Reports that Kenya had agreed to introduce genetically modified maize into its food system ignited old fears and revived intense debate about the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in assuring global food security.
The main argument for GMOs is that they can help avert a food crisis and attendant social turmoil amid a rapidly rising global population. They achieve this by increasing yields through better crop resilience to pests and climate stress, or expanding food production into marginal lands, where it is not viable to grow crops.
Interestingly, opposition to GM crops has been almost universal if for different reasons. In the Global North, the birthplace of these technologies, opposition has centred around the many unknowns about the safety, health and environmental implications of GM food.
Perennially in food-deficit, Africa has been a tantalisingly testing ground for these concepts by a novel industry dominated by Western biotech companies. African governments fear, and perhaps rightly so, that despite their benefits, GM crops can be disruptive, increase food poverty and make African farmers hostage to Western biotech companies.
African scientists have developed considerable capacity in biotech and are the brains behind many new crop varieties. It is also argued that yields in Africa can increase fourfold by improving agronomy and adopting best practices in crop management.
All that could be true but Africa’s concerns are not completely baseless. If commercial food production and the emergence of specialist seed companies resulted in an ecosystem that generates huge food surplus in the West, merely introducing GM seed will not automatically confer similar benefits to developing countries. Technological advances in the West were largely a product of social and structural changes in food production systems, which are largely absent in Africa.
The continent is yet to fully harness the Agrarian Revolution; production is mostly supported by smallholder farmers with no structured food markets. Throwing the GMO revolution at such societies can do more harm than good. It can also worsen the entrenched and loathed Western global dominance.
Yet it would be self-delusion to imagine that the tide of GMOs can be staved off forever. GM crops can be introduced in Africa using subtle means. Locking them out also hobbles African scientists’ capacity to participate in and mastering this biotech. The continent will be left exposed and vulnerable without even the most basic capacity to exploit or control this beast of the future.
If African fears are about the socioeconomic implications of the technology, debate should shift to how to bring equity to GMO technology. This is pretty much what Dr Jorgen Schlundt, onetime Director of the WHO's Food Safety Department meant when he counselled in 2005: "GM foods should be examined from many standpoints, including the social and ethical, in addition to the health and environmental. If we help our member states to do this on a national level, we can avoid creating a 'genetic divide' between those countries which permit GM crops and those which do not."