Africa’s experience with GM technologies is still relatively new compared to other regions and it is faced with many challenges on how best to proceed. Knowledge, transparency, fairness and containment are four key points in formulating a sound African policy on GMOs.


Inclusive policy processes, based on adequate information, are essential to developing appropriate national and regional responses. The potential risks and opportunities posed by GM technologies are immense.

Decision making is a process of accountability – to one’s constituency, one’s country and the world – and as such it must necessarily be based on a weighing of evidence, not only evidence that a decision might pose a particular risk or benefit, but also evidence about the potential dimensions of that risk or benefit, about the likelihood of harm or advantage, about the efficacy of available measures to prevent or mitigate risks, and about other factors and situations within and outside the decision-maker’s jurisdiction that affect the decision (Young 2004). Thus it is crucial for decision-makers, legislators, governments and the civil society, to have access to adequate supporting information.

Given the complexity of the issues at stake from biosafety considerations, human health concerns and socioeconomic implications, it is essential that policy processes use a range of techniques that are able to support effective valuation in these areas. In it is also important, given the range of interests at stake, that policy processes become more deliberative, transparent and accountable.


A crucial issue facing African governments is determining what kind of development and agricultural strategies can best meet long-term objectives and medium- to short-term goals. A viable agricultural strategy should contribute to the realization of the MDGs and targets including:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger;
  • Ensuring environmental sustainability;
  • Reducing child mortality;
  • Improving maternal health; and
  • Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Box 12: Developing sustainable agricultural production systems

The Millennium Project Task Force on the Environment identified the following as critical to enhancing sustainable agriculture techniques to preserve natural assets:

  • Protect and improve soils, including enhanced carbon sequestration.
  • Use water sustainably.
  • Maintain crop genetic diversity.
  • Mobilize local knowledge and experience.
  • Improve crop research, management storage, and use.
  • Restore and manage desertified lands.
  • Adopt prevention strategies to protect arid ecosystems.
  • Mobilize information and technology.
  • Protect surrounding natural habitat.
  • Rationalize land-use planning.
  • Set up systems of communal ownership and management rights.

Source: UN Millennium Project 2005a

Defining such a strategy and identifying appropriate solutions is dependent on research that accurately understands the nature of the problem. Declining African agricultural research has meant that, increasingly, research priorities are often externally driven on the basis of assumptions that are not shared. Much global agricultural research is based on models which focus on production deficits and fails to take into account the multiple factors that are driving food crises including globalization, environmental degradation and HIV/AIDS. The opportunities of and challenges faced by agricultural production systems are discussed in Chapter 3: Land and Chapter 4: Freshwater. The problems of food security are complex and can probably not be resolved through a “technological fix.” Instead they require multisectoral and multilevel (local, national, international) interventions. Nevertheless, GM technologies offer promise for meeting some areas of greatest challenge in Africa. Benefits to the environment can be summarized to include: “friendly” bioherbicides and bio-insecticides, and conservation of soil, water, and energy. Increased food security for the growing populations may result from GM enhanced crop and livestock productivity.

New GM technological advances may create ethical controversies around tampering with nature, from, for example, mixing genes among species and related objections to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa.

Like all new technologies, they also pose some risks, both known and unknown. Potential environmental impacts include: unintended transfer of transgenes through cross-pollination, unknown effects on other organisms (eg soil microbes) and loss of flora and fauna biodiversity. Traditional agricultural systems have played an important role in maintaining crop diversity. Certain human health impacts have been identified. The impacts on livelihoods, food security and rural options are not well understood.

Although genetic engineering may offer important opportunities for development and achieving the MDGs, it is important to strengthen existing local production systems and not compromise the existing systems. Clear cost-benefit analysis about the efficacy of different kinds of technological options need to be undertaken alongside locally-driven priority-setting exercises. The question remains as to whether development of genetic engineering is a priority for African governments at this point in time.

The value of existing agricultural approaches and non-transgenic approaches for Africa need to be considered. Achievements that have been made, including improving yields, better management of insects. pests, plant diseases and weeds without the use of synthetic pesticides, and the maintenance of soil fertility without chemical fertilizers (ERA 2005), should be consolidated. The value and productivity of traditional agriculture in development and its genetic diversity should not be underestimated. Africa has more than 2 000 native grains, roots, fruits and other food plants (National Research Council 1996).

The issue of IPRs will need to be addressed to ensure that there are no adverse consequences for food productivity, through, for example, the weakening of farmers’ rights. In addition to directly protecting farmers’ rights, measures to protect genetic resources and ensure benefit sharing may be valuable. These may include:

  • Fair and equitable allocation of profits to local communities from which genetic material was obtained;
  • Adhering to local law and respecting and protecting local cultures and resources; and
  • Adhering to the CBD, particularly Article 8J, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

In 1998, the Council of Ministers of the AU adopted the Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers, Breeders and Regulation of Access to Biological Resources. This serves as a basis for African countries to develop national law which fulfils their obligations to TRIPS and to the CBD, while protecting the collective social process of knowledge and technology generation.