Why genetically-modified crops may be about to have their day

A Kenyan farmer uproots a field where he was growing maize that failed because of a drought - Baz Ratner/Reuters
A Kenyan farmer uproots a field where he was growing maize that failed because of a drought - Baz Ratner/Reuters

A revolution is about to hit Africa, transforming the way it sustains itself as millions of families are pushed closer to starvation by rapid population growth, degrading land and climate change.

After a 20-year struggle during which African critics and advocates have repeatedly clashed in court and sometimes on the streets, genetically-modified (GM) food crops are now poised to sweep across the continent.

At the forefront of this coming surge is Kenya. A giant of East Africa, the nation may hold the key to unlocking long-standing resistance to GM crops and accelerating adoption of the technology well beyond its borders.

Last month, its new government quietly lifted a ban on GM food crops, despite significant opposition.

That decision has since been suspended following a lawsuit lodged by a group representing small holder farmers but the court’s stay is not expected to last. 

A motive for the sudden embrace of GM technology by Kenya’s leaders is clear: the worst drought in four decades has hit East Africa, ravaging crops and produce.

In Somalia, hunger is killing a child every minute. In southern Ethiopia, close to eight million people are facing life-threatening levels of hunger.

Even Kenya, by far the wealthiest country in the region, is struggling to feed its people. Almost 10 per cent of the population are facing severe food insecurity — meaning they can only eat about one meal a day — following four failed rainy seasons.

The war in Ukraine, which has dramatically slowed grain imports, is making matters considerably worse.

It’s hoped the introduction of GM crops to the country will help change this — although some believe it could make things worse.

Fear of embracing GM 

The technology, first championed in the 1990s but quickly dubbed as ‘Frankensteinian’ by its critics, genetically alters crops to produce qualities such as drought and pest resistance. 

It is still unclear exactly what type of seeds will be purchased in Kenya but when cargo ships carrying the biotech start to arrive, experts expect it will soon spread across East Africa’s porous borders, dissolving decades of aversion in the process.

While countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, the US and China all produce vast quantities of genetically modified foodstuffs, Africa is one of the last blocs on earth, along with the UK and the European Union, where most countries still ban the commercial growing of GM foods for human consumption.

Prof Johan Burger, from the genetics department of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said that for a long time, only four African countries have allowed the commercial growing of genetically-modified organisms (GMO): South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

“African governments, for reasons beyond me, have steered away and been very, very reluctant to introduce them in their respective countries,” he told the Telegraph.

African farmers tend to their crops in a field - Natalia Jidovanu/Natalia Jidovanu
African farmers tend to their crops in a field - Natalia Jidovanu/Natalia Jidovanu

Public wariness about the health effects and government suspicion over the motives of multinational businesses championing the technology have both played a role.

“The anti-GMO lobby has been incredibly successful in scaring people,” said Prof Burger. “African countries don’t have the technology, they don’t understand it, and they have steered away.”

Climate change and rapid population growth both highlight the need to adopt the technology, Prof Burger argues. 

Some forecasts have suggested that the continent needs to increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050. “Unless we use the latest technology, we will not get there,” he said.

Super crops

For thousands of years, humans have been gradually improving domesticated crops through conventional breeding, where desired traits were encouraged from one generation to the next. 

Britain and others have also invested heavily in so-called ‘super crops,’ where traditional breeding techniques are sped up to produce new lines.

These crops include iron-rich beans that can withstand a four degree Celsius jump in temperature, “scuba” rice that comes back to life after two weeks underwater in flooded fields and drought-tolerant maize rich in vitamin A.

Importantly, they have been created through traditional breeding techniques rather than being genetically modified, which means they can be planted without special regulatory approval.

However, GM crops are different. Rather than being conventionally bred, they typically involve genes that would not naturally occur being spiced in to create a new plant.

Very often GM crops are also seedless, which means farmers must buy seed afresh each year rather than collecting and storing their own.

Critics say seed monopolisation by the companies selling the new products results in farmers losing their autonomy and getting into debt.

In India, 300,000 farmers have died from suicide over the past two decades – much of which is blamed on the introduction of GM crops.

Greenpeace Africa, one of the main NGOs leading the countercharge in Kenya, described GM seeds as “neo-colonial technology” that will undermine food supplies and “seed sovereignty”.

