Workshop Proceedings Report GMOs for African Agriculture: Challenges and opportunities

Academy of Science of South Africa (2010)

Proceedings Report


The production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Africa has the potential to alleviate many problems on the continent – at present, millions of Africans are vulnerable to food insecurity and malnourishment. This is particularly evident in rural areas, where people depend primarily on agriculture for food and income. This report focuses on the potential of biotechnology, through GMOs, to provide solutions to such problems. Biotechnology is defined as “any technique that uses living organisms or substances from these organisms, to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses” (Office of Technology Assessment of the United States Congress). Modern biotechnology has been associated with genetic engineering or genetic modifi-cation (GM). Recombinant DNA, or genetic engineering, is a more precise form of biotechnology, allowing a breeder to transfer known, desirable genes into crops, instead of moving large groups of mostly unknown genes into crops, as in most traditional breeding. “genetically modified crops”, often known by the acronym “GM crops”, are usually received with varying emotions worldwide. Nonetheless, GM application, a component of biotechnology, is gradually finding its niche across the globe. Indeed, plant and crop breeders have been using biotechnology to modify the genetic make-up of crops for thousands of years. African agriculture has for decades been faced by multiple challenges, ranging from low productivity to poor or non-existent markets and infrastructure. There has been a decline in the production of cereals over the past four years, which has been attributed to lowinput (i.e. farming based on a reduction of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides) usage, declining soil fertility, erratic climatic conditions and low government commitment to fund development efforts in the sector. Biotechnology offers a mechanism to increase crop productivity, and as such to contribute towards food security and poverty eradication in Africa. A decade after GM crops were introduced into the world, their production has grown to about 125 million ha globally. Biotechnology first found its way into Africa through Bt maize, which was introduced into South Africa in 2003. Since its introduction, the technology has been found to reduce losses of maize incurred through damage by stem borers. However, there is still a large untapped potential in biotechnology that can be embraced to address Africa’s challenges. Although biotechnology is gradually being embraced across the globe, it nonetheless faces much opposition. Challenges to its adoption include: • perceptions and attitudes • access to and use of proprietary technology • biotechnology policy • the cost of biotechnology research. In order to tap into the potential that biotechnology offers to agricultural productivity and food security, there is a need for greater dedication by African governments towards biotechnology development. This can be done by developing their capacity to negotiate access to intellectual property (IP) rights, and to enact and operationalise IP rights and biosafety policies and guidelines that foster technological innovations, delivery and trade.