Zambia became a poster child for the anti-GMO lobby in 2002 when then-President Levy Mwanawasa refused to accept food aid that contained any genetically modified grain. Several other African countries followed suit, claiming that if the European Union worried about the health and safety of GE crops, then Africa should also be concerned. With more than thirteen million people in Southern Africa at risk of starvation due to crop failure from drought, the United Nations issued a statement endorsing the food-safety protocols of donor countries and encouraging the acceptance of GE food aid.
More than a decade later, the debate continues, with only four African countries—Egypt, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and South Africa—permitting the production of GE crops for sale. Uganda is now on the verge of becoming the fifth, in light of its ailing banana sector. Despite the importance of bananas for home consumption and rural incomes, however, the acceptance of GE crops for production and sale is mixed. Most banana growers in Uganda would like an immediate solution to the BXW epidemic and are willing to accept GMOs. But consumers remain wary.
There are concerns about who benefits, but GMOs have a role in preventing hunger.
Why the scare, especially when food security throughout the country is in jeopardy? For most countries, the issue revolves around two ideas about the ethics of food—first, that everyone has the right to know what is in their food, and second, that food carries strong cultural symbolism worth preserving. But this ethical stance, when focused specifically on health, ignores an important counterfactual: in the absence of GMOs, the same crops would be grown with pesticides or herbicides that are proven to be damaging to human health. In some of the world’s poorest countries, lead-based pesticides are still widely used, causing lead poisoning and long-term cognitive impairment within the farming population. Moreover, anti-GMO advocates are silent about beer made from GE yeast, soft drinks made from GE high fructose corn syrup, and pharmaceuticals (including insulin) produced with genetic modification.
Beyond biosafety, there are reasons to be concerned about who will actually benefit from the introduction of GE crops. Africa accounted for only 2 percent of the 170 million hectares of GE crops harvested worldwide in 2012. The United States, not surprisingly, occupied the leading role, with almost 70 million hectares under cultivation, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. South Africa was the largest producer on the African continent, with 2.9 million hectares sown to GE maize, soybeans, and cotton. Africa’s small market for GE crops, along with limited competition in the industry (GE seeds are mostly controlled by a handful of international companies), could well preclude widespread participation by smallholders. Large seed companies typically have their eye on scale and profit margins. Unless special licensing arrangements are made with governments—which have not been skillful at operating seed companies in the past—or with nonprofit groups or local firms, GMO-planting prospects for small farmers throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa appear quite limited.
Despite such reasonable concerns, is there a wider role for GE crops in fighting persistent hunger and improving rural incomes in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where most of the world’s chronic malnutrition is found? Yes, especially when considering the potential impacts of climate change. Most climate scientists agree that the world is likely to experience higher temperatures, decreased soil moisture, and more extreme flooding events in the decades to come. Subtropical regions are likely to face an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts. By 2050, growing-season temperatures in many tropical and subtropical countries will surpass even the warmest seasons of the past century. Staple crops in both sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are already grown at well above their optimum temperatures, placing them at high risk from climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa, with only five percent of its agricultural land irrigated, is particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of extreme heat and dry soil conditions. These concerns about climate change are important because multiple genes control heat and drought tolerance in plants, making it difficult to breed for these traits using conventional techniques.
It would be unwise to limit the world’s agricultural toolkit at a time when pests, diseases, and climate change threaten the food security of many low-income countries. The ethics of GMOs and the range of possibilities in solving world hunger need to be discussed openly. To say no to GE crops without debate would be an imprudent form of triage most countries would regret.