To fix Africa's hunger problem, bring on genetically modified crops

The economic situation in Africa has improved a lot since the 1990s.  Yet rampant poverty and food insecurity still impact millions of lives there.

Currently, there is a huge demand-supply gap in the agricultural sector.  At least three hundred million are malnourished.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization defines food security as "a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

Africa's agricultural sector needs to be strengthened to meet the demand for quality food.  In 2017, Africa spent US$64.5 billion importing food, but importing food is not sustainable in the long run.

World Food Prize laureate Dr. Akinwumi Adesina says, "It is unacceptable for Africa to import food.  Why?  Because the continent holds 65 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land.  Properly used, even a small part of that land could provide sufficient food for all Africans and even for export."

While other countries have moved way ahead in food production, Africa has lagged behind.  Agricultural productivity in Africa has remained stagnant for the last 40 years.  That must not continue.

Norman Borlaug — father of the Green Revolution — had a special passion to uplift the poor in Africa.  Reports recall that "his last words before his death concerned the plight of African farmers, whose lives he had been devoted to improving for almost 30 years."

The global Green Revolution — spurred by Borlaug's gene-edited crop varieties — began in the 1960s and enabled countries to produce record outputs.  The cost of cereal grains declined by 30 percent during the 1980s.

The heart of this revolution was carefully cross-bred crop varieties.  They were more robust to varied and changing climatic conditions, higher-yielding, and more resistant to disease and pests.  All of these ingredients made the Green Revolution a turning point in global agricultural history.

With the advancement of genetic technology, scientists now can achieve even greater improvements, with higher precision, in less time.  Many genetically modified (G.M.) crops are scientifically tested, approved by the world's top medical agencies, and declared safe by hundreds of Nobel Prize–winning scientists.

More than 100 independent, U.S., European, and international scientific societies have approved G.M. crops for their safety and recognize that they do not pose a risk to the environment or human health.

In contrast, they are more beneficial than the non-G.M. variants.  According to scientists, the benefits of G.M. crops include increased yield; improved quality; and adaptability to specific abiotic and biotic stresses such as drought, pests, and disease, among others.

A study that assessed the environmental effects of G.M. crops globally found that G.M. crop use reduced pesticide spraying by 352 million kilograms between 1996 and 2008.

G.M. variants of rice, maize, wheat, cotton, canola, potatoes, aubergines (eggplant), squash, soya beans, papaya, and sugar beets have already been approved and commercially cultivated in more than 185 million hectares across the globe.  G.M. crops constitute more than 75 percent of the globally produced soya bean.

In Africa, a continent where food security needs more attention than any other place, G.M. crops are yet to penetrate the agricultural scene.

Currently, only three countries in Africa — South Africa, Sudan, and Burkina Faso — have adopted G.M. crops on a large scale.  G.M. crops account for around 2.3 million hectares of agriculture in South Africa, consisting of G.M. cotton, maize, and soya beans.

Other countries, like Kenya, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Mozambique, and Nigeria, are in the process of adopting G.M. crops in their commercial sectors.

A number of countries approved G.M. crops in 2020.  Despite a ban on G.M. crops since 2011, Kenya approved the cultivation of G.M. cotton.  Nigeria, a key economy in West Africa, approved G.M. variants of cotton and cowpea.

G.M. crop introduction in the past has had tremendous benefits on the continent.  The disease-resistant cassava plants helped farmers overcome the Cassava Mosaic Virus, resulting in higher yields.  Likewise, G.M. soya bean farming has been highly beneficial to the farmers in South Africa.

But genetically modified crops are yet to penetrate deep into the African agricultural sector due to opposition from anti-GMO lobbies and radical environmentalists. 

If Africa wants to get serious about its food security, it must approve G.M. crops and stay clear of the anti-G.M. movement that has robbed billions of their rightful access to G.M. crops — crops that are economically and socially valuable.  A strong political will to embrace G.M. crops will ensure that Africans will be better fed in the future.

Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., environmental science, University of East Anglia, England) is a research contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.