Africa and Western World / Development / Horn of Africa / Land and Inequality / Technology

GMOs in Africa: Capturing frontier markets in the name of food security

A field of Ethiopian teff. Teff is a grain native to the northern Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands and used to make the flat bread injera eaten daily in most households. (photocredit

Ethiopia, a country with one of the strictest biosafety protocols, ratified in 2009, has recently moved towards loosening its restrictions on the importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The original Biosafety Proclamation made the widespread introduction of GMOs impossible as it required the national authority of the exporting country to take full responsibility for any adverse effect resulting from the use of imported GMOs — a responsibility no government was willing to assume. Meanwhile, the use of GMOs has been aggressively promoted as a powerful tool for increasing agricultural productivity and reducing food insecurity in Africa. The Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa — bankrolled by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations became the philanthropic face for the biotech industry with the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a private sector investment initiative launched by the G8 in 2012 following in its footsteps. Ethiopia, which has relied heavily on international partners to provide food aid since at least the 1980s, is under increasing pressure to accept GMO imports as is the rest of Africa.

Despite vocal opposition to the hasty introduction of GMO crops in Africa, the near total exclusion of African experts from the global scientific conversation means that debates about GMO are often overpowered by non-African voices. In most formal discussions, experts dismiss the opposition as a knee-jerk reaction by an under-educated populace suspicious of new technology when in fact there are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of genetic modification technology (GM), especially when it is lauded as the silver bullet promising to end hunger in Africa.

The GMO debate is often centered on consumer safety issues. Are GM products unsafe for human consumption? The overwhelming scientific consensus says no. However, those who religiously repeat the mantra “show me the science” in discussions about the potential risks associated with GM technology tend to ignore the way scientific consensus is built. Without wading into the depths of a body of theoretical work on the socio-political nature of scientific “fact-making” one could read this NY Times article about the obstruction of scientific research by biotech firms. Or, there is this two-part article about how the cozy relationships between regulatory agencies and biotech corporations as well as between academia and private industry significantly influences published results.

When it comes to Africa, in order to understand resistance to GMO it is important to remember that GM technology as it currently operates is inseparable from intellectual property rights (IPRs) and monocropping, which are linked to the loss of both biodiversity and food sovereignty in Africa—if not the entire “global south.” Ignorance of this fact is largely the privilege of those in Europe and the US who are increasingly disconnected from their food sources. Their concerns may be satisfied by a scientific consensus that tells them that if they buy GMO corn from their local supermarket and eat it with their family, no one will get sick or die. However, in Ethiopia where 80% of people’s livelihoods are dependent upon agriculture, this is not the extent of the public’s concern.

Many Ethiopians who oppose GMO crops know that their country is home to two of the world’s five biodiversity hotspots and is the center of origin for a diversity of crops that are now cultivated around the world. Hence they are keenly aware of the invaluable assets that come from biologically diverse, locally adapted agricultural systems. Spreading monocultures of high yielding crops is justified on the grounds of increasing productivity yet genetic variability is just as vital as high yields. Biodiversity acts as an insurance against pests, disease and environmental stress. One important example of the benefits of biodiversity is when the yellow dwarf virus struck North American barley in the 1950s threatening crops in Canada and the US. The crops were saved thanks to resistant genes found in a strain of Ethiopian barley demonstrating how food security in the so-called “global north” is inextricably linked to the conservation and sustainable uses of agricultural biodiversity in places like Ethiopia.

Another problem with discussions about GM technology is that advocates often rely on the fallacious argument that GM technology is no different from what humans have been doing for thousands of years. According to this logic farmers have been “genetically modifying” plants through selective seed saving and plant breeding since the dawn of agriculture so those who see GMO as a new and threatening technology are simply unenlightened reactionaries. The ever-ubiquitous Internet meme has even helped popularize this idea.

It is true that the history of agriculture is one of farmers selectively saving seed from the best of their harvest to develop crops that have the most desirable traits. Through selective seed saving, Ethiopian farmers have consciously developed teff varieties that best suit the climatic conditions of the northern highlands and meet their communities’ nutritional and cultural needs. With over one thousand years of experience growing coffee arabica, Ethiopia today produces some of the highest quality, best tasting coffee in the world.

natural coffee tree on shore of lake Tana

Coffee tree on the shores of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

Open pollinated seed saving systems are indeed as old as agricultural production itself. This is how many of the delicious fruits and vegetables that we have today came to differ substantially from their dry, bitter ancestors. The majority of Ethiopian farmers (96%) continue to rely on the ability to save seeds in order to replant their crops. This is a crucial point that I’ll come back to.

“Hybrid” plant breeding refers to a plant variety developed through a cross of two parent plants. Hybrids can happen spontaneously in nature when two open-pollinated plants naturally cross-pollinate. Plant cultivators, however, intentionally direct the process so as to control the outcome. Hence, we have things like seedless watermelons, tangelos and pluots. However, plant breeding in an open pollinated environment or through hybrid cross breeding differs substantially from genetic modification.

