Lead Authors: Nathaniel Makoni, Jennifer Mohamed-Katerere
Contributing Authors: Munyaradzi Chenje

“Because biotechnology is such a revolutionary science, and has spawned such a powerful industry, it has great potential to reshape the world around us. It is already changing agriculture and what many of us eat. Any major mistakes could lead to tragic and perhaps permanent changes in the natural world. For these reasons, future generations are likely to look back to our time and either thank us or curse us for what we do – or don’t do – about GMOs and biosafety. Doing the right thing is not simple.”



There is growing debate about the potential value of modern biotechnology, and in particular of transgenics, in helping to achieve Africa’s development and food security goals. The challenge facing policymakers is not only to understand what the technology can do, or has done elsewhere, but also to establish what opportunities it presents to Africa.

Food security is
having sufficient
physical, social and
economic access
to safe, nutritious
and culturally
acceptable food.

Witcombe and Sanchez

There are three critical issues. First, whether or not genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offer a sustainable food security option; second, what the implications are of transgenic technologies for biosafety as well as for human health and well-being; and third, the extent of existing African capacity to undertake research, and effectively monitor and evaluate genetically modified (GM) products and their use.

Genetic modification techniques allow novel traits to be introduced into animals, crops and micro-organisms. These techniques can be used to improve livestock, poultry and fish productivity as well as their resistance to disease. Genetic modification is being used in the forest sector to create pest resistance, herbicide tolerance and wood quality traits (FAO 2005). Crops can be genetically engineered to improve appearance, taste, nutritional quality, drought tolerance, and insect and disease resistance. Thus, GM crops are often held up as the solution to yield deficits. However, achieving food security is about more than just fulfilling yield deficits. Food security is having sufficient physical, social and economic access to safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food (Witcombe and Sanchez 2004) at the household level, without having to resort to emergency supplies. This demands either adequate food production or food imports. Agricultural choices are as much about food quantity as they are about nutritional needs, livelihoods, culture, poverty, trade and sustainable development. Genetic modification technology may be useful in addressing some of these aspects. However, the potential of such technologies is controversial. There is considerable uncertainty about the impact on human and environmental health, and also whether these products will provide a sustainable solution to food problems. The risks and benefits associated with GM technologies are difficult to quantify.

As resources for public sector research decreases, and the values that promote private sector development and interests become entrenched in global governance instruments, the growth of GM technology and applications seems certain. However, the potential role of GM crops for Africa in promoting food security and improved human well-being is far from clear, and it is uncertain how their adoption will impact on the sustainability of livelihoods and food production systems. This chapter focuses exclusively on the debates around GM and food security; its other possible uses are not discussed.

The challenge for policymakers is how to respond to this uncertainty about the relative opportunities and threats posed by GM technologies: the dilemma is whether to adopt this new technology and face criticism for lack of precaution, or to require thorough study of potential risks and face criticism for failing to act promptly (Young 2004).

Box 1: Genetic modification – just one biotechnology

Genetic manipulation is not new. For millennia, farmers have relied on selective breeding and cross-fertilization to modify plants and animals and encourage desirable traits that improve food production and satisfy other human needs (CBD and UNEP 2003).

Biotechnology includes a wide range of scientific techniques that are used in several fields including agriculture and medicine. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as:

“Any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.”

Agricultural biotechnology includes bio-fertilization, tissue culture, marker assisted breeding and transgenics. For example, artisans have exploited traditional fermentation techniques to transform grains into bread and beer, and milk into cheese. Such intentional modification of the natural world has contributed enormously to human well-being. Transgenic applications involve the modification of the genetic structure of one organism through the insertion of a gene from another organism and can be used to modify plants, animals and micro-organisms. A gene is a biological unit that determines an organism’s inherited characteristics.This process of modification is called genetic recombination – it adds characteristics that the original organism did not have. The resultant organisms are called “genetically modified” or “genetically engineered” or “living modified” organisms (LMOs) – these organisms have been genetically modified in a way that does not occur naturally.

Modified non-living organisms include products such as drugs, vaccines and food additives, canned, processed and preserved foods. Biotechnology techniques and products applicable in the health sector that may be of value in developing countries include molecular diagnostics, recombinant vaccines, vaccine and drug delivery techniques, sequencing pathogens, genomes, microbicides, bioinformatics, recombinant therapeutic proteins and combinatorial chemistry (Millennium Project 2005b). Environmental management techniques that may be useful include bioremediation.

Sources: CBD and UNEP 2003, Mackenzie and others 2003, UN 1992, UN Millennium Project 2005b