To the naked eye, genetically modified maize and soybeans look the same as their conventional counterparts. Only when you examine them under a microscope can you see that one’s DNA has been altered.Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are defined as any living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially altered. The debate over their development and use has been heated. Supporters claim that GMOs can help solve global hunger, but opponents argue that GMOs could endanger human health and threaten the natural gene pool.
Some African countries have banned GMOs. In March 2008, the Beninese government extended its ban on GMOs, originally enacted in 2002. Under the law, GMOs and their derivatives may not be imported, sold, or used in Benin for at least the next five years.
Jeanne Zoundjihékpon is a professor of agricultural sciences at l’Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin and part of the organization GRAIN, an NGO that believes biodiversity is essential to food security. She advocates against GMOs in francophone Africa.
Professor Zoundjihékpon considers the government’s decision to extend its GMO ban a victory for Beninese farmers and consumers. She says it will allow time for a clear decision on GMOs that takes into account their impact on the environment and human health.
But not all African governments have taken such a cautious approach. South Africa is the first and only African country to permit the growth and sale of GMOs. Agro-industry companies like Monsanto, the world’s largest GMO seed producer, has introduced modified crops to South Africa. Such companies argue that biotechnology is needed to improve food security in Africa by creating varieties that are disease-resistant and produce higher yields.
Dr. Melaku Worede is an internationally renowned genetic researcher from Ethiopia. He doesn’t share the vision of the GMO companies. He says that Africans should increase their efforts to protect their genetic resources. Dr. Worede stresses that he is not against modern technology, but he worries that the spread of GMOs s in the current context could give private companies a monopoly over Africa’s plant resources, to the detriment of traditional crops and the needs of the people.
One common concern about GMOs is that farmers cannot save seeds from GMO plants. Farmers who purchase GMO seeds may be required to sign agreements with the agro-company stipulating that they will not save the seed. But even if they did, GMO seeds, like all hybrid seeds, do not breed true in the next generation. Therefore, farmers must purchase new seeds from the agro-company before planting again.
Now, a GMO seed known as “Terminator” is raising new concerns about farmer control over plant resources. Terminator seeds contain genes that stop plants from forming viable seeds. Many are worried that this genetic trait could be passed on to conventional plants – preventing farmers from saving any seeds, even the seeds of their traditional crops.
These and other concerns have led many African countries to resist GMOs. Angola, Sudan, and Zambia have refused to accept GMO food aid. And in Ethiopia, the NGO African Biodiversity Network advocates for the right of farmers to refuse genetically modified seeds.