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Should Genetically Modified Crops Be Considered For Africa’s Food Security?

bunch of ripening bananas on a tree Skeptics have a right to question the role of biotechnology in global food security. But they are wrong to ignore the growing evidence of the potential contributions that biotechnology can make toward new challenges such as climate change, which will require new technological responses.

Food security depends on four interrelated factors: quantity of food, which involves increasing agricultural productivity; access to food, which is determined both by income levels and quality of infrastructure; nutrition; and overall stability of the food system, such as resilience to shocks.

Genetically-modified (GM) crops or any other breeding methods on their own cannot solve the challenges related to food quality, access to food, nutrition or stability of food systems. But their role cannot be dismissed for ideological reasons.

GM crops already benefit smallholder farmers in several major ways. For example, they help farmers control pests and disease. This leads to higher production and increased income, which in turn provides them with increased ability to consume more nutritious food.

Let us take the example of pest-resistant GM cotton. Although GM cotton is not directly consumed, it indirectly contributes to food security by raising household income levels and improving access to more nutritious food.

A recent study published by Plos One found that households in India growing GM cotton consumed significantly more calories. Each hectare of GM cotton increased total calorie consumption by 74 kcal per adult equivalent per day. Furthermore, a smaller proportion of households are food insecure (7.93 percent of adopting GM cotton households compared to 19.94 percent of non-adopting households.

The study also showed that GM cotton adoption led to consumption of more nutritious foods – such as fruits, vegetables and animal products. The authors estimate that if the households that do not currently grow GM cotton switched, “the proportion of food insecure households would drop by 15-20 percent.”

These studies do not justify the widespread adoption of GM crops to address food security, but they show that under certain conditions, the technology has the potential to contribute to increasing farm incomes which in turn gives farmers the opportunity to raise their food purchases. It is therefore a mistake to argue for their exclusion without giving farmers a chance to make their own choices.

The ability of farmers to benefit from GM crops is closely linked to their ability to access new technologies. It has often been argued that the control of the global seed industry by a small number of large multinational corporations is a threat to food security. The problem is not simply the presence of large corporations but the low level of the development of domestic seed firms. Such local firms can help focus on indigenous crops. They can also play key roles as business partners with foreign farms.

Africa has been a major focus of the concern that foreign firms are likely to undermine food security through their control of seed technology. However, a recent study, Planting the Seed of a New Green Revolution for Africa, shows that the continent’s seed sector is dominated by local start-ups, not foreign multinational firms.

In fact, local African scientists are at the forefront of using biotechnology to solve local problems. For example, researchers in Uganda are using biotechnology to control the xanthomonas banana wilt. By transferring two genes from green peppers, scientists were able to grow highly resistant bananas.

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