Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Africa , Environment

Biotech industry in Africa

Nnimmo Bassey of Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria)  has a piece in last weeks Pambazuka News entitled "Conned with Corn" in which he describes the "onslaught of the biotech industry" in Africa as a modern day "scramble for Africa".

Genetically engineered food has been presented as the ultimate weapon against hunger in Africa and the world. This is also seriously suggested in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), meaning that this may be the direction efforts will be concentrated in the years to come. African leaders have largely been co-opted into thinking this way because they are warned that since the so-called Green Revolution train left Africa standing at the station they should not miss the gene train. It has been noted that the Green Revolution required extensive chemical and equipment inputs and although food production increased in some areas, small scale farmers were marginalised, the environment took a beating and on the aggregate hunger was boosted in the world.

Zambia is one African country that has refused to accept GM foods or crops (see BL "Genetic Modification") The case as Bassey states demonstrated that "every country has the sovereign right to determine what type of food to eat irrespective of whether it is purchased in the market or donated as aid".   

The Pushers:  Monsanto and US Aid (the same people behind the push to market cassava, Nigeria’s main staple food) as an export crop.  Example – Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton called Bt Cotton has been planted in India and South Africa.  According to Monsanto this has been a great success but there have been many reports  of farmers recording low yields and going into debt.  Monsanto and US Aid are now pushing Bt Cotton on Tanzania which will join Tunisia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Kenya in conducting field trials.

The food and crops: Apart from Bt cotton, GM food is being sent to Africa, Asia and Latin America via food aid.  Example – "In 2003 Nigeria received 11,000 metric tons of  soy meal as food aid from the US under the title "Food for Progress".  Taking into account that around 60% of soybeans in the US is GM it is quite likely that Nigeria has been receiving GM food through the back door so to speak.  Another example Bassey gives  is in Latin America  where corn varieties not authorised for human consumption have been found in food aid sent in 2002 and in 2005. 

Concerns:     Eight years after accepting biotech crops, the EU is only now beginning studies to examine the possible "cumulative long-term effects" that these crops might have on humans and animals.   In short we do not know the effects of these foods and crops.

Bassey also points out that the Biotech industry itself is out of control and does not know the affects of what it is producing.  He gives the example of a case that was only recently made public whereby  an

"untested experimental crop, from Swiss agrochemicals multinational group, Syngenta, called Bt10, has been illegally planted from 2001 until 2004 in the USA. This illegal variety contains antibiotic resistance marker genes, which the British Medical Association recommended not to commercialise due to the potential risks for human health. ………..Initially Syngenta had claimed that Bt10 and Bt11 (an already commercialised variety of GM corn) were virtually identical, and therefore there were no risks, but later on it was verified as false since Bt10 contained antibiotic resistant marker genes, while that was not the case with the Bt11 type. What other areas have confused the biotech industry?


Bassey concludes by calling on everyone,

Nigerian, Tanzanian, Togolese, Camerounian, or Swazi to stand up and defend our collective right to live in dignity and to choose what seeds to plant and what foods to eat. We cannot afford to place our future in the hand of an industry that has lost control of its Frankenstein. Our governments, if they represent us, must begin now to ask questions, and to act. Tomorrow will be too late


  1. This is an interesting write-up in. Indeed GM food products are gradually creeping into not just Africa, but all corners of the world. The big question remains: ‘are GM crops bad and dangerous per se?’

    I think the world might eventually benefit from GM crops but for now, I am of the opinion that all GM crop development projects should be confined to laboratories. There is a great need for an intensive study period, within which scientists and environmentalists analyze the potential risks or benefits of GM crops, before these crops are let loose (the only problem with this is that science is not always as objective as we think. Some scientists would be in favor of GM crops and others against, depending on who funds their research). The example of the Bt 10 and Bt11 crops, which you gave, is scary to say the least.

    To the best of my knowledge, Nigeria has a young but active biotech project focused on the development of GM crops. This project is overseen by Nigerians (there is a new Biotechnology Laboratory which handles this in the Nigerian capital, Abuja) with technical assistance and expertise from the United States.

    We need to also acknowledge the fact that the biotech industry has made several positive contributions to society especially in the area of drug development. There’s more to the biotech industry than GM crops. For instance, current biotech research is focused on the production of commodity chemicals and ‘natural’ food products using microorganisms. Genetic modification of these microorganisms is not a bad thing.

