African GM maize reality check

August 2015
Photo Creative Commons
Maize is the dominant staple crop in Africa, typically eaten several times daily.

A significant insect pest problem to many maize-growing smallholders is 'stem-borer'.

So far, South Africa is the only African country to introduce GM maize such as 'Bt' insecticidal maize to combat stem-borer. There is, however, considerable pressure being applied to African nations to adopt GM agriculture.

In February this year, a report from Friends of the Earth International and The African Centre for Biosafety describes how foreign business interests are aggressively clearing the paths to market GM seed in countries across the continent.

It exposes how US government agencies such as the Agency for International Development (USAID), funders such as the Gates Foundation, and agri-giants such as Monsanto, are intent on undermining biosafety laws. Advice supplied directly or through agents paid for by these vested interests can help craft national laws so as to "facilitate promotion, cultivation and trade of GMOs with minimal restrictions and oversight", rather than prioritising safety as they should.

Many African countries have signed up to the Caragena Protocol on Biosafety which came into force in 2003 and was developed to ensure adequate safe use, handling and transfer of GMOs. American has never been a party to the Protocol and, it seems, has no respect for it.

The US government uses the need for biosafety frameworks (which are part of the Cartagena Protocol) plus the lack of resources and expertise in many developing countries, as an excuse to step in and offer funds for legal and scientific capacity building ( ... and he who pays the piper ...). USAID has also been trying to bypass national biosafety policies by operating at the regional level which is intrinsically more concerned with promoting trade in GMOs rather than their safety.

The Gates Foundation doesn't tell African governments what to do, but it does feed experts of its own choosing to regulators through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa which it set up in 2006 and still holds two seats on the board.

Indeed, most Gates spending for the promotion of biotech for Africa goes on in the developed world. For example, it 'buys' the influence of respected US universities which create platforms for discussion and better understanding of biotech and for helping African policy-makers make the best use of the technology.

Gates is also a major funder of research in the US, Britain and other developed nations into agri-solutions for the world's poorest and hungry people. As Friends of the Earth reported
"The Foundation has elected consistently to put its money into top-down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies".
Recently, South Africa gave the go-ahead for commercialisation of a drought-tolerant GM maize developed through a joint Gates Foundation / Monsanto project.

The new GM maize has a simplistic single-gene for a bacterial cold-shock protein and an old Bt protein (now falling into disuse due to emerging pest resistance) 'donated' by Monsanto. It is seen by The African Centre for Biosafety as a Trojan horse to open African markets to GM commodity crops, and as a ruse for strong-arming other African governments into amending their biosafety laws to accommodate it.

On the ground, the reality of GM maize in Africa seems a direct parallel to the reality of GM cotton in India [1]: 
"The South African experience confirms that GM crops can only bring financial benefits for a small number of well-resourced farmers. The vast majority of African farmers are small farmers who cannot afford to adopt expensive crops which need polluting inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and chemicals to perform effectively." "South African farmers have more than 16 years experience cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton, but the promise that GM crops would address food security has not been fulfilled." (Friends of the Earth Nigeria)


Whatever GM crops do in Africa, they're not going to feed the poor and hungry. But worse, 
"There could hardly be a more effective form of colonialism. The genetic engineering industry will effectively be able to hold us hostage" (Dr. Tewolde Egziahbher).
Westminster surely has its sights on Africa as a huge and unprotected market for the GM crops currently in its labs. Isn't it time Britain grew out of its old colonial habits? You might suggest this to your MP.



  • Who benefits from GM crops? Friends of the Earth International, February 2015
  • US force feeds GM crops to African nations, says new report, Friends of the Earth Internaitonal Press Release, 23.02.15
  • Klara Fischer, et al., 2015, Is Bt maize effective inimproving South African smallholder agriculture?, South African Journal of Science 111:1/2 January/February
  • African Civil Society Slams Monsanto Junk GM Maize Deal, 19.06.15
  • Kounteya Sinha, 80% of grants for finding solutions to improve agricultural yield spent in US, UK, Europe, The Times of India, 4.11.14
  • John Vidal, Gates Foundation spends bulk of agriculture grants in rich countries, The Guardian, 4.11.14

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