An important challenge for much of Africa is how one improves food security. Determining appropriate strategies requires a clear understanding of the nature of the food security problem and an understanding of what exactly GM crops can bring to addressing this. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1, target 2 seeks to reduce chronic hunger by half from the 1990 baseline by 2015.

The challenge of
improving food
security is more than
just increasing food

WCED 1987

Genetic modification technology may contribute to food security goals through increasing crop yields, producing hardier crop varieties that can withstand heat and drought, enhancing nutritional and medicinal value, and improving storability (UN Millennium Project 2005b). Increasing crop resistance to insects and diseases and reducing weeds could help reduce crop losses and reduce dependence on costly fertilizers and herbicides, resulting in valuable savings for resource-poor farmers (Bernsten 2004). For example, the European corn borer destroys 7-20 per cent of the world’s annual maize harvest (Ives and others 2001). If Bt can successfully control the corn borer, maize yields in Africa could increase significantly (Ives and others 2001). However, the potential of such innovations is highly contested.

However, as the Brundtland Report cautioned as early as 1987, the challenge of improving food security is more than just increasing food production. The Brundtland Report noted that globally agriculture does not lack resources but lacks the policy to match need and production (WCED 1987). Food production is closely linked to cultural and livelihood systems. Crucial issues that need to be addressed include (Young 2004):

  • The impact of reliance on GMOs to solve social and economic problems;
  • The impact of the cost of GM crop production;
  • The implications of expensive R&D processes;
  • The equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic materials conserved primarily in the developing countries;
  • The impact of GMOs on local livelihood systems; and
  • The impact of GMOs on agricultural biodiversity.

The assumption that food shortages stem from a gap in food production and population growth is now widely challenged. The problem of world hunger is not a problem of food production but one of distribution. The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before: enough food is available to provide 1.9 kg for every person every day: 1.1 kg of grain, beans and nuts, about 0.4 kg of meat, milk and eggs and the same amount of fruits and vegetables (Altieri and Rosset 1999). The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access to food and land. Too many people are too poor to buy the food that is available (but often poorly distributed) or lack the land and resources to grow it themselves (Lappe and others 1998 in Altieri and Rosset 1999).

Genetically modified crops may be important from a developing country perspective because specific nutritional values can be added (UN Millennium Project 2005b). One of the best known genetic enrichment food crops is vitamin A improved rice, also called “Golden Rice.” Insufficient vitamin A intake by children in developing countries is the leading cause of visual impairment and blindness, affecting over three million children in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) (Muir 2003). Pregnant women with vitamin A deficiency (VAD) face an increased risk of mortality as well as high risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission. Thus, if effective, nutritionally enhanced “Golden Rice” could be one important tool for addressing the MDG 5 on maternal health. While genetically enriched crops can be an important nutritional strategy, the efficacy of this approach is contested. It remains to be seen whether these crops will live up to the nutritional values demonstrated in the laboratory in real life. “Golden Rice” is genetically modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. For beta-carotene to be converted to vitamin A, it requires a functional digestive tract, adequate zinc, protein and fat stores, adequate energy, and protein and fat in the diet. However, in populations that suffer from VAD, the overall dietary deficiencies act as barriers to the conversion (Gola 2005). The question also arises as to whether this is the most cost-effective and sustainable way to address nutritional deficits (Muir 2003). An alternative is to promote the use of existing varieties of food crops with high levels of beta-carotene such as sweet potato. One of the main factors constraining the inclusion of adequate fruit and vegetable in rural peoples’ diets is the problem of food storage. Research in some countries, including Zimbabwe, is attempting to address these shortcomings (Muir 2003).

Nutritional diversity may be threatened by GM licensing agreements and production systems which push farmers to monoculture and thus reduce the variety of crops planted for household consumption.

