Africa continues to lag behind in adoption of biotech crops. In 2016, only two of the 26 countries that planted biotech crops were from the region. Yet, the continent stands to benefit immensely from application of modern biotechnology in agriculture. Reluctance to adopt the technology is partly attributed to safety concerns, heightened by strong activism propagated from the west, by countries that don’t face the same challenges that we do. Kenya’s current Deputy President, H.E William Ruto was spot on, in his 2010 COP-MOP 5 address, when he challenged “those with the luxury to choose whether to have red meat, white meat or whatever other colour meat not to stand in the way of those who are simply asking to have a meal”
Last month, a team of scientists published a meta-analysis on impacts of genetically modified (GM) maize on the environment, agriculture and toxicity. The data generated over 20 years concluded that genetic engineering increased maize yields by 10% on average, and reduced conventional mycotoxins in maize. This multiple data analysis provides very reliable evidence that GM maize can tackle a serious problem that has afflicted the continent for a long time – aflatoxin! Less amounts of natural mycotoxins reported to be both poisonous and carcinogenic to living organisms (humans and livestock) were observed in GM maize compared to their conventional counterparts. The study, like many before it, endorse the safety of GMOs. In 2016, the US National Academy of Science published a report on GMOs which reinforced the scientific consensus that there is no substantial evidence that GM crops are less safe than non-GM crops. The question that lingers on my mind is this: how many studies will it take for our leaders to trust scientists?
Regardless of scientific consensus and countless studies endorsing the safety of GM crops, there is widespread public perception that they are not safe. Worse still, some African governments have even hampered their production, only to allow imports of food and feed resulting from or containing GM products! This only benefits farmers from adopting countries and indirectly affects research progress, further delaying access to improved seeds. This is a worrying trend in a continent viewed as the final frontier for agricultural transformation to bring back the massive unemployed youth into smart farming.
It is disheartening when those entrusted with the responsibility of making key decisions about this continent’s food and nutrition security, continue to let half-truths impede them from taking decisive action. They shy away from making evidence-based decisions and developing facilitative policies that can enable this viable technology to blossom! Two decades after the technology has proved itself both in terms of safety and delivery of socio-economic benefits, some of our leaders continue to hide behind precautionary measures and demand for “never-ending research.”
There is evidence too that the more the stacks (GM crops containing more than one trait of interest), the better, with over 25% yield increment. In the same vein, no significant impacts have been observed on non-target organisms and other beneficial organisms including bees, ladybirds, beetles, lacewings and spiders. In previous data analyses, it has been documented that adoption of GMOs reduces the use chemical pesticides by about 37% compared to their conventional counterparts. Why then would our leaders want to come in the way of people enjoying such benefits, long after safety concerns have been put to bed?
African leaders need to care about this study and others that have endorsed safety of GMOs in the past and let credible scientific evidence guide them in decision making. In Africa, we have many collaborative initiatives on GM crops under various projects for example; Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), GM cassava and banana, Africa Biofortified Sorghum, Bt cotton, and others that continue to face regulatory bottlenecks leading to serious opportunity costs on farmers and their families. What is the scientist supposed to do beyond providing evidence that the technology works?
Murenga Mwimali, is a Principal Scientist/Maize Breeder, and Co-ordinator, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Kenya project and Head of Maize Program, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, Katumani. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org