Forget organic extremists or pro-GM firms – Africa needs to make own calls on biotechnology or risk losing big time

ITIF estimates that the suppression of biotech innovations in agriculture has cost African agricultural economies at least $2.5 billion from 2008-2013

A NEW report by the US think-tank, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), says that “organic industry extremists” and genetically modified organisms (GMO) opposition activists are severely hurting developing nations.

The ITIF document describes how the world’s anti-GMO movement and subsequent campaign have created a restrictive climate for agricultural biotech innovations that could cost low and lower-middle-income nations up to $1.5 trillion in foregone economic benefits through 2050.

This is because they are contributing to controversial and conflicting claims that affect policymaking and create “scientifically indefensible regulations” that are closing markets’ and governments’ minds to the potential of biotechnology that could dramatically increase yields.

This is because over the past two decades increased yields, credited to biotech-improved seeds, added $133 billion in agricultural value to the global economy and delivered an average increase in farmer income of 62% due to superior and more efficient pest and weed control. 

Anti-GM movement

Despite this, the “gene revolution” has now stalled and there is widespread protest against the potential dangers of genetically modified foods and the patenting of seed supplies in the developing world.

READ: Kenya ‘about to’ legalise controversial GM crops, a look at the costs and benefits in Africa’s context

The effects could be seen in Europe last year when, in October 2015, 19 European countries announced bans on growing GM crops, despite opposition from the scientific community. 

This has has a ripple effect on Africa.

Because Africa’s farm exports are six times as large as exports to the US, many African governments have been slow to approve, or have sometimes even banned GM crops in order not to lose export markets and to maintain positive relations with the EU.

“Similar to HIV”

The report describes how in Zambia officials were told by Greenpeace that if GMOs were let into their country, organic produce sales to Europe would collapse. An organisation named Genetic Food Alert warned Zambia in 2002 of the “unknown and un-assessed implications” of eating GM foods, and a British group named Farming and Livestock Concern warned them that GM corn could form a retrovirus similar to HIV. 

These assertions were not backed by any evidence, but they frightened the Zambians into banning GMOs completely.

While the policies and practices resulting from anti-GMO campaigns have swayed policies in their own countries, European farmers are already highly productive while in Africa farmers are not yet productive and, where so many consumers are not yet well fed, the potential gains GMO crops can provide are more costly to do without.

One cited example is Uganda’s case where over the last decade the government has been unable to enact a law that would enable it to review, and approve or reject, transgenic crops.

The main obstacle has been fear-based information campaigns mounted by opponents of the technology, some of which are foreign NGOs such as the UK-based Action Aid, which argues that GMO crops threaten basic human rights and do not help small farmers. 

All this even though a solution could be found to Xanthomonas, a bacterial disease that leads to discolouration and premature ripening of bananas. Bananas are a staple crop in Uganda and of little interest to foreign firms, but this disease alone costs the African Great Lakes region nearly US$500 million annually. 

Investing in African science 

This brings in an added dimension to the argument. That whilst there are rallying cries and matching bursaries to support more Africans in studying sciences, the anti-biotech movement is also closing off an entire field of study. 

Scientists at KARI (Kenya Agricultural Research Institute) have developed a transgenic banana by inserting a gene from a green pepper, which provides protection against the banana wilt disease. Planting this banana would be far more efficient than relying on labor-intensive methods of isolating and destroying affected conventional bananas.  

However, the anti-GM movement effectively blocks adoptions of laws that would allow research like this to take place, done nationally, in the right context and which could also be able to save staple crops. 

This is by no means a rallying cry for genetically modified crops and foods. In an interview with Wilhelm Klümper, an agriculture economist who has done extensive research on GMOs, he didn’t want to be considered pro-GM – this even though he conducted 147 original studies and found that on average GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. 

He explained that “it’s a promising technology, because it’s shown that it can deliver great results, but that said, each and every context has to be examined. Ideally, if you bring in a technology into a farming system, you have to assess it and how well it fits in the conditions you find.”

To illustrate this he described two crop traits that are being used in bigger areas – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Insect resistant traits mean the crops, maize and cotton in particular, have a gene from a bacteria which is used in organic agriculture and is toxic to insects, don’t need pesticides to be sprayed on them. Not only does this mean that there is less toxic pesticide on food that we eat, but it can greatly reduce the costs of growing those crops. Big pluses. 

For the herbicide resistant trait however, the picture is less rosy. Herbicide tolerance, used in soya bean, maize and even cotton, has been a partial success story. Klümper explained that while the only herbicide needed for the crops is Glyphosate – a pro in that farmers don’t need to use many different herbicides – it has also resulted in some weeds developing a resistance to the herbicide and it’s also shown to produce health issues in some areas. 

These show that both sides of the pro and anti-GM movement have their valid arguments, but also acts as a reminder that what worked in the US and Europe, may not work in Africa. Biotechnology needs to be carefully considered and we have the ability to do our own research and find what works and support the local or regional markets – preventing external markets from dictating what could work best for African nations. 

To get an idea, if we use the report’s method of a global average of a 22% yield increase for biotech crops and superimposed 2013’s global adoption rates onto other African countries’ production in soybean, maize, and cotton - then what could happen on the continent? 

  • African nations produced roughly $1.01 billion worth of cotton. If 70% were of biotech-improved stock, higher yields would increase harvest value by $156 million. 
  • African nations produced roughly $482 million worth of soybeans. If 79% were of biotech-improved stock, the total value would increase by $84 million. 
  • For maize, African nations produced roughly $10.6 billion worth of the crop. If 32% were of biotech-improved stock, the total value would increase by $744 million. 

The gains are potentially too much to be ignored and perhaps a deeper investigation into the GM grey area in the Africa is needed - in support not just Africa’s farmers, agricultural producers and those most vulnerable to climate change – but also an appeal to support our own research and scientific industry.

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