While traditional breeding is based on sexual reproduction between like organisms, recombinant DNA technology allows scientists to splice together genes from different organisms that would never breed in nature. Scientists manipulate and re-combine the DNA of species that can’t naturally reproduce—like bacteria and corn. The resulting organism is interchangeably referred to as “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered” or “transgenic.”

Just like open pollinated seeds, many GMO seed varieties can be saved and expected to produce uniform offspring the following season but GMO seeds are patented. Patents make it illegal to save the seed. Biotech firms that own the patents on GMO seed varieties argue that because it is actually more expensive to produce GMO seeds as it requires hi-tech laboratories, equipment and personnel, they would not be profitable without patents .

The obvious problem with forcing farmers to purchase seeds every season is that it increases their reliance on a system of expensive inputs. Forcing farmers to purchase proprietary seeds and the herbicides needed to grow them brings enormous profits to multinationals like Monsanto but reduces individual farmers’ independence as well as the food sovereignty of entire nations. Monopolies on seeds and the very ability to produce food at all continues to concentrate even further into the hands of just a few corporations. Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta now control more than half of all global seed sales. The monopolization of the global seed industry by a handful of players puts nations like Ethiopia at a clear disadvantage.

There are other risks associated with a dependence on seeds developed outside of local knowledge systems. Small-scale farmers are often unable to absorb losses when GMO seeds that are not well adapted to local climatic and soil conditions do not perform as promised. In the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh, when India Monsanto’s Bt cotton (cotton genetically modified to be insect resistant) failed to produce higher yields hundreds of farmers were left indebted after purchasing the expensive seed. One 2008 report found that the benefits of planting Bt cotton in China were counteracted by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat secondary pests that, prior to the introduction of Bt cotton, were not a problem. Monsanto owns the crop but not the liability and this is exactly what the controversial provision in Ethiopia’s 2009 Biosafety Proclamation guarded against. When transgenic crops fail to deliver or produce unintended adverse effects, an already vulnerable population suffers the consequences while biotech companies can pocket profits and move on. This amounts to what Vandana Shiva calls “a total privatization of benefits and total socialization of costs.”


Ploughing with cattle in southwestern Ethiopia (photo credit ILRI/Stevie Mann)

Already vulnerable communities are not good subjects for experimental introduction of GMO seeds, no matter how well intentioned. There is no doubt that Ethiopia’s reliance on small-scale, rain fed agriculture in the face of climate change and a rapidly increasing population keeps farmers and rural livelihoods in a precarious state. Certainly, Ethiopian farmers would benefit from greater access to land and improved inputs like fertilizer, mechanized tools, and efficient irrigation systems. Why not build on millennia of local food producing knowledge instead of introducing new uncertainties? Why is it that research funding and aid efforts are so narrowly focused on GM technology to the exclusion of other scientifically valid approaches?

African nations clearly represent the new frontier market for biotech firms. But if the western governments and aid agencies who partner with them are genuinely concerned about food security in Africa and are convinced that GM technology offers solutions, why isn’t the technology open source so it can be implemented at the discretion of in-country experts? Intellectual property rights are justified on the grounds that society grants them to corporations so that society can benefit from their innovations. It’s difficult to see how patented seeds benefits African societies as a whole as much as it deepens the pockets of increasingly powerful multinational corporations. If feeding hungry people in the world’s poorest nations is the goal, research on non-proprietary GM solutions should be prioritized. Africans who understand local agro-ecologies, and food producing economies are the ones best equipped to responsibly assess risks and selectively apply the technology in partnership with local farmers. Hence, making a generational commitment to improving scientific capacity through investments in an already existing educational and technical infrastructure would do far more to end food insecurity than the introduction of a system that forces farmers to purchase proprietary seeds from multinational corporations.


Tewolde Berhan Gebreegziabher environmental activist and former General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia

The African Biodiversity Network, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia continues to defend  farmers’ rights to reject GM seed. Local organizations like MELCA-Ethiopia continues to promote agro-ecological approaches to food security as a sustainable alternative to GMOs. Tewolde Berhan Gebreegziabher, the award winning scientist, environmental activist and former manager of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority helped draft Ethiopia’s 2009 biosafety law. He staunchly opposed the introduction of proprietary GM seeds. I wonder if it is merely a coincidence that Ethiopia’s recent move towards GM technology coincided with a bureaucratic restructuring that left Tewolde Berhan Gebreegziabher in an advisory role to a newly created Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forestry. Unlike the original biosafety legislation, the new amendments were crafted by the Ministry without the input of civil society. Now, with the African Union pushing for less restrictive biosafety protocols, it may not be long before Ethiopia’s resistance collapses under the pressure. Biotech firms with philanthropic organizations acting as their proxies already have one foot in the door.

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