    For instance, these microorganisms can be modified to deal with issues such as oil spillage (by being genetically altered to feed on and breakdown crude oil into less-toxic substances). Some microorganisms can be modified to degrade plastic materials. Already a lot of these microorganisms have been ‘genetically modified’ to produce products such as beer, glucose, vinegar, vitamin tablets and antibiotics. The products themselves are not GM — the glucose produced by these organisms is the same as the glucose one would find in say sugar cane or oranges — but the organisms are.

    I am of the view that Africa needs to wholeheartedly embrace the biotech industry. Yet, this must not mean accepting GM crops. The biotech industry has a lot to offer developing countries, and by biotech industry, I am not referring to the multinationals like Monsanto. African governments should invest in biotech. It is very important. If in the future, genetically engineered crops turn out to be safe, they would at least have the know-how to produce them. The alternative would be what you describe as the new scramble for Africa — multinationals roaming the continent seeking out virgin fields to lay their seedlings.

  2. Thanks for this input Chippla. The question is as you say are GM crops bad and dangerous per se. Despite all the postive aspects you name there is still insufficient evidence to prove that they are safe and until then we should all approach GM with great caution. As such I do not agree that Africa should “wholeheartedly embrace the Biotech industry” on the contrary I agree wholeheartedly with Bassey’s analysis.

  3. Very good articles and discussions on the pros and cons of GM crops and the biotech industry. Much appreciated. Monsanto Corportion and USAID are not the monsters that some people try to portray them as. I should know (about Monsanto) as I grew up right next door to this multinational, have a fair bit of knowledge about what they do and don’t do, and have consumed food products along with millions of other people that are grown with their various technologies for years. I’m not so sure about USAID (contractors) though.

    The last time I had a full medical checkup my Doc said everything was looking just fine (for an old guy). Said I might live to be a 100 years old. Maybe that’s where the problem lies with GM food. We might all live longer!?

  4. I dont think living next to Monsanto can qualify you or anyone else to make a judgement as to what they do or dont do. Maybe you know what they have told you? You may have consumed food and be in good health. Others may have consumed food and be dead. I like millions of others throughout the world have had or have cancer – how do I know whether GM is reponsible or not. Until there is absolute proof how do you know?

    The problem lies in that the majority of people in the West could care less what they eat and the people in the 3rd world have no choice but to eat whatever is available and thats why MNCs like Monsanto and contractors like USAid can get away with what they do.

  5. A key phrase in my comment is “a fair bit of knowledge about what they do and don’t do” which includes a basic understanding about what the science behind GM is all about. “…growing up next door to Monsanto” exposes residents of the Metro St. Louis and Bi-State region to loads of information and personal contact with the people who work at Monsanto over a long period of time (a lifetime). Monsanto’s primary market for its various products is the U.S.A. and many Americans are very careful about their health and what they eat.

    I agree with you that people should be able to make a choice about what they eat and don’t eat. The reality for most of us the world over is something very different though. Our choices are becoming less and less due to business consolidations all up and down the food demand & supply chain. Scandals involving food contamination through chemical and biological agents have been rampant in “the West” over the past few decades. Some of the global food industry today is controlled by sophisticated criminal gangs and government controls over the industry is a perverse joke here in Europe. This is far more dangerous to consumers than the evils of GM foods in my opinion. It’s called corruption and greed.

    The E.U. vs. U.S.A. arguments over GM crops has a lot to do with money and politics and control over global markets, not with the purported dangers of contracting diseases by consuming GM foodstuffs. European firms and governments are playing a game of catch-up and you will see more of this in the next few years.

    African nations need to accelerate their efforts and capabilities to produce enough food for their citizens and cut the dependency on food aid from the West or anywhere else. That will require a lot of time and massive changes in governance, agricultural practices, business practices, and consumer behavior. The ariable land and know-how is there in Africa today to help accomplish that goal, and financial aid promises from the U.K. Commission on Africa (ref: Gordon Brown’s recent statement) imply that (EU?) aid to Africa could double in the next few years.

    With all of those factors in place, Africans can decide what they want to grow and eat. It will be interesting to see how the battle over GM crops in Africa pans out over the next decade or so. In Europe, the Americas, and Asia if you do not want to eat GM foods then you are going to have to grow your own or have the extra cash to buy organic.

  6. You have clearly bought the GM corporate line. Just a brief comment. There is enough food for everyone in this world. The problem is that most of it is consumed by the West. So if we are talking greedy, well it simple to know where the greed is coming from whether it be corporations, criminal gangs or consumers. Buy buy buy and eat eat eat and oh yes as cheap as possible!