GMO ‘scarecrow’: What’s keeping Africa from embracing genetically engineered crops?

Credit: Neil Palmer
Credit: Neil Palmer
The advent of climate change, coupled with new plant pests and diseases, has worsened the plight of Ghanaian farmers, relegating them to remain in poverty as their crop yields and incomes plunge.

Modern, climate-smart agricultural technologies, such as genetically modified crops (GMOs), can help combat these threats. However, scare-mongering and misinformation, which Ghanaians term “scarecrow,” make farmers perceive such technology as white man’s witchcraft. Since they see it unnatural, they are stuck with crude, unproductive farming methods — the “hoe.”

Credit: Cincinnati Tourism

The adoption of GM insect-resistant cowpea and nitrogen use-efficient (NUE) rice could help farmers in Ghana to improve their yields, their incomes and their lives. These crops have been vetted and recommended by the CSIR of Ghana.  But regulatory delays that prevent farmers from accessing these improved seeds, and lingering fears about technology,  may erode these benefits in both Ghana and Africa at large.

In Africa today, nearly two out of three people depend on food production for their livelihoods. With its abundance of natural and human resources and favorable climate, Africa is well-positioned to expand agricultural production. However, the current crop production management practices in Africa are unable to produce satisfactory yields to feed the increasing population.

Africa has one of the youngest populations on Earth while being the only continent where food production per capita is falling and hunger and malnutrition afflict at least one in three people. The population of Africa currently represents 17 percent of the world’s population and is swiftly increasing even now. By 2050 about one third of the world’s population will live in Africa. To feed this rapidly growing population, agricultural yields in Africa must be increased.

In an endless quest for higher yields from more resilient crops, technological breakthroughs and advancements in biotechnology gave birth to genetically modified (GM) foods. GM foods have become a critical solution to meet the demands for food on a national and global scale.

GM foods are developed and marketed because there is a perceived advantage to either the producer or consumer or both. This advantage often translates into a product with a lower price, longer shelf-life, lower production costs, higher nutritional value, better yields, pest-resistance, drought-tolerance, etc.

These crops could help African farmers, whose plight has worsened with the advent of climate change and the new pests (such as fall armyworm) and plant diseases that come with it. A lack of climate-resilient farming practices and devotion to tradition have contributed to the low yields on the continent.

Agricultural transformation remains a strong policy priority for the government of Ghana. For the better part of two decades, Ghana has emphasized “agricultural modernization” in its national agricultural policies.

Ghana President Akufo-Addo has repeatedly said, “My government is oriented and committed to the development of agriculture in Ghana to make it attractive to the youth.” The president’s agenda is on course as a majority of the youth today are farming because of the execution of some of these good policies by his government, including the “Planting for Foods and Jobs Policy.”

But at the same time, rural urban drift is converting most farmlands in developing countries such as Ghana to real estate developments and uses other than farming. Loss of farmland contributes to lower agricultural productivity and less land availability for farmers.

It is well-known that as economies grow, the share of agriculture in total output falls. This is true in Ghana, where agricultural production has been falling for more than two decades and currently hovers at around 20 percent of the GDP.  This trend is not good news for Ghana as the country strives to feed its people.

Farming and agriculture play a fundamental role in achieving sustainable, equitable food security on the continent. For Africa, agriculture also serves as a backbone for economic development and poverty reduction. It is estimated that for every incremental increase in Africa’s farm yield, there is a 7 percent reduction in poverty. It is therefore important to consider the use of agricultural technologies in solving our issues with poverty as well as food security.

Africa is lacking technologically advanced farming methods and equipment, although important strides in the use of technology in its health and educational sectors are being made.  Africa has had its fair share of development in the agricultural sector with numerous policies enacted by various leaders to make the continent a “food basket.” Yet, according to the United Nations, about 815 million Africans go to bed hungry each night. Sub-Saharan Africa is still recording the highest prevalence of undernourished people and nearly one out of four people there are estimated to be hungry.

New agricultural technologies can greatly improve the lives of the farmers who work tirelessly to put food on our tables. And yet religious, political and cultural practices have created gaps in many aspects of life on the African continent. Many Africans grow up religious and children are indoctrinated with religious and superstitious beliefs. These beliefs are an important part of our culture and inform our decision-making processes. Tradition is important to us.

Technology isn’t new, but sometimes the word elicits a negative emotional response as people may be afraid of not understanding new ideas or processes. A high illiteracy rate of about 65 percent is a major factor enabling the spread of misinformation on the continent and we must never lose sight of that fact. On a continent with a high rate of illiteracy and superstition, new technology is sometimes regarded as witchcraft.

GMO foods in particular challenge the norms of old farming practices in Africa. They defy accepted time frames for farming and anticipated crop yields and offer unfamiliar resistances to diseases that affect crops. The generational gap in technology and lack of education on the continent both play a role in brewing insecurities and resentments among older farmers. The younger generation pursues white collar jobs and leaves the farming to the old folks who prefer to trust in their old methods and are adamantly opposed to using the “whiteman’s witchcraft” in producing the food they consume.

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Colonialism has had a huge impact on the slow pace at which the indigenes accept GMOs and other biotech advances on the African continent. Most practices used in colonialism were characterized by deceit or hidden motives.  The long-term effects of colonialism have sustained a deep-rooted skepticism about any good intentions on the part of colonial oppressors.

Sadly, the leadership of many African countries plays no role in mitigating these underlying concerns that are hidden within the hearts and minds of the populace. In a direct misrepresentation and repetition of mistrust that characterized the colonial masters, leadership of African countries is often deeply stained with corruption and hidden motives by the very leaders elected to lead the people into the future. Current leaders fail to educate and eradicate the misinformation that the populace has about introducing GMOs or biotech discoveries into the agricultural industry. The ghosts of colonialism are evident in the actions of leadership, and such behaviors are a big contributing factor as to why those in agriculture continue to refuse to accept or adopt biotech discoveries and GMOs.

There is an urgent need for Ghana to adopt biotech crops to produce food at a more economical and faster rate to meet the demands of the Ghanaian people and supply an export market to generate foreign exchange. Economic studies and projections estimate adoption would increase internal revenue generation, employment and foreign exchange, which are key indicators for self-sufficiency and independence. The gap between demand and supply would be closed, collapsed and excess eventually generated.

Nigeria has approved two GM crops and is working to get seed to the farmers. Kenya is also moving to commercialize GM cotton and maize. These countries have strong government interventions and support for GM biotechnology.  Progress by these first adopter nations provides an insight as to how GM crops are increasingly being viewed as one way in which the continent can invigorate its agriculture sector and achieve food security.

Achieving a hunger-free continent involves lots of education about available technology, training and efforts to change societal beliefs and mindsets regarding GM crops. There is still a lot of work to be done, and everyone’s help is needed if Ghana and the rest of the continent are to embrace these breakthrough discoveries and contribute to making Africa the food basket of the world.

Slyvia Tawiah Tetteh works with the chamber of Agribusiness Ghana (CAG) as an administrator and an advocate in the agricultural value chain. She graduated from the University of Ghana, Legon with a BA degree in economics and information studies. Find Sylvia on Twitter @SlyviaTawiah

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly 

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