Every year, the Microsoft-cofounder-turned philanthropist Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates publish a letter predicting how they think and hope the world will be in the next 15 years. This year, the report predicted that introducing innovative farming, by 2030 Africa will be able to feed itself. It is very baffling how Africa still faces crippling food security issues despite holding 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. In a manner of speaking, by now, Africa should be a food basket, not only should Africa be able to feed itself but have enough for export; however, that is not the case; yearly, Africa spends US$ 35 billion of food imports.
The number of people in Africa is rapidly increasing, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in 2010, the number of hungry grew from 175 million to 239 million, a frightening figure in such a short time.
While in Sub-Saharan Africa, hunger rates increase by 2% every year. These statistics prove that Africa is dealing with a crisis, to be able to alleviate it; drastic measures need to be taken.Still, Africa has made significant progress over the years although the performance among African countries in curbing hunger varies. For example, in the span of 1990 and 2012, three countries reduced hunger by 50%, Ghana, Mauritania, and Democratic Republic of Congo. However, hunger remains prevalent in Africa. It is important to recognize the factors that are hindering Africa from achieving its potential in feeding itself.
According to the Bill and Melinda annual letter, success in attaining food security lies in the implementation of technological advances in farming. One of these technological advances that can aid Africa in food production is the controversial concept of Genetically Modified Foods. Basically, GMOs are living organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) whose genetic materials have been altered through genetic engineering (GE). When it comes to genetically engineering foods, Africa remains hesitant and frightful of the idea; however, with the increasing shortages in food, all alternatives must be explored.
Allegedly, the main reason Africans reject GM foods is due to health concerns. There is an ongoing debate among farmers and policymakers in Africa concerning the potential benefits of GM foods. Currently only four African countries grow commercial biotech crops; Burkina Faso, Sudan, Egypt and South Africa. There are a myriad of reasons behind Africa’s rejection of GM foods, some warranted and others misguided. There is a general disparity between what science says about GMs and what people think.
For most people, genetic modification is new technology, drastically so, and naturally human beings fear change and new ideas. However, what most people fail to realize is that genetic engineering is not a radically new concept. As humans, the manipulation of crop genes to breed plants with specific desirable traits has existed for a very long time. Of course the genetic modification is different from traditional plant breeding, but the concept is the same, genetic modification is a more precise technique, so to say. So how does it work exactly? Scientists identify a gene for a particular desired characteristic like herbicide resistance, extract the DNA from any other organism, and then they insert it into the DNA of a plant cell giving it that trait. Although scientists cannot control where the foreign DNA might land, they can repeat the experiment until they identify the genome with the right trait in the right place.
In an attempt to support the notion that using technology to modify crops poses a health crises to humans, some people say that there hasn’t been enough study to prove this statement false. However, a ridiculous amount scientific research has been done. In fact, a literature review entitled Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, covered 20 years of safety study and noted that there is overwhelming evidence that using biotechnology to genetically modify crops is safe. Moreover, every major international science body in the world has conducted individual studies into GMO, and they have all come up with the same conclusion-that GMO crops are safe.
Even the World Health Organization has concluded that GM foods “are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks to human health.” GE is among the most widely researched concepts in history; claims of their safety are based on research not imagination. Nonetheless, caution should always be practiced, there is a chance of accidentally adding allergens, and toxins to crops in the future, but again, most GMs are severely tested before distribution. There have been a myriad of studies on how harmful GMs are, some warranted others resembling conspiracy theories. These studies which have all been debunked include that, GMs can cause autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, cancer also that GM can lead to birth defects, that DNA from GM crops can be transferred to humans, that GMs are harmful to the environment (this in fact the exact opposite) and more. It is not just Africa that considers GMOs to be a health hazard; many other countries in Europe, Asia and America consider GMOs unsafe. It may be true that ‘natural’ food is better than GM foods, but until food is plentiful globally and there is a fair distribution of it, all solutions are worth considering.
Africa will need to feed around 2 billion people by 2050, an enormous challenge for a continent that is already struggling with climate change and land degradation. There are more than 30 million farms, creating ecological pressures on destruction of land. It is estimated by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center that higher temperature and reduced rainfall could depress maize harvests by 10-20% by 2050 and being that maize production supports around 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is a serious issue.
GMOs in Kenya have been banned since 2012 after the controversial publication by a scientific journal that linked GM corn to cancer in rats. Since then however, the study has been discredited, and retracted from the scientific journal that published it. Despite this, GMO in Kenya remains illegal; perhaps Kenya is still traumatized by the study. Nonetheless, it is about time that the GMO ban was lifted.
Over the last couple of years the country’s cereal growing heartlands have been ravaged by a virus called Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease. The virus has severely affected crop production, cutting it by a third and threatening 70 percent of Kenya’s maize farmers. The importance of maize in Kenya cannot be overstated. If there is one thing that can be found in most households in Kenya it is corn, or maize. Whether it is boiled, fried on the side of the road, mixed with beans, used to make ugali, it is perhaps the most important food not just in Kenya but Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result the country’s ban on GMOs should be reviewed, for the sake of food security at least.
The continued ban on GMOs poses a challenge in addressing developmental issues such as climate change, food security and climate change through the application of biotechnology. In addition, with the current ban, progress in the fields of agribusiness and biotechnology around the universities and research institutions in Kenya is limited. Along with seven other countries in Africa, Kenya is conducting confined field testing on GMOs which is a positive step forward. However, more and more policymakers are starting to reconsider the ban on GMOs, illustrating that the ban might be uplifted.
GM foods are by no means the solution to world hunger and food shortage in Africa. There are various options including, creating suitable environment for agriculture, dealing with regional barriers that restrict trade, providing greater support to farmers and more. However, GM as a possible alternative cannot be tossed aside; they are good stepping stone in dealing with food security. South Africa, which is one of the few countries in Africa to commercialize biotech crops, has the highest food security in Africa. GM foods are not a miracle formula against food insecurity, but if used properly, they can greatly benefit Africa. Myths and superstition surrounding GMs are causing Africans to miss out on a great opportunity for improved food security.