Food and proper nutrition are vital to the survival of every human being in the planet. It is a basic need that no one can leave without. Food insecurity, therefore, is defined a state of chronic lack of access to proper and nutritious food within a certain period of time.
The philosophy of food security is founded on certain principles. First, safe and nutritious food should be available to people. Second, people should be able to access this food both physically and economically. Third, people should have the right information to allow correct use and consumption of this food. Lastly, this state of access, availability and proper utilization must be sustainable both in the present and in the future.
The aim to food security is a delicate issue as the concept targets many aspects of human life. There is an economic aspect, as the population has to have the economic resources to purchase the food and maintain this ability. Other aspects like physical health and social acceptability also emerge in food security. The food an individual has access to, should be nutritional to allow productivity and should not have negative health impacts. The food should also be socially (improve local conditions) and culturally acceptable to maintain sustainability.
According to estimates a ninth of the seven billion populations in the world is burdened with chronic hunger and consequently suffers from undernourishment. The continent with the highest prevalence of chronic hunger is Africa with around 25% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa suffering from chronic undernourishment.
The problem of food insecurity arises from a number of issues specific to or exacerbated in Africa. The greatest of this, perhaps, is poverty, and it is estimated that 48-49% of the people (and their respective households) living in Sub-Saharan Africa survive on a budget that is under a dollar day. Right of the bat, this level of poverty means that half the population is struggling to access proper nutrition.
Moreover Africa is plagued with other problems such as erratic and sometimes unforgiving weather patterns, high disease burdens (for example Malaria and HIV epidemics), civic and regional wars, an increasing population and the progressive effects of climate change. The African landscape is definitely a challenging one, as the temperatures in the majority of the region are high, and climate changes lead to droughts and floods that consequently affect agriculture in the region. In addition, the high disease burden coupled with high poverty rates impairs the productivity and nourishment of the African people.
The magnitude of the hunger problem in Africa has made it imperative, therefore, for African Leaders to find new and sustainable ways of food production. One way that is being considered of improving the agricultural landscape in Africa is biotechnology and more specifically genetically modified crops especially in countries like Kenya (Friends of the Earth International, 2014, p18).
The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Africa
Genetically modified crops, are crops whose DNA component have undergone different degrees of genetic manipulation to achieve traits that increase productivity and or increase nutritional value. Genetically Modified crops are now a staple of bio technology and offer a novel albeit different of combatting the food security problem.
In Africa the use of these crops is still in its early stages with different views being held on the safety, sustainability and transparency of these crops. It is estimated that only around 3.3 million hectares of arable land in Africa is being used for the growth of GMO crops. This represents only 0.3% of the viable agricultural land in Africa. Moreover, the commercialization of GMO crops in Africa is only currently done in Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan.
South Africa, currently, has the longest recorded use of commercial GMO crops to feed a large number of its people (since 1997, with a majority of the maize distributed being GMO in origin).Other countries have taken a more precautionary approach to the adoption of GMO. It is theorized that the main reason behind this may be the lack of research capacity, clear policy framework and legislation. This has led to fears genetic technology will threaten, amongst other reasons, biosafety and local farmer rights.
The possible disadvantages of GMO use in Africa
The use and commercialization of genetically modified crops have been met with a lot of scepticism and resistance by both the African and African people.
The first among many concerns is that the use of genetically modified crops will not solve the food security issue instead it will exacerbate the causes of food insecurity especially poverty. Majority argue that currently there is enough food produced in the world to provide proper and adequate nourishment to every inhabitant of the world. The food security, of the world, however, does not spring from inadequate food production but rather from the unequal distribution of this food. This, in essence, is caused by lack of resources (either in monetary terms, transportation or agricultural land and infrastructure) and the unequal distribution of such resources (The Guardian 2014).
The GMO field is largely controlled by a few private companies all based in developed countries. The great monopoly held by private international companies in seed distribution and GM developing technologies makes the buying of GM seeds markedly expensive to the local farmers this can inadvertently push such disadvantaged farmers out of business. The lack of publicly run local GMO companies and the issue that scientific innovations are patented material(with consequent intellectual rights); has increased the fear that Africa will continue to heavily rely on industrialized countries.
Second and another primary concern is the effect that GMO products can have on human health. The creation of GMOs requires the use of gene therapy which incorporates different techniques to modify the DNA of a crop. One of the methods used is the introduction of viruses into the core structure to transmit a certain desired property. These viruses are feared to be both mutagenic and pathogenic. The mutagenic is particularly worrisome coupled with the high amount of pesticide use associated with GMOs may result in increased incidences of cancer and allergies. The gene therapy used may also pass on antibiotic resistance to humans who feed on the crops.
Currently, the health concerns are worsened by the fact that few African countries have the manpower and economic capability to create independent research programs that will monitor the long-term effects of GMOs on human health. In most of the countries, agricultural research has become more focussed on the maximization of profits rather than the fulfilment of the needs (Nathaniel M, 2005, p304).
