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GM crops can help to alleviate African food shortage - Report

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Agricultural biotechnology, specifically genetic modification (GM) technology, can be one of the most vital tools for addressing the chronic food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa maintains a new report released by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). This report has been published as the result of a forum study in which ASSAf convened a series of expert workshops aimed at engaging African scientists in assessing the current challenges, opportunities and risks associated with the use of GMOs.

Africa is the only continent where food production per capita is decreasing and where hunger and malnutrition affect at least one in three people. Crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa have hardly changed over the past 40 years and cereal production has been steadily declining over the past four years.

The report suggests that GM technology can contribute to the resolution of the African food shortage, provided it is carried out within a framework of appropriate biotechnology policy with sufficient financing for human capital development, the construction and equipping of the necessary laboratories, and the use of rigorously planned, results-oriented GM food research. Research results have shown the possibility of increasing crop yields, improving the storage potential of harvested crops, improving the protein content of starchy foods, biofortification of local foods, and improving the functional potential of local foods.

Despite widespread scepticism surrounding the value of GM crops, this application of biotechnology is gradually finding its niche across the globe. A decade after GM crops were introduced into the world, their production has grown to approximately 125 million hectares globally.

The use of GM technology and its products are still in their infancy in Africa, and while South Africa remains the continent’s leader in the field, other African countries have begun to produce biotechnology products for commercial use. South Africa is one of three countries on the continent (along with Egypt and Burkina Faso) producing commercial GM crops. Despite most African countries having ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), only a few African countries have functioning biosafety legislation that allows field trials of GM products (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania).

To allow developing countries to derive the full potential benefits of biotechnology crops, technology developers should also consider factors such as the relevance and accessibility of a particular technology to ensure sustainability, not only in their post-release safety but also in terms of their potential socioeconomic impacts within developing countries, which to date have usually only been considered at a very late stage of product development.

Ongoing biotechnology research in Africa focuses largely on attempting to solve local problems associated with food production, health and the environment. Locally focussed biotechnology can play a role in increased global crop productivity to improve food, feed and fibre security in sustainable crop production systems that also conserve biodiversity. It can contribute to the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and the augmentation of traditional plant breeding, and can reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, mitigate climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the cost effective production of biofuel.

The study was undertaken in collaboration with the Union of German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) and the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS).

Download full report at