Over the last 15 years, development organizations including USAID, the UK’s DFID, and most prominently the Gates Foundation, have invested millions of dollars into the advancement of genetically engineered crops for smallholder farmers in Africa. These crops have a gene or genes inserted from another organism — either an individual of the same species, a similar species, or a very different one — that confer useful traits, like resistance to a harmful insect pest. Proponents claim they are crucial for addressing smallholder poverty. Opponents, meanwhile, believe they are unsustainable and unaffordable for smallholder farmers.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. It is not true that genetically engineered crops are inherently unsustainable or provide limited benefit. In fact, they have demonstrably reduced crop losses from pests and increased yields. Yet farmer adoption of such crops is limited, partly because of their expense.
To see how this plays out, take genetically engineered maize.
Types of improved maize seed include hybrids and open-pollinated varieties (OPVs), which are both agricultural technologies that have been in use for much longer than genetically engineered seed, but share similar challenges to adoption. Hybrid seeds are the result of breeding two or more plants with different characteristics, and they are more expensive (both to produce and purchase) and higher-yielding than OPV seeds. OPV seeds are the result of breeding similar plants many times, and are less expensive (both to produce and purchase). Studies show that hybrid seeds on average yield 18% or 21%–43% more than the best-performing OPVs. Unlike either hybrids or OPVs, seed for local cultivars (otherwise known as indigenous varieties) is not purchased from a breeder but is saved by farmers from previous seasons and replanted. Local cultivar seed has much more variability in seed quality, as well as higher rates of disease than either hybrids or OPVs.
The potential benefit of a genetically engineered crop like insect-resistant maize is massive. Globally, and specifically in Kenya and Nigeria, maize is one of the major staple food crops. Yet it is plagued by pests. Studies conducted in Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa generally, and South Africa show average maize yield losses—with little to no pesticide protection—to stalk borer pests of 36–48%, 20–40%, and 10–75%, respectively. That’s why maize is a prime target for modification. A Brazil study on the efficacy of a genetically engineered trait for insect resistance (called Bt) in protecting maize from a stalk borer pest showed 95–100% return at all growth stages. If Kenya and Nigeria commercialized Bt maize, as they are in the process of doing, this high level of crop protection could substantially increase maize yields, as shown in Figure 1.
But expectations for the benefits of genetically engineered maize must be tempered by the difficulties of getting these kinds of crops adopted. Compared to massive growth in adoption of genetically engineered crops around the world, pickup in African countries is low, apart from in South Africa and Sudan. Agriculture in South Africa is more industrialized compared to most other African countries, and the country has consistently cultivated genetically engineered crops for over two decades. Adoption of genetically engineered maize, soybean, and cotton in South Africa is over 90%, similar to other high-adoption countries like the US, Brazil, and Argentina. Sudan also grows genetically engineered cotton at over 90% adoption, but cotton is only grown on a small total area in the country. Five other African countries have just recently started growing genetically engineered cotton.
Meanwhile, despite the benefits of improved maize seeds, many farmers do not plant them. Few studies characterizing Africa-wide cultivation of different maize varieties exist in the literature, but one across 13 countries in eastern, southern, and western Africa shows an average of 57% of area cultivated with improved maize varieties (hybrids and OPVs) in 2013; this includes 37% for hybrids and 21% for OPVs, respectively, with the remaining 43% made up of local cultivars. Though the average adoption rate of improved maize varieties in these 13 African countries is low compared to other developing countries outside Africa, there has still been significant growth — from an average of 34% in 1997 to 57% in 2013. In Kenya and Nigeria, the percentage of maize area planted to hybrids in 2013 was 65% and 12%, respectively, with OPVs at 17% and 15%, respectively. Another study conducted in Nigeria estimates a higher 49% for total area cultivated with improved varieties including OPVs. Based on the level of adoption of existing improved seeds — hybrids and OPVs — we would expect higher adoption of genetically engineered maize in Kenya than Nigeria, because more farmers could potentially access these new improved seeds.
