Booming population sizes are by now a familiar fear for governments the world over, putting unwelcome pressure on our water, food and land supplies as we expand to meet blossoming demand. UN statistics estimate the global population will rise to 9.8bn by 2050, with a significant portion of this expansion coming from African countries (the projections show 26 African nations will at least double in population size by 2050). Yet significant strides are already being made to meet the challenges of food scarcity, specifically through the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops.
To date, only seven countries in Africa have approved commercial production of GM crops; South Africa, Sudan, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nigeria and Kenya, however the African Union (AU) is currently in the process of developing GM guidelines to encourage widespread adoption. While there are many who oppose these novel crop strains, the push for a shift in perception is gaining momentum, and the recent success of projects seen in places such as Nigeria may pave the way for greater change.
GM Crops in Africa
In the AU’s draft report on GM crop commercialisation, Peace Mutuwa from the group’s agriculture and rural development unit said the new regulations would be used to protect consumers and countries from ‘unwitting consumption’ of GM products, saying: “The food, feed and environmental safety controversy surrounding genetic engineering technology in particular makes continental guidelines extremely significant.”
It is hoped that under the new guidelines, seed regulations can be homogenised to help countries achieve food security and see an improvement in crop yields. However, GM crops have consistently been met with backlash from activists that has typically barred them from seeing widespread adoption.
Frances Davies of the Zambian Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity told Reuters the introduction of cultivated crops would be a bad thing for farmers in the region, trapping them in a cycle of debt as they would struggle to source these novel seed varieties.
“This is bad for African farmers. It really is just about the corporate infiltration of African agriculture and tapping the massive untapped market,” she commented.
While there has been this consistent push-back, more countries across the region are slowly turning to biotech for solutions, with Ghana currently in discussions over whether to introduce its first GMO crop. Paving the way are places such as Nigeria, which has become a forerunner in developing and implementing crop alternatives to meet its rapidly growing population.
The current and long-standing drought seen throughout the country is the most recent example of climate-related problems causing scientists to seek solutions in biotech. The harsh conditions have led to challenges cultivating maize, weakening the crops and making any loss to pests more damaging than before – with up to 80% of the crop being lost in the worst case scenarios. In response, researchers from Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) are developing GM maize – dubbed TELA- that is drought-resistant and hardy against insects.
According to Alliance for Science, the TELA hybrids could improve yields to reach 7.5 tonnes per hectare, as compared to current yields of 6 tonnes per hectare. Eradicating the need for pesticides would not only prove beneficial for the health of farmers and their crops, but also reduce production costs significantly. While further investigation and testing is needed before these new strains can reach approval, the prospect of creating more financially and environmentally sound crops would be a huge step for farmers in the region.
Nigeria’s GMO Agenda
According to the UN’s report on population growth, Nigeria is experiencing the fastest boom, projected to surpass the size of the US to become the world’s third most populated country just before 2050. As part of the government’s policy on improving food security, the Central Bank of Nigeria has channelled over N996.5bn (US$2.42bn) into the agricultural industry over the last six years, opening the doors for rapid technological advancements.
The country has already identified itself as a leader in the drive for GM uptake, having approved commercialisation of pest-resistant cotton in 2018. This modified strain was developed by Mahyco Nigeria Private Ltd in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, and added Nigeria to the likes of Sudan and South Africa in the use of GM cotton – with the latter country favouring the modified strain to the point where now virtually no conventional cotton crops are grown.
Nigeria is currently harvesting its first batch of GMO cowpea – the first country in the world to have commercialised the novel strain of this crop following more than a decade of research by the country’s scientists. This new variety was developed by scientists at IAR under the coordination of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).
This protein-rich legume has been identified as ‘the most important food grain legume in Nigeria’, yet pests and drought conditions have typically stood in the way of high crop yields. The GM version intends to counter these challenges, providing built-in resistance to pests and thus reducing the use of often harmful pesticides. It is hoped that through these novel crop strains, yields can be increased by around 20% and curb the country’s reliance on external markets to import the grain.
A study released in May this year showed that if the new cowpea strain was adopted in Nigeria, Niger and Benin under ‘efficient seed distribution systems’, producers and consumers could gain US$350mn over the next 25 years.
While Nigeria is a prime case study for the benefits GM crops can bring, widespread adoption cannot be expected until public perception and regulations are adapted accordingly. With modified crops remaining a relatively untapped market, appropriate laws and infrastructure are needed to guide emerging technologies through the R&D process. While AU’s guidelines may well prove a step in the right direction, GM researchers need public perception to follow suit if they are to truly see the fruits of their labour.