Thirdly, another biosafety concern is that of maintenance of biodiversity. Humans live in a diverse and the ecologically complex world full of different life forms, and this world must be protected with is complexities and wonders must be protected for future generations. Presently, the world has species that are in danger of extinction, of these species, are found exclusively in Africa. Some then argue that Genetically Modified ropes threaten this balance as they have too many unforeseeable variables these crops may have a greater scope of insect resistance affecting species that were not initially targeted. The lack of stability in these crops has led to the fear of genetic pollution (the unintentional contamination of other plants gene pool) and fear of wipe outs of unstable monocultures. Moreover, there is fear that sterile crops will not be able to feed the other life forms (insects which depend on pollen) in the ecological chain.
Fourth, the main law that exists in the biological world is survival for the fittest. Natural selection makes it imperative for organisms to adapt to a harsh and changing environment to ensure survival. Therefore, the adoption of insect resistant GMOs doesn’t mean that insect resistance won’t build up at a later point. Actually the increased insect resistance associated with GMOs has led to the disillusionment of many African farmers to return to the use of insecticides.
Fifth, at the heart of every food security program is to address the issue of nutrition. There is a growing concern that nutrient fortification in GMOs may not be particularly helpful. For instance, fortification of a food crop with a single micronutrient (usually vitamins) may not be very helpful without addressing other issues. Micronutrients cannot be absorbed in the absence of a healthy alimentary system, not to mention , the fact that certain micronutrients aid the absorption of other nutrients(for example Vitamin C helps the absorption of Iron).Therefore, it may be counter-intuitive to produce the fortified crop without providing other forms of nutrition, this will essentially not balance the diet. Second, the high disease burden, brought on by diseases like HIV/AIDS further complicate the ability to gain nutrition in meals.
The possible advantages of using GMOs in Africa
Though the growth of GMOs for commercialization purposes in Africa is still in its early stages and is still not widely accepted. The use of these genetically modified crops may offer some good opportunities to improve the agricultural landscape of Africa.
The main culprits responsible for the disruption in crop yield production are drought, pests, and weeds. Due to the hot temperatures all these are commonplace in Africa. In context, Africa has been hard hit with some severe droughts, directly accounting for almost 11 million deaths since 1992.The lack of rain water causes a severe drop in crop production which compromise in food security. Moreover, in some areas (Tanzania and Kenya) pests like armyworms are responsible for wiping out almost 25% of crops in a field.
Genetically Modified crops are designed to achieve certain desirable traits with the aim of increasing yield production. Currently, desired traits that have been incorporated into crops include insect resistance, drought tolerance, herbicide resistance, salt tolerance, viral resistance, fungal resistance and nutrient fornication. Currently, the most successful traits to be incorporated into genetically modified ropes are insect resistance and herbicide resistance currently contributing 99% of the desirable traits offered by GMOs.
The use of GMOs can then save significant money used in pesticides and herbicides while growing yield produce. The increase in yield and livestock produce will go a long way in increasing income and therefore securing the sustainability of food security for local farmers. In addition, it is a new way of solving the problem of climate change and its effect on African agricultural produce. Genetically modified crops are bio-based and are created to be environmentally friendly. This can go a long way in the conservation of water, soil, and energy.
The way forward
A policy and legislation framework
Currently, the difficulty in accepting genetically modified crops stems from the fact that Africa has not seriously set up any legal or research framework to trace and regulate the growth and commercialization of GMOs. Therefore, these endeavours are met with a lot with a lot of suspicion and rightfully so. According to international policies (like the Cartagena Policy) there is a need to regulate genetically modified organisms and thus ensure biosafety, biodiversity and protection of livelihoods (economically and socially).
Legislation and policy making also plays a key role in the application of genetically modified technologies. A framework that is based on transparency and that is multi-sectorial will increase the benefits to local farmers while increasing investment. Legislation and policy can protect rights of farmers, ensure safety and health (by regulating and monitoring research) and provide methods of risk assessment and risk management.
The Need for Agricultural Research
The adaptation of GMOs must be met with set mechanisms of traceability; this will minimize risks if any associated with the use of GMOs. Research into the area of GMO crops and other agricultural initiatives should also be increased. Due to the economic situation, this research programs would benefit greatly from public-private partnerships. Increased research would increase awareness and transparency in the area. Research should also be focused on Africa’s unique agricultural needs (local, small scale and poly-culture) and adapting accordingly.
The debate of whether Africa should be fed by GMOs is a growing one with each opposing side having valid points. The problem of food security is a challenging one and definitely needs unique and sustainable solutions. These solutions should provide ways of combatting poverty, hunger, disease burden (HIV and Malaria), prevent child and maternal mortality and should be safe to the environment. Genetically Modified Crops is definitely a solution that should be highly considered a possible way forward of achieving these goals. However, it would be arrogant to think that GMOs are the only solution.
Other methods should also be adopted. Agro-ecological solutions currently show great promise as they not only increase yields but they seamlessly integrate into the environment ensuring biodiversity and biosafety. These include but are not limited to intercropping, bio-fertilisers, recycling of biomass, mixed farming. For these methods to be easily adoptable they have to be simple and inexpensive while still ensuring financial returns in the long run to the local farmer. Therefore, think tanks should be created to provide more solutions forward for ensuring food security for the growing population of Africa and the world.