It said the lifting of the ban in Kenya would expose local farmers to draconian intellectual property laws related to patents held by GM producing multinationals, and cited legal cases in India where four farmers were sued for about £100,000 by Pepisco, the manufacturer of Walkers crisps, for illegally growing their potatoes.

“About 80 per cent of the food being consumed in this country [Kenya] comes from small holder farmers. We want them to get more support, like access to water and good infrastructure,” said Hellen Kahaso Dena, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Africa in Nairobi.

Coffee cherries on a branch at Thiririka farming cooperative in Kiambu County, Kenya - Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg
Coffee cherries on a branch at Thiririka farming cooperative in Kiambu County, Kenya - Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg

“GMO’s might seem like the cheapest solution now but a much larger investment is needed to support farmers. Our focus is on seed sovereignty; whoever controls the seeds, controls the lifeline of a generation.”

Nevertheless, the cultivation of GM crops around the world has boomed from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185 million in 2016 – accounting for roughly 12 per cent of the world’s total farmed land and making them the fastest crop technology ever adopted. 

Some countries in Africa have already reaped benefits. Data from 2001 to 2018 in South Africa has shown that the country has boosted its white maize stockpile by about 4.6 million rations a year.

Scare stories

Kenya first banned GMO crops in 2012 after a French scientist published a paper linking pesticide-treated GM corn consumption to cancer in rats. The paper was slammed by other experts as bad science and then withdrawn by the academic journal. 

However, health-related scare stories remain rampant, with many religious groups arguing that we should not be ‘playing God’. 

“They argue GM crops are bad out of ignorance. They really don’t know what is happening. Many people believe it’s a totally new thing that will destroy many aspects of our health,” said Dr Miriam Jumba, a senior lecturer in microbiology at the University Of Nairobi. 

“Many think it will alter their DNA. There are rumours that GM crops have even been altered by the West to interfere with the reproductive systems to keep Africa’s population low.”

Dr Miriam dismissed such claims, saying they were “just not true”.

She reckons that the crops will soon spread out of Kenya to countries like Tanzania and Uganda because of the clear economic advantages. “Our borders are very porous. So if we are importing biotechnology into our countries, it will be spread across the region,” she said.

However, Dr Jumba said that the government would have to strike the right balance in utilising GM technology to unleash the country’s full agricultural potential while preventing giant multinational companies running roughshod over smallholder farmers.

“The local small holder farmers will not be able to afford these new GM crops,” she added. “This could mean they are very quickly out-competed by richer farmers or businesses, unless the government somehow subsidises them initially.”

For now, because of the poor technology deployed by farmers across Kenya, the country is not producing enough food to feed its population. Instead, the government is relying heavily on imports from China and South Africa.

This is a story common across Africa. Outside Southern Africa, there are a limited number of large mechanised farms on the continent. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 60 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers who produce food on a subsistence basis.

Proponents of small-scale farming argue that there are many advantages to the status quo, such as increased genetic diversity of crops, higher levels of sustainability and the fact that farmers often have a greater level of attachment to local landscapes and ecosystems.

A worker gathers cocoa pods cut from trees into a sack on a farm in Azaguie, Ivory Coast - Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Bloomberg
A worker gathers cocoa pods cut from trees into a sack on a farm in Azaguie, Ivory Coast - Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Bloomberg

However, because of a lack of irrigation and disposable income, hundreds of millions of African farmers are increasingly vulnerable to even a small shift in weather conditions. 

Moreover, because of rising populations, the land often ends up over-farmed, over-fertilised with the wrong chemicals and increasingly divided into smaller and less efficient plots as families grow in size.

Combined with increasing variability in weather patterns, this can lead to degradation on a massive scale. Research by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation in 2016 estimated that more than 60 per cent of the country’s land would soon be severely degraded.

‘It’s just about keeping up’

Sonja Vermeulen, managing director of genetic innovation at CGIAR, a global food security research partnership, said the challenges of climate change and feeding a growing population would drive interest in the new genetic technologies.

“The pace of breeding, the pace that we need to get new varieties into farmers’ fields and onto consumers’ plates, it’s just much faster than it used to be,” she said. “Climate change is driving some of the things you see like the need for heat tolerance, or drought tolerance.

“But it’s also driving the rate of spread of disease and the pace at which new diseases arrive or enter regions they have not been in before. It’s really just about keeping up with that speed of environmental change.”

With Kenya now taking a “big step” forward in embracing GM crops, Ms Vermeulen said, there is hope that many others will soon follow.

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