Africa takes fresh look at GMO crops as drought blights continent

A scorching drought in Southern Africa that led to widespread crop failure could nudge African nations to finally embrace genetically modified (GM) crops to improve harvests and reduce grain imports.

The drought, which extends to South Africa, the continent’s biggest maize producer, has been exacerbated by an El Nino weather pattern and follows dry spells last year that affected countries from Zimbabwe to Malawi.


Aid agency Oxfam has said 10 million people, mostly in Africa, face hunger because of droughts and poor rains.

That has brought GM crops to the fore, especially maize, a staple crop grown and consumed in most sub-Saharan countries.

Many African countries have banned GM crops, arguing that they will cross contaminate other plants, pollute the environment and could have long-term health effects for humans.

Zimbabwe, for instance, says although GM crops may initially be resistant to pests, the resistance could breakdown over time.

GMO advocates, however, say the fears are not scientifically proven, adding that poor African farmers are likely to benefit most from reduced use of pesticides, lower production costs, higher yields and high prices for crops.

The African drought’s impact is particularly serious for Zimbabwe, where the economy has struggled for five years to recover from a catastrophic recession marked by billion percent hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.

Zimbabwe does not accept GM maize imports, and when it has accepted emergency GM maize aid, it has been milled under security watch.

“GM crops are one of the alternative solutions for reducing hunger on the continent among many others which include good agronomic practices,” Jonathan Mufandaedza, chief executive at National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, a government agency, told Reuters.

The United States, Brazil and India are the world’s largest growers of GM crops while in Africa, South Africa is the only country producing GM maize on a commercial scale.

Sixteen percent of Zimbabwe’s population require food aid this year. The government plans to import up to 700,000 tonnes of maize and with its usual sources of maize like Zambia and Tanzania facing lower harvests this year, Zimbabwe could end up receiving GM maize after all.

This year, South Africa, which produces more than 40 percent of Southern African maize may need to import up to 5 million tonnes of maize due to drought, the country’s largest producer group, Grain SA said this week.

Perceptions are shifting, with Burkina Faso in West Africa, and lately Sudan having started to grow GM cotton commercially, Getachew Belay, an African expert on GM crops told Reuters.

“Historically, Africa has been a laggard to accept new agricultural technologies. For GM crops, much of the problem lies in the perception, exaggerated fear and conflicting messages sent to policy making,” said Belay.


In 2002, Zambia experienced a severe drought that left millions in need of food aid but it rejected GM maize offered by donors, citing inadequate scientific information.

But last month, Zambia’s Higher Education Minister Michael Kaingu told parliament his country was embracing GM crops.

“We recognize that modern biotechnology has advanced worldwide and, as a nation, we cannot afford to ignore the benefits of this technology. We are alert and prepared to deal with possible adverse risks,” said Kaingu.

It is a growing trend on the continent and Belay said Ethiopia had amended its biosafety laws to allow tests on GM cotton, thanks to pressure from the textile industry that is advocating for the production of cheaper cotton in that country.

Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria and Ghana have all been carrying out trials on different GM crops, he said.

Agrichemicals groups such as Monsanto , the world’s largest seed company, and Syngenta are well placed to benefit from increased use of GMOs in Africa. Monsanto conducted trials of GM maize and cotton in some African countries, including Zimbabwe between 2001 and 2005.

But the transition from tests to commercial growing has been slow, a reminder of the die hard attitudes towards GM crops.

Belay said a major factor that could influence Africa to start growing GM maize was whether China would grow GM rice, which it has developed but not released for production.

“The real issue seems to me is lack of capacity, both physical and human, to enforce regulation, thus attitude is changing from ‘rejection’ to a kind of ‘wait until we have capacity to regulate!’,” said Belay.


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  1. Albert Ranganai

    Typical African stupidity . . . . .

  2. Not really stupidity @ ranganai, there is no evidence that GMO seed in Africa will automatically result in food security at household level. The issues from African perspective has always about the access of technical know-how, funding, markets, irrigation facilities, technologies for reducing post harvest losses and even access to land. These are the real causes of grain deficit in Africa and anyone willing to assist is welcome. Africans should acquire the capacity of creating GMO seed first, because they are too poor to rely on corporate mercenaries like Monsato and Syngeta. At the very least trials can be done on cotton and other non food crops until such time that we truly understand the dynamics of this thing. For Zimbabwe, hybrid seed is just doing very well and there is no reason to experiment with new and perhaps dangerous things.

  3. Your assertion that GMO can or may solve food problem by improving yields is misplaced. GMOs are not required in Africa as theyre a mew biotech forms.of oppression. It can only be brought into the country following ill advice.

    Case studies are many where scholarly researches have proven that GMO uptake benefits Monsanto and Syngenta which are leading crop chemical supplying companies. It doesn’t benefit farmers or the country, that’s a fact.

    In India 95% BT cotton seeds are sourced from Monsanto or through their patent partners. In Maharashtra province where thousands of farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years evidence is there that some got into debts after getting wrong advice that they would recoup their money through use of BT cotton seed to gain better yields.

    Facts are that biotechnology can be helpful to address some.of the issues but the draw back is that it creates new ones such as superweeds and insects which are resistant to sprays. Africa is too poor to deal with consequences of what may go wrong as.a.result of growing gmo in large scale across the continent.

    Solutions to insecurity in Africa lies within governance. SADC experiences rainfall every year bit it for a short spell or long but it rains and the rains washes away to big rivers and oceans. African states can work together to build massive dams to collect rain water and do irrigation at large scales. At village level farming has to change to embrace sustainable agriculture that includes rainwater harvesting, intercropping, growing drought resistant crops. To achieve these the governments need investment in traoning and improving local extention services to improve food production.

    To.understand how unhelpful GMOs can be to Africa please read the following article.on thus link:

    Thank you

  4. Can someone educate me on the difference between GMO and hybrid seeds

    1. Its a tough one mate but, in short a HYBRID seed comes from cross breeding e.g a short maize and a tall one, you come up with a average size. A sour mango and very sweet one, in cases of maize it could be a high yield crop and a drought resistant but low yield, should the genes in the resultant crop change, that will naturally happen without scientific interference.
      A GMO, is mostly dealing with adding or subtracting cells from seed(cell). e.g you could remove a gene which makes the plant have seeds, making it seedless like e.g some grapes, or you could add a gene that makes a plant resistant to some disease. You will be dealing here with a particular pure seed and deliberately altering its natural genetic make-up.

  5. The African leaders don’t have solutions for such a problem, they will ask you to stop going to work and pray, meanwhile they go abroad and feed on those GMO’s, malnourished people are easy to rule just give them sarawura and a bag of sugar.

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