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The farmer in a white keffiyeh and robe with a knife in his hand outstretched over sorghum stalks.
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Lightroom Photos/F. Noy

Resistance to genetically modified seeds in Africa

Maxwell Suuk
July 19, 2018

Seeds modified in a lab are often touted as a means to boost agriculture and food security in Africa. There is some resistance on the continent and debate on preserving its traditional seed base instead.


Ghana recently hosted a conference focused on the question of genetically modified organism (GMO) seed varieties versus those that have traditionally spawned the continent's staple crops.

The increasing commercialization of food and agriculture, the diversity of crops, food as part of culture and identity and sustaining food needs without a switch to GMO agriculture dominated their discussions.

The meeting of experts and activists from Ethiopia, Kenya, Togo, South Africa and Zimbabwe took place in the northern city of Tamale, at the heart of a region in Ghana where agriculture is a driving force in the local economy.

In Ethiopia, local farmers have rejected GMO agriculture – apart from the genetically modified insect-resistant Bt cotton – despite intensive lobbying, often by the purveyors of GMO seeds, multi-national giants.

Three Burkinabe men toss freshly picked cotton onto a heap. Behind them is a truck piled high with cotton.
Burkina Faso's cotton companies stopped using genetically modified seeds supplied by Monsanto in 2016, citing a drop in quality.Image: AFP/Getty Images/I. Sanogo

Food sovereign

Sulemana Abdullai, the board chairman of the African Biodiversity Network, (ABN)said GMO is not a sure way to go.

"There isn't much evidence to suggest that genetically modified crops are doing better, in terms of food security or nutrition security or income security," Abdullai said. 

"In fact on the contrary, it is shown with indigenous production methods and farming systems, because of their ability to plant more than one crop using locally-adapted seeds." 

Farmers who use traditional seeds actually own the bulk of what they produce, he argued. “They are food sovereign.”

Sustaining food diversity through the use of traditional seeds is possible in Africa, said Ridwan Mohammed of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), a non-governmental organization working with farmers across Ethiopia.

"When we talk about diversity, it is not the diversity of crops. There is a diversity of diet in that. Therefore, once our farmers have diversity of crops, especially of local crops, they will have diversified food, which is good for health,” Mohammed said.

"We are still promoting that, working with our farmers closely on the benefits of preserving and conserving these traditional seed varieties."

Monsanto takeover spurs Africa fears

Maize 'past and gone'

Takalani Mashudu, one of the activists who attended the conference, warned that traditional seeds are already becoming extinct in his native South Africa and Togo.

"Generally in South Africa we are using GMOS, which is not really good for our health. It is difficult to find the old maize because that is past and gone. But we're fighting against it,” Mashudu said. 

In its literature on GMOs, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the transfer of allergenic genes in different crops can cause dangerous reactions in people with allergies. 

Concerns over the negative impact on small-scale farmers around the world of seed market dominance by a few agricultural companies have also been raised, according to the agency. 

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)concerns over seed market dominance by few agricultural companies, negatively impacting small-scale farmers globally have been raised

A wooden board on a wheelbarrow serves as a seed seller's cart in the Sudanese capital Khartoum
Traditional seeds are sold informally in many parts of Africa. Image: DW/Y. Castro

Interferes with culture

The FAO also cites the transfer of allergenic genes in different crops, causing dangerous reactions in people with allergies.

Read more: Does glyphosate cause cancer? Monsanto herbicide trials take shape in US

In Africa, Monsato – a US Based agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation and the world's largest GMO seed and pesticide seller – has been criticized over its market dominance.

Mshudu told DW how GMOs has interfered with indigenous culture in places where agriculture is often tied to beliefs and practices.

"We cannot actually communicate with our ancestors by using the GMO seeds because the seeds don't know the land. There are some chemicals which have been used to assist the seeds to grow, so we really need to use the local seeds that the ancestors know,” Mashudu told DW.

Mashudu said using GMO grains is like speaking to the ancestors in a foreign language.

Small-scale farmers feed the world

Hardi Tijani, the head of the Ghanaian non-governmental organization Regional Advisory Information and Network Systems (RAINS), which works with marginalized communities, agreed.

"Culture without food is not culture. So, when you lose your food, you lose your identity. So yes, we can talk about increased production but we also need to recognize that people around Africa are very passionate about their culture,” Tijani said. 

Read more: Egusi with spinach and turkey, Nigeria 

A high crop yield is one of the arguments advanced by proponents of GMOs, increasingly as agriculture is seen as a commercial venture.

Small-scale farmers in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are the main producers of food, contributing up to 80 percent of food consumed, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Read more: 'Access to technologies' key to food security

The advent of genetically engineered foods, with the release of a delayed-ripened tomato, more than two decades ago has shifted to cash crops such corn, soya, canola and cotton. 

Many developed nations are seeing a growing trend away from GMO crops towards organic farming. As researchers in Ghana look in the opposite direction, with a trial to assess the suitability of GMO crops for farmers, the future of traditional seeds remains to be seen.

Sophie Mbugua and Benita van Eyssen contributed to this report.



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