fourth, donors should provide technology-neutral support for R&D for food security, as well as capacity building to facilitate trade in GMOs. Whatever their own policies, donors should help countries seeking support for research on modified staple crops, which are mostly traded on the continent but not exported elsewhere. Because of its role as a major market, and considering its precautionary approach to GMOs, EU donors should also provide financial and technical support in countries that want to pursue GM cash crops and need help building the capacity to segregate GM varieties from conventional varieties for export markets.

Genetic modification is only one technology among many with the potential to improve agricultural productivity in Africa, and investments in the one should not be at the expense of the others. But it would be unfortunate if an overly cautious approach foreclosed the opportunity to use GMOs to significantly improve productivity or reduce malnutrition. Moreover many of the investments required — in rural infrastructure, better functioning seed and input markets, and access to credit — would contribute to agricultural productivity across the board. When it comes to using agriculture to reduce poverty and improve food security, Africa needs a new green revolution that uses all available tools.

[1] This brief is based on Kimberly Ann Elliott and Janeen Madan, “Can GMOs Deliver for Africa?” CGD Policy Paper 80, Center for Global Development, Washington, 2016.

[2] Data on acreage, adoption, and approval of genetically modified crops are from Clive James, “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2014,” ISAAA Brief 49 (Ithaca, NY: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, 2014) .

[3] The seven countries are Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda. See Clive James, “Global Status,” p. 11, for more details.

[4] World Bank, World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, pp. 51–52.

[5] This recommendation is based on one from David J. Spielman and Patricia Zambrano, “Policy, Investment, and Partnerships for Agriculturaliotechnology Research in Africa: Emerging Evidence,” in Genetically Modified Crops in Africa: Economic and Policy Lessons from Countries South of the Sahara, J. Falck-Zepeda, G. Gruère, and I. Sithole-Niang, editors (Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2013).

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