Home > In Focus > The GMO lobby has moved to Africa

An entire continent is being put under siege by western powers through a new face for a colonization no longer imposed through armies. Instead, the use of equally powerful weapons is being wielded – intellectual property laws, imposed on the population through trade agreements. From this point of view, the colonization of Africa seems to have never stopped and GMOs are the new tool for its continuation. Agribusiness corporations are launching a takeover bid on the future of the entire continent by legally and philanthropically seizing a common primary good that is essential for life on earth: the seed.

The narrative is always the same, that they want to feed poor Africans. But the expansion of seed market monopolies implies undermining the food sovereignty of local populations and holding them hostage in the double-locked cages of the free market. Faced with this legalised looting, there are still those who wonder whether GMOs are good or bad. The answer, based on the results of the African experience, is simple: GMOs are good for corporate agribusiness budgets and bad for the environment, where biodiversity is lost; bad for consumers, who lose their freedom to choose how to feed themselves; and bad for small and medium-sized agro-ecological producers, who still represent the primary source of food production in the world.

To quote Professor Adolf Mkenda, Minister of Agriculture of Tanzania, the first African country to ban GMOs in January 2021, “If the nation lets free entrance of foreign seeds, there will be seed market dominance by a few agricultural companies with local farmers forced to buy from them every year hence creating seed dependence.” The move by Tanzania is clear and actually splits the continent in two: between those who want to preserve their country’s food sovereignty and those who want to sell it off to the highest bidder.

THERE ARE MANY BIDDERS. Among them is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Based on the belief that GMOs are essential in the fight against hunger, Bill Gates launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in 2007 with the aim of doubling productivity and incomes by 2020 for 30 million smallholder farmers’ families and cutting food insecurity in 20 countries by half. At the beginning of 2020, and after nearly a billion dollars in funding, no official results have been announced by the foundation. Is it an overlook? The balance sheet of AGRA’s first 13 years is provided by the report False Promises: The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which notes that there is no evidence of significant increases in productivity, while the number of people suffering from extreme hunger in the 13 countries covered by the project has increased by 30%, affecting 130 million people.

IT IS NOT JUST THE GATES PROJECTS that are failing. The most illustrative example of the continent’s GMO escalation and its side effects is offered by South Africa, one of the first countries to adopt GM crops, followed a few years later by Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan. South Africa is among the top ten producers of GMOs in the world, with around 2.7 million hectares in 2018, with 94% of its corn crop being genetically modified. Despite the fact that the country has embraced the proposal – and the promise – of Western corporations, according to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), food insecurity is widespread in over 46% of households, with one in five children malnourished. South Africa is the only country in the world where the main staple crop, maize, is mainly GMO– a high-calorie crop that has overshadowed more nutritious and accessible foods, leading to high levels of obesity, especially among the female population. According to the African Centre for Biodiversity, the green light to commercialise has filled supermarket shelves with basic and processed foods containing GMOs, making any consideration of labelling obsolete in the absence of alternatives. Other critical issues include rising seed prices and the massive use of pesticides, as around 80% of the maize grown globally is Roundup Ready – as in glyphosate-resistant. South Africa has thus become the largest importer and user of pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 500 active pesticide ingredients registered.

ATTEMPTS TO INTRODUCE GMOS in Africa continues despite its failures. Cameroon, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria have all approved GM crop trials over the past decade. In Burkina Faso, cotton, nicknamed ‘white gold’ and previously considered a product of par excellence in the sector, has taken a step back. Monsanto managed to enter the country in 2008 and, within a few years, 70% of Burkina Faso’s cotton could be considered GM. Due to the poor quality of the fibre and the high cost of seed, Burkina Faso producers reported losses of over 70 million euros between 2011 and 2016, prompting the government to abandon the GM crop and revert to traditional cotton.

A NEW INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT of farmers and civil society representatives has emerged from the GMO shock wave. AFSA denounces the industry strategy of weakening bio-safety and labelling laws, and ensuring legal impunity in case of environmental and health disasters. Among the demands of the environmental organisations is the safeguarding of food sovereignty and the fomentation of new investments in the development of agroecology, an approach that respects local cultures and the environment which is threatened by the expansion of large-scale industrial GM monocultures. One of the most prominent activists in the fight against GMOs is undoubtedly Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biodiversity, who states that, “There is a need to dismantle many of the persistent myths and neo-colonial policies that support GMO-based agriculture on the continent. We need to ban GMOs in Africa and prevent the displacement of local food and seed systems, which form the basis of smallholder farming systems and livelihoods. Therefore, the focus of reconstruction during the multiple crises we are facing must be the re-establishment of fair, local, socio-ecological systems, of which farmers’ seed systems are a central component.”

Manlio Masucci, Navdanya International

Thumbnail image credit: Rushka Johnson