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Why African Countries Maintain Tight Restrictions on Genetically Modified Food

terça-feira, maio 28, 2019

A farmer picks his maize, in Qunu, South Africa, June 12, 2013.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series on food security around the world.

African countries have long maintained some of the strictest regulations on genetically modified agriculture, with only four out of 47 countries across the continent allowing the planting of any genetically modified crops. Some countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, are mulling looser restrictions on imports and cultivation of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, but those moves will have limited significance for food security, says Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor of public policy at Harvard University who specializes in global food and agricultural policy. In an interview, he explains why African countries maintain a cautious approach toward GMOs and why that is unlikely to change anytime soon. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

World Politics Review: Where has your research led you in terms of your views on biotechnology in agriculture, especially on the use of genetically modified crops?

Robert Paarlberg: It’s been a fascinating issue to study over the years. Even though there haven’t been any new risks from GMOs documented by science, the opponents of GMO foods have won nearly every struggle. There are very few crops and products grown for direct human consumption. There are GMO industrial crops being grown around the world, like [genetically modified, pest-resistant] Bt cotton, and there are GMO animal feed crops being grown around the world, like yellow maize and soybeans. Some derivative ingredients from those crops, like soybean oil and corn starch, do enter into the human food supply. But foods that are designed for direct human consumption are only being grown in a few places in GMO form. 

WPR: Is that also the state of play in the developing world, especially in Africa, where food insecurity is a prevalent issue in many countries?

Paarlberg: Yes, African farmers are struggling with low yields and susceptibility to crop diseases, insects, pests and drought. There are genetically modified crops out there that are available to help them, but it’s not legal in most African countries to plant these crops, or even to do research on these crops. Only four out of 47 countries in Africa have made it legal to plant any GMO crops at all: South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Nigeria. And for all of those except South Africa, the only crop that’s allowed to be planted is Bt cotton, which is an industrial crop, not a food crop, so it’s not going to do much for food security. 

WPR: Why do GMO crops remain illegal in almost all African countries?

Paarlberg: The simplest explanation is that Africa has followed Europe’s lead in its regulatory approach to this technology. European practices are ventriloquized to governments in Africa through a number of channels, first through trade connections. African countries export a lot of agricultural products to Europe, and they conclude that if European consumers don’t want to purchase these products, it’s safer not to plant them at all. There are also assistance channels. The European assistance agencies provide technical aid to African governments in drafting regulations toward these technologies, so it’s no coincidence that regulations that tend to be drafted resemble regulations that you find in Europe.

Also, European governments play a prominent role in the United Nations, and they have shaped U.N. treaties like the 2003 Cartagena Protocol, to give expression to a highly precautionary European approach to GMOs. The United States, which often turns its back on these U.N. special agencies, has left the field wide open for European influence.

WPR: That seems like an interesting side effect of the disengagement from multilateral institutions that we’ve seen in the U.S. in recent years.

Paarlberg: That’s exactly right. The U.S. tends to underestimate the importance of multilateral institutions, because it doesn’t use them. But governments in Africa deeply appreciate the one-country-one-vote ethic that prevails in the United Nations General Assembly, and they depend heavily on U.N. agencies for opportunities to express themselves in international fora. So, when European governments, especially environmental ministries, shape the way things are done inside the U.N. special agencies, it’s heavily influential on African governments.

WPR: My understanding is that Kenya is looking at lifting its ban on genetically modified crops and Nigeria has been rolling out new genetically modified agricultural products. How significant are these moves?

Paarlberg: Kenya may indeed decide this summer to lift its ban on imports of GMO maize, in particular. That would make it easier to get access to imports of food from South Africa or the Western Hemisphere, in response to a serious drought over the past year, and a growing food emergency in Kenya. More than a million Kenyans need food, and if you can’t import maize from the countries that are planting maize in GMO form, that complicates the problem. But lifting the ban on imports would not be the same as allowing the production of these crops inside Kenya. The only way farmers in Kenya are going to be helped by this technology is if they can start planting maize that’s resistant to insects and drought, and I don’t see any indication that Kenya is going to do that anytime soon.

There have been other moves, as you pointed out, by other African countries. Nigeria did commercialize Bt cotton last summer, but it hasn’t yet commercialized anything else. It did give a technical approval and environmental release to an insect-resistant cowpea variety earlier this year. That’s important, but an environmental release is not a full commercial release—it facilitates national performance trials, but it doesn’t ensure that these seeds are going to reach farmers’ fields. Ghana is in the same position; it’s given a technical and environmental release to insect-resistant cowpea. If Nigeria and Ghana go ahead with a commercial release of this food crop, then I’ll be more prepared to say that significant momentum has resumed.

WPR: What are some other developments on the horizon that you’re keeping your eye on, on this topic?

Paarlberg: Uganda has passed a biosafety bill, which would make it legally possible to take some of the GMO crop technologies it’s been doing research on and introduce those crops into farmers’ fields, but President Yoweri Museveni hasn’t signed it yet. He’s generally in favor of it, but he’s under pressure from organic groups and export-oriented farm groups not to go forward with GMOs. Also, the first lady apparently does not like GMOs. If Museveni decides to go ahead with GMOs, then Uganda will go ahead, because his power there is so enormous. But he hasn’t signed that bill yet.

WPR: African countries will see some of the world’s highest population growth rates in the coming decades. What are the stakes here, and how much of a difference might genetically modified crops make for food security?

Paarlberg: Whenever I’m asked that question, I have to say honestly that I don’t know. We won’t know until African farmers are given a chance to try these technologies, and they haven’t yet. Farmers in Africa lose a lot of their crops to insects and pests and disease; that’s why crop yields there are a fraction of what other developing countries enjoy. So, instead of trying to guess the difference these crops would make, I’d like to give it to farmers in Africa and let them see for themselves.

Page: World Politics Review

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