GM food for Africa

According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one of the most fundamental is the need to eat. In his landmark paper A Theory of Human Motivation Maslow suggested that only once humans have met ‘basic needs’ do they seek to satisfy successively higher needs. Many Africans are ‘stuck’ on the first level since they do not have regular access to food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that in order to feed the 815 million people who are chronically undernourished, and provide for a projected population increase of 2 billion within the next 30 years, food production must double without using much more than the currently utilised land and water resources. Biotechnology (Bt), and more specifically genetically modified (GM) foods, offer a realistic opportunity to meet these demands.

Compared to the rest of the world, African countries generally suffer from very low agricultural yields. Since a large proportion of the continent’s inhabitants are subsistence farmers these low yields contribute to Africa’s poverty and lack of economic development. However, they can improve productivity fairly rapidly because one of biotechnology’s great advantages is that it can become available almost immediately to farmers outside the industrialised countries. GM crops have the potential, in just a few years, to improve the effectiveness of the agricultural sector and food security in many developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Genetically modified crop plants are increasingly being developed and adopted around the world. The global planting of approved GM crops in 2005 covered 90 million hectares in 21 countries, up from 81 million hectares in 17 countries in 2004. Notably, of the four new countries that grew GM crops in 2005, three – Portugal, France, and the Czech Republic – were in the EU.

Although the United States is by far the world’s largest grower of GM crops, developing countries such as Argentina and Brazil are making more use of the new technologies. South Africa and India have also recognised the potential of GM seeds to provide the higher yields necessary to meet the demands of growing populations. Not only have they begun planting GM crops but have also set up scientific institutions to develop their own technologies.

A great deal of controversy still surrounds GM technologies. Opponents are concerned about the long-term impact of GM technology on the environment and human health. They cite the precautionary principle: that a technology should not be used unless and until it has been shown to be absolutely safe.

Biosafety is, for all intents and purposes, not meant to avoid risks. Biotechnology policies should create an enabling environment that fosters the development of new technologies and does not deter research. Properly handled, biotechnology has the ability to improve the lives of millions of people. If governments focus mainly on the possibility that new products may pose theoretical risks and apply the precautionary principle to agricultural and food biotechnology they may be ignoring very real existing risks that could be mitigated or eliminated by these products.

Governments therefore have an ethical obligation to explore the potential benefits of biotechnology as a means of reducing poverty, improving food security and conducting profitable agriculture. This is especially important when one considers that the world population is growing exponentially and food security problems are only going to get worse. Applying the precautionary principle and doing nothing is itself not without risk.

The majority of authoritative reviews have concluded that neither GM crops nor food produced from them pose a significant risk to the humans who consume them. Indeed, in its annual State of the World’s Food and Agriculture report the FAO concludes that the balance of evidence suggests that GM technology does not harm humans and GM seeds do not harm the environment.

Subsistence and small-scale farmers in Africa have the most to gain from adopting these technologies. Those who have adopted the technologies have seen a substantial increase in their crop yields and a reduction in their workloads. As a result, they have been able to produce more than they consume and to sell their excess product. For these individuals to return to traditional farming methods is simply out of the question, GM crops have improved their health, well-being and overall quality of life.

Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article/ 01 August 2006

Note: The Sustainable Development Network, of which the FMF is a member, is launching a new publication on 15 August and holding a half-day conference on 16 August 2006 on sustainable agriculture in Africa, both at the Sandton Sun and Towers, Johannesburg. For more information go to or contact Lyn Stidworthy on 011-884 0270.
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