The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Africa probably equals the CITES listing of the African elephant as the most divisive issue among policymakers in the region. Already there is an apparent split with some countries taking a lead in introducing GMOs in agriculture, and others opposed to even importing GMO food which is unprocessed. The issue is not limited to Africa but has international dimensions involving agricultural production and food security, pesticide use and environmental pollution, organic agriculture and the risk to biodiversity, as well as the role of the private sector and international trade. Controversy revolves around (Young 2004):

  • The interpretation of science, 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 concerning food production and security, livelihoods, and human and environmental health.

Already, IUCN-the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which brings together government, civil society, and experts from a wide range of disciplines, has declared “a moratorium on further environmental releases of GMOs until this can be demonstrated to be safe for biodiversity, human and animal health beyond reasonable doubt.” A further concern is that the introduction and promotion of GMOs “are driven primarily by the private sector, whose interests in development and marketing may be greater than in assessing potential risks to biodiversity, human and animal health” (IUCN 2004a). But this decision is controversial, with some members such as Japan, The Netherlands and Sweden opposed to the resolution. The United States Government and its agencies did not take part in the deliberations. Recognizing the controversy around this issue, IUCN also called for “substantive work, within reasonable time and within reasonable resources, to develop credible knowledge and information concerning biodiversity, nature conservation and associated risks of GMOs.” It further requested IUCN to promote and support initiatives to ratify and implement the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (IUCN 2004b).

IUCN has more than 1 000 members, of which more than 30 are African government departments or statutory bodies (IUCN 2005). Many of these, including departments and civil society organizations, would have participated in the debates on these two resolutions at IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Bangkok in 2004.


Although GMO technology is relatively new and many countries still do not have strong governance structures for monitoring and enforcing its use, it is poised to gain more ground over the coming decades. Data and information on GMO impacts on the environment will possibly lag behind and it may take even longer for the region to have comprehensive knowledge of such impacts.

Controversy over whether or not it can be a panacea to food insecurity in Africa as well as potential risks to the environment will continue to rage. More governments may follow the lead of South Africa, which in 2004 passed the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, which regulates the release of GMOs in the environment. The new law requires an environmental impact assessment to be approved before the government will permit any GMO to be released into the environment, either on a trial or a general basis (Government of South Africa 2004). The effectiveness of such laws, however, depends on national and regional capacities for enforcement as well as scientific assessments of risks and benefits.