Are genetically modified crops good for Africa?

In December 2019, the Federal Government of Nigeria announced the commercialization of a genetically modified cowpea known as Bt-cowpea. The announcement was welcomed with mixed feelings, with some seeing it as positive development while the antagonists of Genetically Modified Crops (GMC) consider it a retrogressive move. The use of GMC’s has generated a lot of controversies ever since its discovery, not only in the West where the innovations began, but also in Africa where some conspiracy theorists are playing down its benefits. The antagonists argued that its use should still be limited to research purposes and should not be commercialized for the general population since its long term effect is yet to be determined. Some also raise the possibility of ‘gene escape’ to related species. For instance, a newly introduced gene to make a particular plant resistant to herbicide may end up getting transferred into weeds of similar species, thereby making the weeds resistant to herbicide control. There is also concern about the possibility of GMC conferring resistance to anti-biotics in humans.

In fairness to some of the proponents of this theory, their concerns are genuine and their argument is sound. However, scientific facts show that all commercially available GMC’s are proved to be safe for the public.

GMC’s also have major advantage for African nations especially if you look at it from the angle of plant disease management. For instance, in Nigeria and many African countries, farmers spend a large percentage of their income in the management of pests and pathogens in the field and during harvest. With little education and technical expertise on pesticides handling and use, they end up using more than specified quantity of pesticide, leading to pesticide residue on plant, animals and humans that consume the plants, environmental contamination (including the soil and ground water), and waste of capital. In some cases, they also kill beneficial insects and micro-organisms. Unfortunately, it is because of some of these reasons that the cowpea exported from Nigeria was banned in Europe by the European Union, citing high pesticide residue as a major reason for the ban. For a country that derived about 21.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from agriculture, a ban on certain food crops will definitely have cumulative effect on the national economy. For this reason alone, GMC’s cannot come at a better time. For example, the newly introduced Bt-cowpea is made from the genes of a bacteria Bacillus thuringiences (naturally occurring soil-borne bacteria), hence, the name Bt, and it offers complete protection to Pod borer (Maruca vitrata). According to the principal investigator, Prof. Muhammad Ishiyaku, Maruca vitrata pest infestation in cowpea causes losses of about 80% loss by farmers, implying that the innovation has the potential to secure livelihoods and protect the environment from pesticide residues. Expected yields will also increase by 20%, translating to 48 billion Naira in annual savings.

This is not to suggest that the use of GMC’s is an end unto itself as a plant disease management strategy in Africa, afterall, in the evolution of plant diseases, many pathogens and pests have shown they have an inherent ability to evolve and mutate to produce resistant strains. However, for nations facing major challenges in the agricultural sector, this is a welcome development. It is also expected this will encourage other Genetically Modified Crops to be more acceptable to the African market. More importantly, it is believed this will encourage governments across African countries to spend more on research of major food crop pests in the region as this seems to be the easiest route to effective disease management for a safer environment, while also making agricultural produce from the region attractive to international markets.

As for the argument on whether GMC’s should be welcomed or not, of course that can been debated elsewhere in Europe and the USA. As for African nations, GMCs seems to be the only viable option for the time being.

Apalowo Oluropo A.