By Mary Hearty
More than 90 African agricultural science experts from 25 national science academies, including the Kenya National Academy of Sciences have endorsed the adoption and commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa, terming it as a viable option that can sustainably address food crisis in the continent.
This took place during a three-day meeting in Nairobi organized by the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) from 28th – 30th November 2022, to discuss and draw recommendations on how the continent can strengthen her capacity for sustainable agriculture and food systems.
The experts affirmed that it is time for African countries to embrace and tap into the huge potential of modern agricultural biotechnology in improving agricultural productivity.
This comes at a time when the continent has been embroiled in polarized debate around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are products of modern biotechnology.
This is especially in Kenya following the lifting of a decade-long ban on importation and use of genetically modified foods, which has even played out in the law courts, and most recently the High Court has issued orders suspending importation and distribution of GMOs.
Despite the debates, the drought situation continues to worsen in twenty of the 23 arid and semi-arid (ASAL) counties in Kenya namely Baringo, Garissa, Isiolo, Mandera, Marsabit, Samburu, Tana River, Turkana, Wajir, Embu, Kajiado, Kilifi, Kitui, Kwale, Laikipia, Lamu, Makueni, Meru, Narok, Nyeri, Taita Taveta, Tharaka Nithi and West Pokot.
The situation is replicated in most parts of Africa, According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with two in every 10 people on the continent facing food crisis. Shockingly, more than 100 million Africans face acute food insecurity.
In Kenya, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance currently stands at 4.35 million based on 2022 Long Rains Food and Nutritional Security Assessment Report.
The situation is worsening the livestock sector too with more than 50 feed manufacturers closing and farmers downsizing their animals. All these measures are compounding the food insecurity situation.
Why Adopt GM technology
In a statement, NASAC noted that Africa should consider adoption of GM crops because they are safe as scientific authorities around the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, FAO, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have analyzed thousands of scientific studies and concluded that GM food crops do not pose any risks to people, animals or the environment.
Secondly, commercialized GM crops have a history of safe use because they have been grown commercially since 1996 and are proven to be a highly successful farm tool delivering production, environmental and safety benefits.
Foods from biotech crops have also been eaten for twenty five years with no verified health problems being reported.
Thirdly, they undergo strict safety assessment before approval. Research on GM crops, for instance, has to be reviewed and approved in accordance with national and international science protocols. Biotech crops under research are subjected to different levels of assessment before they are approved for commercial cultivation.
Also, they noted that GM crops on the market today have the same nutrition and composition as non-GM crops. “Food from GMOs is digested in the body the same as food from non-GM crops. For example, GM maize is nutritionally the same and digested the same as non-GM varieties,” the statement reads.
In addition, more than 70 countries have adopted biotech crops with more than 190 million hectares of biotech crops being grown globally. On the other hand, developing countries grew 56% of the global biotech crop area compared to 44% for industrial countries.
Biotech crops also contribute to food security, sustainability, and climate change solutions: With 25 years of commercialization, there is demonstrated evidence that GM crops are more productive than conventional varieties. They have increased productivity by 822 million tons valued at US$224.9 billion. GM crops have also contributed towards biodiversity conservation and environment safety through significant reduction on pesticide application on crops and carbon emissions.
Further, most African countries, including Kenya, have enough biosafety capacity to regulate GM research and products. Kenya and many other African countries have in place competent national biosafety agencies that carry due diligence in assessing safety of GM products. Kenya, and a number of other African countries, are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and parties to the Cartagena Protocol.
Also, African countries have scientific infrastructure and human capacity needed for research and development of biotech crops. For instance, in Kenya, there are over 100 scientists engaged in agri-biotech research and development activities countrywide, with 45% of these scientists working in the public sector.
Biosafety facilities for modern biotechnology include a Level II Greenhouse at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and the Plant Transformation Laboratory at Kenyatta University.
How to achieve adoption of GM technology
The NASAC advised that governments should put structures in place to enhance research activities; like, introduction of the reward system that gives credit to researchers, noting that the reward arrangement should be timely and prompt and should be factored in the budget of the particular research.
They also urged higher learning institutions to expand from theoretical training with focus on graduates to more commercialization of the research products and knowledge by maximizing on partnerships with industry and institutionalization of intellectual property rights (IPR), adding that this will require establishment of innovation hubs.
On policies, they noted that specific country public policies and strategies for biotechnology and emerging science technology development should be defined by clearly identified public policy objectives.
This includes but not limited to ensuring food security including access to safe and sufficient food; increasing agricultural productivity; promoting economic growth through diversification in to high-value products and technological development; promoting public health and food safety; and conserving, sustainably using and equitably sharing the benefits of biodiversity.
Also, they suggested the respective governments should fund the science academies to provide a platform and entry point for African researchers to spearhead the research-policy and practice in Africa. Currently there are 28 active academies with qualified researchers to take the African agenda forward.