GMO, safety and food security in Africa (II), by Professor M.K. Othman

Alhaji Muhammed Sabo Nanono.
Alhaji Muhammed Sabo Nanono.


Food security issues in Africa are a major concern to both people of Africa and the entire world when one ruminates on the enormity of the problems. Paraphrasing the issues raised in the first part of this article last week, it is pertinent to bring out major food insecurity indicators that comprehensively measured food security in the world.

Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations presented these indicators in a report, titled “2017 The Situation of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”. The report presents two major indicators “Prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) and Food insecurity experience scale (FIES)” for measuring “Prevalence of severe food insecurity”.

While the average PoU of North America and European Union from the year 2000 to 2016 was 2.5 per cent of their population, Africa recorded 24.3 per cent in the year 2000, which reduced to 17.8 percentage in 2013 and then increased to 20.1 per cent in 2016.

The report indicated an urgent situation in Eastern Africa, a sub-region with one – third of the population estimated to be undernourished. Comparatively, Africa was found to have the highest levels of severe food insecurity reaching an average of 27.4 per cent of the population.

READ ALSO: GMO, safety and the question of food security in Africa, by Professor MK Othman

This figure was almost four times compared with other regions/continents as of 2016. Four years after, the situation has become worst. Thus, food insecurity in Africa is quite worrisome and needs a concerted strategy to address it.

This is very important as the World marches to 2050 when the population in Africa is projected to double the current population estimate of 1.3 billion people. This brings the question posed in my last article. Can Africa achieve food security without the use of GMO? How safe are GMO crops?

GMO or Genetic modified Technology (GMT)is a technique, which allows the transfer of selected genes for specific traits between species using laboratory processes. It is 20th century breakthrough in biotechnology GMO is a kind of strategy, which combats debilitating and rare diseases, reduce environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy; safer and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes.

Biotechnology existed many centuries ago and widened its scope to include innovation in medicine; extending to its latest globally controversial product: genetically modified organisms, GMOs also called transgenic organisms. GMO is a highly controversial subject dividing the world into two; those against it and those for it.

Historically, GMO metamorphoses from the concept of plant or animal breeding. Biotechnology has brought breeding to contemporary limelight with attendant hype and sensationalism, shot it to the global footing of a multilateral agenda.

Hitherto, biotechnology was a non-issue or was just like any other technological breakthroughs. The first stage of biotechnology is the crops or animals breeding. Traditionally, the aim of breeding of plants and animals is to tailor the plant or animal for a certain character or trait improvement. For example, a new crop variety might be bred for using less water(drought tolerant) or resilience to certain disease(disease-resistant).

The process of traditional breeding involves the use of germplasm from the pool of the ancestors with desirable traits of interest and crossing them with each other, to make the progenies output carry through heritability and have the favourable traits from both parents.

Since the progenies carry both half desired and undesired hereditary traits from the parents, they will be passed on and it takes a number of breeding cycles  (backcrossing) to eliminate the undesired traits and build on the desired traits.

This certainly takes time. The final new plant variety or breed of the animal after several years of selection will have the desired traits. This is only applicable to heritable traits, which were inherited from its ancestors along with the associated genes for those traits.

Thus, traditional breeding is a way of harnessing the genetic resources of an organism by selective breeding. The advance level of traditional breeding is genetic breeding, which is fast gaining popularity and acceptance globally. What are the implications of adopting genetically modified seeds technology in Africa?

Traditional breeding is a way of harnessing the genetic resources of an organism by selective breeding. With the advent of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), advance knowledge of genome and gene, scientists have elevated the traditional breeding to GMT through an in-depth study of techniques of molecular biology.

This cutting – edge technology allows scientists to silence genes in viruses, bacteria or pests, which attack plants or animals thereby retarding growth, productivity or ultimately kill such organisms. How can GMT contribute to achieving food security in Africa?

GMT can contribute to achieving food security in Africa through increase productivity of agricultural land and yield increase. Although, Food production depends on many factors, such as the quantity, frequency and distribution of rain on the cropping area, the quality of the soil, type and number of weeds competing for soil nutrients and moisture and the number of pests militating against the crop growth.

Each weed that grows in a field takes soil nutrients and moisture away from a food plant. The more resources that are used by weeds, the less food that can be produced. GMT can adequately address the issue of weeds and insects, which are major pests retarding the productivity of the crop and significantly reducing yields.

In a 2014 analysis of 147 published articles, Klümper and Qaim estimated the average yield increase of GM crops as 22 per cent higher than the yield of conventional crops (

A similar study conducted in the Institute of Life Sciences in Italy led by Elisa Pellegrino, which involved a meta-analysis of 6,006 peer-reviewed studies from 1996 to 2016 on genetically engineered maize.

The results showed that genetically engineered (GE) maize produced a greater yield ranging from 5.6 to 24.5 per cent compared to non-GE maize. It resulted in lower concentrations of mycotoxins (−28.8 per cent), fumonisin (−30.6 per cent), and thricotecens (−36.5 per cent).

The former is toxic and carcinogenic in humans and animals. There were also no significant differences in grain quality, such as proteins, lipids, and fibre.

“The results support the cultivation of GE maize, mainly due to enhanced grain quality and reduction of human exposure to mycotoxins,” the team wrote in their paper.

This high-level study made 11,699 observations of production, grain quality, and more. These yield increases resulted from fewer weeds and insects that contribute to increased food production.

Data for this study came from GMO corn that had been planted in the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. How safe are GMO?

To be concluded next week.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.


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