There is war over Genetically Modified foods, but they might just 'save' Africa

Matooke hybrids produce 60% higher yield and are also resistant to black Sigatoka, a disease that affects the leaves and leads to losses of 30­-80%

OVER five decades ago, the world experienced a striking breakthrough in agriculture, the Green Revolution. This saved at least a billion lives from starvation in Asia and Latin America and included the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and the distribution of hybridised seeds, synthetic fertilisers, and pesticides to farmers. Africa missed this boat. 

But a new, albeit very controversial controversial, opportunity has presented itself in the form of genetically modified (GM) foods in recent years. 

Genetic modification refers to techniques used to manipulate the genetic composition of an organism by adding specific useful genes. These useful genes could make crops high-yielding, disease resistant or drought-resistant - all particularly useful traits considering a third of Africa’s population lives in drought-prone areas and that there are an increasing number of mouths to feed. 

In Africa, there are approximately 265 million undernourished people, translating to one out of every three persons. This is set to increase rapidly - by 2030 the continent will need to feed 1.5 billion people and 2 billion by 2050. This is a monumental challenge for a continent whose food production is highly threatened by environmental fluctuations and land degradation. 

Low tech levels in farming

Only 7% of arable land in Africa is irrigated with smallholder farmers depending primarily on rain-fed agriculture. Also consider the huge pressure on its land, with 33 million farms, of less than 2 hectares, accounting for 80% of all farms. Africa also imports products that compete with its own: meat, dairy products, cereals and oils. Imports account for 1.7 times the value of exports. 

Enhancing crop yields, instead of increasing cultivated area, to meet the demands of this rapidly growing society are crucial. Yet considering all of these risks, the pace with which African nations are adopting GM foods is lagging. 

Note: CFT = Confined Field Trials 

 In 2008, Burkina Faso and Egypt joined South Africa and started growing commercial biotech crops. Today, these three nations are the only ones in commercial production. There are seven countries involved in confined field testing - Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria and Malawi - and only 14 doing contained research. 

Here are a few of the GM foods that could transform the continent, and the way it eats: 

Maize

Currently, maize production supports the livelihoods of approximately 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. But estimates show that higher temperature and reduced rainfall could depress maize harvests by 10-20% by 2050. Fortunately drought tolerant maize is slowly penetrating African fields. Launched in 2008, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) and International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center developed and deployed maize varieties that yield 24 to 35% more grain under moderate drought conditions than currently available varieties. 

The varieties are being developed using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology, and will be marketed royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa through African seed companies. The project is also looking to create varieties, by 2017, that are resistant to stem borers—a type of insect pest.

Currently an estimated 40% of Africa’s maize area faces occasional drought stress, with yield losses of 10- 25%. A quarter of Africa’s maize crop suffers frequent drought, with losses as high as half the harvest. 

Cassava 

In April the Nigeria-headquartered International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) released 19 varieties resistant to the crop’s two devastating viral diseases. Cassava mosaic disease and the cassava brown streak disease cause losses estimated at $1 billion every year worldwide. In Uganda alone brown streak affects 60-70% of cassava growers.

Cassava is one of the major sources of farm income and is an important food security. It is the third African major staple food crop after maize and rice, and contributes about 40% of the food calories consumed in tropical Africa.

Matooke (East African Highland bananas)

One of the most important staple food crops in East Africa - in Uganda, consumption of these bananas is the highest in the world at 0.70 kg daily, per person.

As a result of over 20 years of joint breeding efforts between the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda (NARO) and the IITA, last year there was the distribution in East Africa of the first-ever, high-yielding and disease-resistant hybrid varieties of Matooke. With nearly 60% higher yield than the local “matooke”, these hybrids are also resistant to black Sigatoka, a notable fungal disease of the crop worldwide that affects the leaves and leads to losses of 30­-80%.

IITA and NARO also developed bacterial wilt resistant bananas for use by smallholder farmers in the Great Lakes region. Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) disease threatened  to wipe out the valued banana crop in East Africa but following another round of successful trials, the GM varieties will be planted around Uganda for final confirmation. 

Cow Pea

Scientists in West Africa are developing GM pod borer-resistant cowpeas, promising they could have the final product by 2017. Pod borers are pests that remove sap from the leaves, pods, seeds and other aerial plant parts damaging the plant and resulting in yield reductions. Severe infestations have led to losses of between 70–80% in northern Nigerian states. 

New Rice for Africa

In 2004, Dr. Monty Jones from Sierra Leone led a team of plant breeders and molecular biologists at the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA, now the Africa Rice Center) in developing the widely adopted New Rice for Africa (Nerica). This upland rice variety was not restricted to growing in paddies, thus enabling African farmers to grow rice in environments not previously thought possible. 

Though Nerica is not considered GM, it was genetically transformed by highly artificial cell culture and embryo rescue methods.  Today, there are efforts to develop a GM NERICA with nitrogen-use efficiency, water-use efficiency and salt tolerance traits for Africa’s farmers. Meanwhile in Kenya, certain targeted rice seeds are being genetically modified to develop uplands breed traits. 

The results of adopting GM crops are available for evaluation. In Uganda, which launched the Upland Rice Project in 2004, with Nerica as a major component, there was a reported nine-fold increase in the number of rice farmers, from 4,000 to over 35,000 between 2005 and 2007.

Sorghum

In terms of tonnage, sorghum is Africa’s second most important cereal with the continent producing about 20 million tonnes of sorghum per annum, about one-third of the world crop. 

In 2009, Professor Gebisa Ejeta, an Ethiopian national, made scientific breakthroughs on a non-GM sorghum, a staple diet for more than 500 million people in Africa. His breakthroughs in breeding were for drought-tolerant and striga-weed-resistant sorghum. 

However, considering the widespread use of sorghum, efforts are being made to make it more nutritious. The African Bio-fortified Sorghum (ABS) Project, which conducts most of its research in South Africa, aims to enhance the nutritional quality of sorghum, to improve the nutrient intake of low-income households, through bio-fortification, with an immediate target of increased levels of vitamin A. In the near future, the focus will expand to achieving enhanced bioavailability of zinc and iron and improved protein digestibility. 

Currently achievable bio-fortified sorghum has the potential to contribute from 35-60% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A for children in Africa.

The big safety issue

GM foods in Africa have primarily been rejected because of health concerns. Questions have been raised over the fate of the newly inserted DNA after it has been consumed by humans. Either because of concerns over the possibility of transfer of the DNA from the food derived from genetically engineered plant into mammalian cells, gastrointestinal bacteria, or soil bacteria. Or because of concerns of inserted genes that confer resistance to antibiotic. However, NEPAD states that these fears are seen as largely unfounded since DNA is chemically identical regardless of its source.

On the other hand, there have been claims that GM foods are unquestionably harmful to health and the environment. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine for example states that “multiple animal studies have shown that GM foods cause damage to various organ systems in the body.” These concerns are contrasted heavily by the majority of scientific bodies and regulatory agencies that openly declare crop biotechnology and the foods currently available for sale to be safe. For example, a group of Italian scientists In response to what they believed was an information gap, a team of Italian scientists summarised 1783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods, the researchers couldn’t find a single credible example demonstrating that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals.

What adds to the confusion over GM food safety is that the European Union has extremely stringent regulations and GMOs are are subject to extensive, case-by-case, science-based food evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. Though some contest that this is an issue of politics, making it harder for the US to penetrate EU markets with crops, rather than safety. 


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