Globally, GM research and development (R&D) is led by six large multinational life science companies independently or in collaboration with the Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs) in the industrial countries. These companies include Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, CropScience and Dupont. A number of developing countries (such as Brazil, Argentina, China, India, Malaysia and the Philippines) have significant R&D programmes in biotechnology and transgenic crops.

An increasing number of African countries have GM R&D capacity. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt and Uganda are widely acknowledged as being the lead countries. As many as 24 other African countries have some GM R&D capacity and at least 20 are actually engaged in such research (African Centre for Biosafety 2005). These countries include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe (African Centre for Biosafety 2005).

Nine countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are known to have conducted field trials (African Centre for Biosafety 2005). Supporting legislation and policy to regulate research and commercialization processes have not kept pace with these developments.

Private sector dominance has meant that most agricultural biotechnology research focuses on developed country concerns such as improved crop quality or management rather than drought tolerance or yield enhancement, and innovations that save labour costs (such as herbicide tolerance) rather than those that create employment (Nuffield Council on Bioethics 1999). With the shift away from public sector research to private sector research, agricultural research has become increasingly profit-driven and less focused on needs fulfilment. There are an increasing number of research initiatives of African interest. In Africa, the main GM crops of research and commercial interest are sweet potato, maize, cotton, soybean, pigeon peas, bananas and tobacco. Much of this research is based on public-private-partnerships (PPPs) as shown, for selected countries, in Table 1. These include projects on vitamin A rice, virus-resistant sweet potato and Insect- Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA). Insect-resistant research is seen as particularly important given the losses that are suffered as a result of insect infestations. In Kenya, for example, farmers lose about 15 per cent of the maize crop to stem borers (Glover 2003a).

Table 1: GM crop research in Africa
Country and Project name Partners and Funders Research Objective Additional Information

Insect-Resistant Maize for Africa
Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). Funded by Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. Bt maize resistant to the stem borer Open field trials started in May 2005.
Government Authorities destroy crop in August 2005 due to spraying of restricted chemicals.

International Service for the Acquisition of Agricultural Applications.
Funded by USAID and Monsanto.
Transgenic virus-resistant sweet potato  

BURKINA FASO In 2003, Monsanto, Syngenta and Burkina Faso’s Institut National de l’Environnement et la Recherche Agronomique (INERA). Field tests of two Bt cotton varieties Research has taken place without the involvement or consent of the national biosafety committee which is tasked with developing a national regulatory regime for GMOs.

EGYPT Monsanto and Egypt’s Agriculture Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI) currently collaborating in field trials of Bt cotton.
Laboratory work is being done on GM potato, tomato, corn, fava bean, wheat, cucurbits and cotton.
Field trials are being conducted for insect-resistant potato and virus-resistant cucurbits. GM crops will be available soon on the commercial level.
Multiple crops, insect resistance Commercial introduction could take place as early as 2006.

Sources: Odame and others 2003, Glover 2003a, GRAIN 2005, Mansour 2005

Figure 3: Distribution of cassava mosaic virus Research cooperation between developing countries and institutions or companies based in the developed world has been important in promoting transgenic research in Africa. For example, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (SFIT) in Zurich plans to collaborate with researchers in Kenya, Nigeria, the UK and the USA on the African cassava mosaic virus (Sawahel 2005). This virus is transmitted to cassava by whiteflies when they feed on the plant. In parts of Eastern and Central Africa, epidemics of the disease can lead to total loss of harvests. Researchers at SFIT have used genes from a virus that periodically devastates cassava crops to create cassava plants that can resist the virus. Cassava is an important food crop in many parts of Africa and is strongly affected by genetic erosion, pest infestation and plant disease because it is a vegetatively propagated crop (Aerni 2005). Genetically modified cassava could save African farmers large economic losses. So far, the only way to curb the virus is by intensive use of insecticide to kill whiteflies. But this can be prohibitively expensive for subsistence farmers and can threaten their health and that of surrounding plants and animals (Sawahel 2005).

Given biosafety concerns, some countries are investing in improving their research and monitoring capacity. Zambia, for example, has begun building a modern molecular biology laboratory to detect GMOs entering the country (Ngandwe 2005). The goal of this US$330 000 laboratory facility is to be accredited as a regional and national referral laboratory that will provide research and training in collaboration with the University of Zambia and the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology (Ngandwe 2005). Other countries such as Madagascar have taken a more cautious approach, banning the growing or importing of GM foods due to concerns over their effect on human health and the environment (Apps 2005).

Despite the growing interest in GM crops, non-transgenic agricultural research remains the backbone of agricultural research in most African countries. In Kenya, for example, of the 17 biotechnology research and training projects only 2 use transgenic technologies (Odame and others 2003). Researchers in Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar are engaged in non-transgenic rice research to improve yield. In Côte d’Ivoire, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s (CGIAR) West African Rice Development Association (WARDA) has used an “embryo rescue” technique to cross-breed African and Asian rice. The new variety has several advantages over conventional African varieties including early maturity, improved pest resistance, drought- and acid soil-tolerance and greater height (which makes it easier to pick by hand) (Glover 2003a). Madagascar has implemented a system of rice cultivation which through improved agronomic practices, and without the use of GM varieties or chemical inputs, has shown improved yields (Glover 2003a).