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GM crops may solve hunger problems in Africa

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By Abraham Adekunle

Skepticism shroud its adoption due to potential risks, resulting in strict bans.

One of the Sustainable Development Goals is termed “Zero Hunger.” This is not because it sounds fanciful but because it is a global problem, which African countries unfortunately rank high in its index. Hunger and undernourishment have plagued Africa for years because of food insecurity. The problem seems to be growing year by year. In 2022, the African region accounted for the highest level of hunger as described by Global Hunger Index. According to the World Health Organization, over 340 million Africans were undernourished and severely food insecure between 2014 and 2020.

On May 28, 2023, the whole world came together to commemorate World Hunger Day as stakeholders called for more efforts to end this global menace. In many countries, low agricultural productivity and post-harvest losses are some of the causes of food insecurity, which results in hunger and malnutrition, especially in children. In Nigeria, for instance, attacks by armed bandits have displaced hundreds of thousands of farmers who produce the crops that are distributed to the rest of the country. The result is food shortages in the market. One cannot also rule out the impact of the absence of storage facilities.

Evidence-based research shows GM crops can resolve these issues.

Over the past two decades, scientists have conducted research that shows that genetically modified (GM) crops could resolve low agricultural productivity, nutrition and food insecurity on the continent. This would be achieved as this innovation increases yield, develops disease-resistant crops, and creates varieties that can tolerate drought. The technology is already contributing to global food security. According to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, GM crops, which are also known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), are responsible for the global production of 330 million tonnes of soybean and 595 million tonnes of maize over the past 25 years.

Its adoption among cotton-producing households in India also reduced food insecurity by between 15 and 20 percent between 2004 and 2008. Research also shows that 65 percent of the value gained came from higher yield and production, while the remaining 35 percent came from lower costs. Since the mid-1990s, farmers in developing countries have enjoyed more than half of the global value gain of $186.1 billion. In 2019, Brazil, Argentina, India, Paraguay and China were among the 10 countries that planted the most GM crops in the world. The technology also gives higher nutrients in crops. As an example, a trial of sweet potato bio-fortified with pro-vitamin A succeeded in Mozambique as children accepted the product, potentially improving the children’s health.

A number of African countries ban the technology due to risks.

However, the technology is controversial. Only Nigeria, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sudan, South Africa and Kenya allow commercial production and importation of GMO. Other African countries oppose them, largely because of the European Union (EU)’s stance on GM products, limited scientific capacity, and the high cost of regulation. The EU’s strict regulations on the products have affected their trade partners, including African countries like Egypt and Burkina Faso, which had commercialized GM maize and cotton in 2008 and had to backtrack because of their trade relationship with the union. In spite of the benefits that it can offer to Africa, it still faces opposition in Uganda and Nigeria due to strict regulations, limited research capacity and safety concerns.

There are concerns that it could cause gene flow (genes being transferred to another population), biodiversity loss and health-related concerns. Some hold the belief that these products could cause severe health complications and diseases such as cancer. In Nigeria, it was during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan that a national biosafety bill was passed into law and approved in 2019. After this, the country commercialized GM cotton and followed by GM cowpea to control pod borer insects that cause about 70 to 80 percent loss of cowpea yield annually.

Proper steps should be taken to adopt GM products in Africa.

Cowpea is a major source of protein and energy, especially for rural dwellers. Yet some scientists, environmentalists and consumers in Nigeria are still wary of GM cowpea. Their argument is that it could reduce or eliminate the use of traditional cowpea, and farmers may not be able to afford the price of its GM varieties. There are several ways to encourage its adoption by local farmers. They include increasing investment in research and innovation for agricultural biotechnology; educating and training scientists; getting local scientists involved in setting the research agenda and providing evidence to inform national decision making; exchanging ideas and information across different levels of government; and creating awareness through science communication informed by local evidence of benefits and concerns.

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