Genetically modified crops were first approved for commercial cultivation in 1995-96. Since then, the acreage under the crops has increased from 1.7 million hectares in six countries, to an estimated 179.7 million hectares in 28 countries worldwide in 2015 – an over hundredfold increase in adoption of GM.
In 2015 alone, the global market value of biotech crops was $15.3 billion, accounting for 20 per cent of the global crop market, and 34 per cent of the global commercial seed market.
Whereas farmers, mostly smallholder farmers, in some developing countries are commercially growing GM crops, Africa has taken a much more cautious approach, ranging from policy restrictions of various kinds to outright bans.
Consequently, the world’s second largest continent with 55 states inhabited by an estimated 1.2 billion people accounts for the lowest adoption of the world’s GM crops – 2.3 per cent – grown by just three countries: South Africa with maize, soyabean and cotton; Burkina Faso and Sudan with cotton.
This is ironic, considering that so many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been struggling for decades with unsolved farm productivity problems some of which could be addressed through GM technology.
The 55 African states are characterised by a mosaic of national policy positions on GM technology, ranging from those that can be considered to be permissive to those which are more cautious and ultimately those that are hostile to the adoption of GM crops.
Kenya, for instance, started off with a precautionary policy position when it signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and subsequently ratified it in 2003. The Protocol is an international legal instrument for ensuring adequate levels of protection in all activities involving GMOs.
To comply with its obligations as a contracting party to the Protocol, Kenya implemented a raft of measures including adoption of the National Biotechnology Development Policy in 2006, the enactment of the Biosafety Act in 2009 and the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority in 2010. This regulatory framework appeared to facilitate research and development activities on GMOs while ensuring that all these activities proceeded safely and responsibly.
But with all these progressive steps having been taken to establish one of the most robust regulatory frameworks for modern biotechnology in Africa, ranking only second to that of South Africa, the government unexpectedly switched to the restrictive mode by simply slapping a blanket ban on importation of GM food.
Uganda, like Kenya, started off with a precautionary policy posture when it signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol and later published the Biosafety Guidelines and Regulations and adopted a National Biotechnology Policy in 2008.
These early efforts have enabled researchers in Uganda to successfully conduct confined field trials on several GM crops such as cotton, cassava, maize and banana. But that is the farthest they have gone. Uganda is yet to enact the crucial Biosafety Law that would allow the commercialisation of GM crops.
In the majority of other African countries, a complex and controversial global debate on GM technology seems to have steered the continent to a more cautious attitude towards the crops. In 2002, Zambia declined GM maize donated as food aid even as the country reeled from a serious drought that threatened millions of people with food insecurity.
The narrative was the same in Zimbabwe, which only accepted the food aid donation with the caveat that it be supplied in milled form and not grain. Some other African countries such as Angola and Benin imposed bans and moratoria against GM products.
However, a few African countries embraced GM technology by establishing regulatory systems to oversee research and development in modern biotechnology, a move that has witnessed progress with confined field trials on some half dozen crops in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon, Malawi and Nigeria.
In Africa, regulatory regimes have emerged that implicitly assume that all GMOs present high risks unless proven otherwise, an approach that often requires inordinate amounts of information and data to be included in the safety dossier for regulatory clearance.
Some analysts have observed that setting regulatory safety standards on such an impossibly high oversight pedestal is a sure way of keeping GM crops from these countries, thereby depriving their farmers of the benefits of such technologies.
For Africa to benefit from GM technology, there is a need for African states to rethink their precautionary and restrictive positions on GM technology and provide a rigorous, responsible and predictable regulatory environment that will to take GM crops from research fields to the market.
Dr Francis Nang’ayo is a senior manager and head of regulatory affairs at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation