RELEASE: Limits to Adoption of Genetically Engineered Maize in Africa

GE crops have potential to alleviate poverty among smallholder farmers across Africa by reducing crop losses from pests and increasing yields

Berkeley, Calif. — This week, the Breakthrough Institute published new analysis from 2021 Breakthrough Generation Fellow Isaac Ongu, also Executive Director of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, coauthored by Breakthrough Institute Food & Agriculture Analyst Dr. Emma Kovak, on the slow adoption of genetically engineered (GE) maize by farmers in Africa. Despite the promise of reduced crop losses and increased yields, particularly for smallholder farmers, the analysis found that adoption of such crops remains limited, partly because of their expense.

With millions of dollars invested and touted by development organizations like the Gates Foundation, USAID, and the UK’s DFID, GE crops have been hailed as a solution to smallholder poverty around the world. But opponents have claimed them to be unsustainable and unaffordable.

While partly correct that expense is a major barrier, “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,” the authors write.

Click here to read the full analysis.

Authors are available to answer questions or provide comment.

GE 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.

The authors specifically explored adoption of GE maize for this report.

Ongu and Dr. Kovak write, “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 (below).

“So why is adoption so patchy,” they ask? “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.”

“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,” they explain.

Ongu and Dr. Kovak explore solutions to overcome these challenges, including lessons African countries can learn from the Asian Green Revolution, which provided public support for new technologies, infrastructure, markets, and farmer education, along with government and private sector programs like the One Acre Fund, “which provides farmers with improved seed and fertilizer on credit — delivered within walking distance of each farmer.”

The authors conclude, “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.”

Clickhere to read the whole report.