There is much controversy about the opportunities and risks posed by GM technology. This results in part from the lack of information to support policymakers and the public in evaluating the options. Much of the information that is available is oversimplified and may focus on just one aspect of the debate, thus making it an unreliable source. Better scientific information is often inaccessible to non-GM specialists. A key challenge facing African countries is how to deal with this information gap and how to evaluate the contradictory information that is available.

An IUCN – The World Conservation Union (IUCN) report finds that the controversies are essentially in three areas (Young 2004):

  • The interpretation of science and specifically whether GMOs are inherently safe or inherently dangerous from a human and environmental perspective;
  • Economic analysis and in particular how to evaluate the cost-and-benefits associated with GMOs; and
  • Socio-cultural impacts and biosafety implications revolving around issues of food production and security, livelihoods, and human and environmental health.


The uncertainty about the impact of growing GM crops on markets for other crops is a concern for many countries. The European Union’s de facto moratorium on new approvals for the production and import of GMOs is particularly important.

Traceability requirements, such as the EU’s 2003 initiative on country of origin labelling, have impeded imports from the US where many GM crops are produced. Traceability requirements are designed to address problems of contamination of organic crops by GMO pollen drift, the use of contaminated seeds and sloppy handling. Such practices have been reported (Riddle 2002) and are a trade concern. Increased commercialization of GMOs in Africa could threaten organic agriculture and agricultural exports to, for example, EU countries where GMO use remains restricted (Pruzin 2004).

An additional issue is the relationship between national safety standards and labelling requirements and global agreements. While the Cartagena Protocol allows members to develop more stringent safety standards than those it provides, there is the risk that such standards could be found to violate provisions of the WTO agreements.