The development of genetically modified (GM) crops for African farmers is stuck in a ‘convenient deadlock’ of continual field trials. Meanwhile, opportunities to enhance yields and reduce poverty are being lost, according to a new report published by Chatham House.

Image by Getty/Stringer.Image by Getty/Stringer.

On Trial: Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa argues that new crop varieties are needed to boost Africa’s agricultural productivity and help farmers adapt to climate change. To achieve this, genetic modification has advantages over conventional plant-breeding. However, prospects for implementing GM in Africa are being frustrated by a public debate characterised by misinformation, polarized discourse and opportunistic policies.

The results of this dysfunctional debate are regulatory uncertainty, consumer distrust and weak farmer demand.  Consequently, most GM projects become stuck at the field trial stage and new crops are not released.

This ‘convenient deadlock’ of continual field trials allows governments to manage political risks by effectively balancing the demands of pro- and anti-GM lobbies – proponents have a pipeline of technologies, while opponents are appeased by the failure of any to gain approval. The disabling socio-political environment for GM development in Africa greatly reduces the efficacy of investment in this technology.

Donors fund projects to develop new GM varieties for African farmers, ranging from drought-resistant maize to varieties of banana and sweet potato with resistance to pests and disease. But, owing to the small market opportunity they present, private-sector researchers ignore these staples that are central to the food security and livelihoods of millions of Africans.

New crops are more likely to be successfully adopted in countries with less disabling political conditions, lower levels of consumer distrust and opposition, genuine farmer demand and a demonstrable commitment from government.

Focusing efforts and resources on a small number of ‘best bet’ countries will therefore allow donors and technology providers to support more ambitious, transformational projects led by national governments.