Africa’s Readiness for GMOs Amid Food Security Concerns

With the realities of food security and a burgeoning population, there is an urgent need for a more realistic approach to the discussion on the adoption of GMOs in Africa.

  • Moving forward, Africa faces a significant food security dilemma.
  • Food production in Africa is expanding at a slower pace than population growth.
  • GMOs provide a means for Africa to obtain higher agricultural yields and shorter harvest times, ensuring greater food security.

Food security in Africa

Moving forward, Africa faces a significant food security dilemma. The United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) believes that 20 per cent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people face starvation. COVID-19 interruptions and the Russia-Ukraine crisis have exacerbated this situation.

Insecurity, violence, poverty, climate change, and population expansion represent significant factors in the continent’s food security concerns. Albeit substantial progress in the battle against malnutrition and food insecurity in Africa, the pace is too sluggish to reach the six primary nutrition objectives set by the World Health Assembly and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

READ MORE: GMOs ban lifting: the future of Kenya’s indigenous seeds

Food production and population growth

It is worth noting that food production in Africa is expanding at a slower pace than population growth. Except for Africa, per capita food production has increased in every other area of the globe during the 1970s. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is growing at a pace of roughly 3 per cent per year, which could easily treble the number of people in a single generation.

According to the UN, Nigeria’s population will exceed that of the United States by 2050, with Africa’s population expanding by 1.3 billion. This rapid population expansion challenges the continent’s already precarious food supply networks.

More significantly, Africa’s population is mainly composed of a younger generation. Two-fifths of Africans are between the ages of 0-14 years, with one-fifth between the ages of 15-24. Adequate food and nutrition play an essential role in the overall development of such a population.

More worrying is Africa’s exponential population growth rate, exhibiting the burden on agricultural farmlands, requiring technologies such as genetic engineering and biotechnology that can provide higher agricultural yields on limited agricultural lands, coupled with significant reductions in pesticide use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and lower exposure to climate variations.

Biotechnological studies on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) offer various options for solving the continent’s hunger, malnutrition, and food security challenges.

However, the adoption and acceptance of GMOs in Africa have been surprisingly delayed, perhaps owing to differing perspectives on their advantages and safety issues. With the realities of food insecurity and Africa’s burgeoning population, there is an urgent need for a more realistic approach to this discussion.

A case for GMOs in Africa

The GMO market (i.e., the commercial value of GM goods and services, including GM seed sales, GM commodity imports, etc.) in Africa was predicted to be worth $615.4 million in 2018, with a projected 5% increase to $871 million by 2025.

GMOs, with the correct strategy and framework, might help Africa tackle food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Food spoilage and loss caused by pests and pathogenic microbes pose a significant threat to food security and safety in Africa.

Food loss decreases revenue by at least 15 per cent in developing economies. Pest infestation on crops before harvest decreases the value of the harvests and the volume and market quality of such items.

Biotechnology advancements

Biotechnological advancements produce food crops more resistant to harm from several common food crop diseases and spoiling agents, lowering the need for costly and sometimes non-environmentally friendly chemical insecticides and pesticides.

Drought, heavy rainfall, and other environmental conditions substantially impact African agricultural production. Biotechnology provides a path for developing environmentally robust and climate-resistant crops that will help to safeguard Africa’s food basket.

Experts have extensively researched developing GM crops with faster maturity periods and higher quality. As a result, GMOs provide a means for Africa to obtain higher agricultural yields and shorter harvest times, ensuring greater food security.

Safety concerns are the main focus of the GMO debate and the primary reason for many African governments’ reluctance to embrace and deploy GMOs. Many African governments have stalled the adoption of biotech agriculture technologies due to perceived hazards that are sometimes unwarranted. Nonetheless, extensive evaluations and safety checks conducted under national and international biosafety frameworks ensure biotechnology safety.

There is no proof that GMO crops cause illness or death in people or animals anywhere in the world. GMOs represent the safest foods ever produced because experts thoroughly test them before making them accessible to the public. Improper food handling may result in sickness. Thus food safety requirements should always be observed.

GMOs in Africa

Globally, GMOs contribute to food security by increasing crop yield, quality and shelf-life. The commercialization and adoption of GMOs in many developed countries raised hope of improving food security and livelihood. Africa, a developing continent facing malnutrition, food crises and inadequate food production technologies, has been slow to accept GMOs.

GMOs have great potential for achieving the zero-hunger agenda. However, the hesitancy to accept GMOs in Africa emanates from unfavourable policies shaped by public opinion. Impeding factors hampering the adoption of GM technology necessitate biosecurity regulations on GMOs to monitor crop biosafety and environmental and health concerns.

With the current food security crisis in the continent, a proper debate on the place of GMOs is long overdue. Kenya has kickstarted the discussion by lifting a GMO ban for over ten years. However, inefficient communication, the lack of scientific evidence for health-related issues, and the dividends of modern biotechnology have resulted in protests and public concerns over GMOs.

Deliberations on GMOs

An unbiased deliberation must get underway on the adoption and roll-out of GMOs in Africa. Efforts to improve the adoption of GMOs in Africa should include the provision of adequate monitoring and surveillance system, science-based policies, political will and robust public education on and awareness of GM technology.

Farmers in Africa are anticipated to embrace biotech crops as biotechnology knowledge grows, possibly benefiting their families and the continent. Of course, adopting GMOs in Africa is about more than just information and awareness.

Time is running out for Africa to guarantee food security for its population. As the saying goes, it is not very reasonable to keep doing the same things and expect different results.

Africa needs crops that can withstand pests and disease, withstand drought, flourish without excessive pesticides and fertilizers, and produce healthy food. Africa needs crops to enable smallholder farmers to prosper. GMOs provide a powerful instrument for Africa to address these demands when other choices fail over time.

READ MORE: Kenya becomes the fifth country to allow GMOs. Will it last?

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