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Food Security In Africa: Is Genetically Modified Technology A Pathway? (III)



My last line of the part II of this article ended with two pertinent questions. Can Africa afford GMT? What is the viable strategy for Africa to benefit from cutting – edge technology? On cost of research and development of the GMT for a particular crop, GMO, averagely, GMO takes 13 years and $130 million of research and development before coming to market ( From another literature, “GMO Answers”, the cost of generating a new genetically modified crop is $136 million with an average of seven years duration. This is why in the developed countries; private sector is the major driving force for research investment to develop GMT. Thus, the Biotech Companies rely on patents to safeguard their investment. These patents are protected through the World Trade Organisation (article 27), the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (also known as UPOV), and laws of the member nations. This staggering cost of research is certainly very difficult for individual African countries to invest. Again, this exorbitant cost of developing GMO sometimes makes one to wonder whether the investment is really worth the effort. However, according to an expert, Prof Graham Brookes, an agricultural economist at PG Economics Ltd, UK, he was quoted saying, “the main reason why GM crops contribute to reducing the cost of food worldwide has to do with the very nature of the biotechnology involved, which helps farmers increase production, thanks to herbicide and pesticide resistant crops”. In terms of productivity, Brookes says that new biotechnology has generated the equivalent of “an extra 122 million tons of soybeans, 237 million tons of corn, 18 million tons of cotton lint and 6.6 million tons of canola” between 1996 and 2012. This means that the increase in productivity goes hand in hand with savings on pesticides and fuel compared to conventional methods. “When added to the extra income arising from higher yields, the net farm income benefit from using GM technology has been equal to $116.6 billion during that same period”, according to the expert. Ultimately, GMO crops, through their environmental sustainability, potential for nutritionally fortified foods, and increased productivity, actually play a key role in keeping the cost of food down and making the investment pay higher dividends.

On the strategy for Africa to benefit from this cutting-edge technology, already, some African countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan have since released some GM crops at commercial level. However, these GMO crops were developed and brought into the continent by giant global seeds companies such as Monsanto for purely profit making. These companies have secured the patents of these crops making it difficult for African researchers to develop their commercially viable GMOs. Already, the companies have already secured patents for some GM crops such as maize, soya, cotton and golden rice. In addition, the countries where these companies originated are assiduously promoting the GMO crops through special support for enactment of biosafety laws in African countries. According to report by ‘Friends of the Earth International’ it stated that “The US administration’s strategy consists of assisting African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote agribusiness interests instead of protecting Africans from the potential threats of GM crops,” said Haidee Swanby from the African Centre for Biosafety, which authored the report commissioned by Friends of the Earth International. Unlike Europe and other regions where strong biosafety laws have been in place for years, most African countries still lack such laws. Only seven African countries currently have functional biosafety frameworks in place. “African governments must protect their citizens and our rights must be respected. We deserve the same level of biosafety protection that European citizens enjoy,” said Mariann Bassey Orovwuje from Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Globally, markets for GM crops have been severely curbed by biosafety laws and regulations in the past decade. Consumers in some countries were reported to have vehemently rejected GM foods and crops due to unfounded belief that GM foods may have adverse effect on human beings. It is this belief that produced a global agreement known as “the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety”. The Protocol came into force in September 2003 and it was developed to ensure “adequate safe use, handling and transfer” of GM organisms.

One major concern on the imported GMOs,,, in addition to relatively high cost, is the issue of possible infusing of “terminator gene”, which makes it compulsory for farmers to purchase new seeds on seasonal basis. Terminator gene technology or “suicide seeds”, is technically named “Genetic use restriction technology (GURT)”, which is a method of restricting the use of genetically modified plants by causing second-generation seeds to be sterile. The GURT technology was developed under a cooperative research and development agreement between the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company in the 1990s, but it is yet to be commercially available. But why was it developed? This means that GURT produces sterile seeds, so the seed from this crop could not be used as seeds, but only for sale as food or fodder, which will force farmers to buy seeds from the seed Companies or Biotech Firms on seasonal basis. Use of GURT is seen to be largely beneficial to seed companies at the expense of farmers. This concern forced Monsanto, one of the International Biotech Companies known for the sales of GMO seeds to refute an allegation that it has commercialized the ‘terminator seeds’. “Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Sharing the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialise sterile seed technology in food crops. We stand firmly by this commitment, with no plans or research that would violate this commitment”, a statement quoted from the Company’s website;

As the debate for and against GMO crops continue to rage globally, researchers of Biotechnology are certainly not resting, they have already developed “Gene Editing and Other New Breeding Techniques”. These new techniques are targeted to provide a ‘Second Chance’ for worldwide embrace of Genetically Engineered Crops, which will completely allay the fear of GMO crops not being “natural” or “messing with nature”. New Breeding Techniques (NBTs), particularly CRISPR gene editing, which mimics natural breeding, may provide a regulatory work-around to open the door for a new generation of biotech innovation in the US, Europe and developing countries for acceptability by the general public according to news report. The report further stated, “NBTs offer scientists easier ways to do cisgenic breeding— involving no “foreign” DNA—allowing the development of new plant and animal varieties. NBTs like CRISPR/Cas9, TALENs and ZFN do not fit neatly into the GMO definitions crafted by the various regulatory agencies around the world. Its proponents believe gene editing is similar to but faster and more precise than mutagenesis (creating new varieties by using radiation or chemicals), which is not regulated; there are hundreds of mutagenised crops sold as organic. It’s also similar to what can naturally occur in nature”.
Still on the strategy for Africa to exponentially benefit from GMT, it is quite clear that an auspicious progress has been made on GMO/GMT in advanced countries with several patents recorded for individuals and organisations. Despite this progress, researchers in Africa have plenty of opportunities to develop GMO crops to address the peculiarity of natural challenges against agricultural productivity. However, the process of GMO crops development requires massive investment by governments and private sectors. Huge fund is needed for research, development, awareness creation, extension, advocacy and regulations to make achievement of food security in Africa a reality. In this regard, the recent concerted effort of National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) in organising SEEDCONNECT Conference and Expo 2018, is highly commendable. The conference was organised in Abuja between 5th and 6th June, 2018. Some of the objectives of the conference were to identify critical gaps and develop a strategic framework for scaling up delivery of high quality seed to farmers. At the end of the two days conference, part of the communiqué recommended massive public awareness creation on the GM technology, which should carry along all stakeholders. It further recommended adequate investment in the seed value chain; training of cooperative youth and women group to take advantage of the opportunities that abound in the seed sub-sector. More of these types of platforms are needed across the African continent to overcome the challenges of food insecurity as we move towards 2050 when the population estimate of Africa will reach 2.5 billion people.