The livelihood implications of adopting GM technologies are still not fully understood. Biotechnology is a technology under corporate control, protected by patents and other forms of IPR, and therefore contrary to farming traditions of saving and exchanging seeds (Altieri 2002); consequently there has been considerable resistance by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations to the adoption of GM crops. There are concerns about the impacts of the changing nature of agribusiness and its impact on poor people and their food security. Because hunger is primarily linked to poverty, lack of access to land, and the maldistribution of food, one concern is that biotechnology may exacerbate inequalities underlying the causes of hunger. Leading GM companies have been rigorous in enforcing contractual agreements around the use, storage and sale of GM seed and products. Small-scale farmers have been prosecuted in developed and developing countries (ERA 2005).


Modern agriculture has had negative impacts on the environment. The high level of chemical inputs required for improved varieties, developed under the green revolution, which replaced traditional varieties has had a heavy toll.

Transgenic agriculture promises to limit the environmental releases of damaging chemicals (Cullen 2004, Bernsten 2004, and FAO 2002) by reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, and fertilizers. However, these claims remain contested, as discussed, for example, in relation to Bt cotton, in Box 6. Whether the incorporation of the pesticide into the crop itself rather than application on the soil will be environmentally friendlier is not known (Young 2004). The challenges and opportunities associated with chemical use are considered more fully in Chapter 11: Chemicals.

Box 6: Will the use of Bt cotton result in less pest threats and pesticide use?

In 2002, Bt cotton was planted on 4.6 million ha worldwide, approximately 13 per cent of the global cotton area. Almost all of this Bt cotton acreage was sown to Monsanto’s “Bollgard” variety. Bollgard is genetically modified to produce the Cry1Ac toxin of Bacillus thuringiensis. Monsanto has developed a second Bt cotton variety, “Bollgard II”, which produces two different toxins, Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab. In 2004, Dow Agro-sciences hopes to introduce “Widestrike”, another Bt cotton producing two toxins (Cry1Ac andCry1F), while Syngenta is trying to introduce its Bt cotton, “VIP Cotton”.

The Bt toxins expressed by Bt cotton only target lepidopteran pests (caterpillars) and some lepidopteran pests are more susceptible than others. Bt cotton has been shown to be effective against the tobacco budworm (Heliothis virescens) and the pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella), but less effective in controlling cotton bollworms (Helicoverpa zea and Helicoverpa armigera), an important cotton pest in West Africa. This is why farmers growing Bt cotton continue to use pesticides against bollworms and continue to experience damage from these pests. In the US, despite the use of supplementary insecticides, farmers growing Bt cotton lost around 7.5 per cent of their crop to cotton bollworms in 2002. During that year, 36 per cent of the Bt cotton fields in the US were sprayed with insecticides specifically targeting bollworms and other caterpillar pests. Farmers outside the US have had similar experiences. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where Bt cotton was cultivated for the first time in 2002, Monsanto’s Bollgard cotton failed to control cotton bollworms.

There are many important cotton insect pests for which Bt cotton offers no control, such as sucking pests like aphids and jassids. These secondary pests can result in significant crop damage on Bt crops, which helps to explain why insecticide use remains high in Bt cotton fields. In Australia, pesticide use against bollworms has declined, but farmers still spray their Bt cotton fields with insecticides 4.6 times per year. The adoption of Bt cotton may even increase problems with secondary pests. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, farmers growing Bt crops had to spray more against aphids than farmers growing conventional crops. In the US, where insecticide use against bollworms has dropped by half since the introduction of Bt cotton, total insecticide use has remained stable due to the growing importance of secondary pests.

Source: GRAIN 2005

Africa currently uses 3.6 million tonnes of fertilizer, but the potential requirement to maintain average levels of crop production without depleting soil nutrients is 11.7 million tonnes per year (Henao and Baanante 1999). The negative environmental aspects of mineral and organic fertilizers include accumulation of dangerous or even toxic substances in soil. This includes cadmium pollution from mineral phosphate fertilizers or from town or industrial waste products; eutrophication of surface water, with its negative effect on oxygen supply, which threatens fish and other forms of animal life; nitrate accumulation in groundwater, diminishing the quality of drinking water; and unwanted enrichment of the atmosphere with ammonia from organic manures and mineral fertilizers, and with nitrogen oxide (N2O) from denitrification of excessive or wrongly placed nitrogen fertilizer (Finck 1992).