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The debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been raging for twenty years, and there is still more heat than light around the topic. While some developing countries have embraced the technology, much of Africa has followed the European Union’s precautionary approach. Up to now, the implications of those decisions for smallholder agriculture and basic food security have not been huge because multinational corporations developed the current generation of GMOs with large-scale, industrial agriculture in mind. GM crops in the pipeline, such as vitamin A enhanced “golden rice,” drought tolerant maize, or disease resistant bananas, could be more valuable for smallholders producers and poor consumers—if they ever make it to market.
While not a panacea, GMOs could be part of a new green revolution in Africa if governments address the policy and institutional weaknesses that prevented Africa from participating in the first one, and if GM technology continues to develop. Governments should avoid foreclosing the opportunities that GMO technology might bring to address the effects of climate change, tropical crop diseases and pests, and micronutrient deficiencies. To help prepare the ground for a new green revolution in Africa, and leave the door open for GMOs to be part of it, we offer five recommendations:
Increase public support for agricultural R&D overall, without precluding GMOs.
Develop cost-effective regulatory approaches for GMOs, regionally where possible.
Promote information exchange about experiences with GMOs.
Pursue South-South cooperation, especially with countries currently cultivating GMOs, such as Argentina and Brazil, and those, such as India and China, that could be future markets.
Donors, including the European Union, should provide technology-neutral support for R&D to improve staple crops, as well as capacity building for segregation of GM varieties in the case of cash crops for export.
Genetic modification is only one technology among many with the potential to improve agricultural productivity in Africa, and investments in the one should not be at the expense of the others. But it would be unfortunate if an overly cautious approach foreclosed the opportunity to use GMOs to significantly improve productivity or reduce malnutrition.