So why is adoption so patchy? Improved maize seeds provide the benefit of higher crop yields but at a higher cost. A primary barrier to farmer adoption of improved seeds is lack of wealth and access to resources. Without interventions to improve access, genetically engineered maize will not benefit the average 43% of farmers in eastern, southern, and western Africa that grow local cultivars and do not purchase any improved seed. They are largely subsistence farmers whose only option is to save lower-quality maize seed from year to year.
Among farmers that do plant improved maize, a study in Kenya found that farmers that grow hybrids are wealthier than farmers that grow OPVs, and that a measure of wealth (soil preparation technique, either tractor, oxen, or manual) is one of the two most important determinants of which farmers grow. Along with wealth, the other variable with the largest impact was farmer preferences for characteristics present in different varieties, which is an important factor to consider in genetically engineered variety development.
As studies have shown for adoption of OPV and hybrid seed, cost is likely a barrier to adoption of genetically engineered seeds as well. Desired genetically engineered traits can be bred into either hybrids or OPVs, and breeding them into OPVs can keep costs down and thereby make them accessible to more farmers; however, the tradeoff is that OPVs have lower yields than hybrids. Since lack of wealth is a barrier to adoption of hybrid seed, a genetically-engineered trait in an OPV could be cheaper and more accessible, and potentially better include smallholder farmers in the benefits.
In addition to the cost of seed, other constraints that contribute to low adoption of improved crop technology include weak extension systems, limited access to produce markets, low profit margins for smallholders, a diversity of crops on smallholder farms that limits adoption of new crops, and farmer loyalty to specific varieties. In 2003, recognizing these constraints on agricultural productivity, the African Union made the Maputo declaration, wherein member countries committed to allocate at least 10% of their national budget to the agriculture sector; however, these commitments remain largely unfulfilled, and maize yields in African countries including Kenya and Nigeria remain low as shown in Figure 2.
To increase adoption of improved crops, African countries can learn from the Asian Green Revolution, which provided public support for new technologies, infrastructure, markets, and farmer education. Indian farmers with very few resources were able to rapidly start using improved crop varieties during the Green Revolution in the 1970s, and use of genetically engineered cotton in India has similarly risen to reach over 90% in 2013, 11 years after its introduction in 2002. In order to spur an African Green Revolution, lessons from the Asian Green Revolution must be adapted to African contexts. Inputs of improved seeds, fertilizer, and water must increase dramatically, but implementation must be flexible due to Africa’s relatively low irrigation potential compared to Asia, as well as diverse rainfed farming systems and degraded soils. Funding for agricultural development must also increase. During the Green Revolution, Asian countries spent at least 15% of their total yearly budget on agriculture — in comparison, African countries have spent only 4-6% for decades.
To be sure, the barriers to adoption will vary by crop. For example, the challenge of farmers being able to afford seed is important in the case of engineered maize, but would be less applicable to crops like cassava that do not need to be replanted every season. This difference between maize and cassava is crucial in determining what types of farmers can benefit from a genetically engineered crop – for maize, it is only farmers who can afford to purchase seed yearly, whereas for cassava the barrier is much lower since farmers need to access material less frequently.
Government programs can also be effective in overcoming barriers to farmer adoption of improved seed. In African countries that cultivate cotton, seed is mostly controlled by the governments and is passed on to farmers through ginners (cotton buyers) or other existing systems. For example, in Kenya, the cabinet extraordinarily approved Bt cotton after the statutory biosafety clearance by its National Biosafety Authority, and the Kenyan Government distributed free cotton seeds to farmers. Similar government influence on the cultivation of cotton was seen in the halting of Bt cotton cultivation in Burkina Faso.
Private sector programs can successfully overcome barriers to farmer adoption of improved seed. An example is the One Acre Fund, which provides farmers with improved seed and fertilizer on credit — delivered within walking distance of each farmer — as well as training farmers in modern agricultural techniques and facilitating access to markets.
The potential of genetically engineered crops alone should not be exaggerated, and strategies for adoption should be informed by previous efforts to change farming practices. Simultaneously with commercialization and promotion of improved seeds, programs to expand farmer access to other inputs should continue in order to maximize the impact of genetically engineered crops.