Many African countries are prime candidates for the kinds of hardy crops made possible by genetic engineering, but few have embraced them wholeheartedly. This week, though, seeds were sown as part of Tanzania’s first-ever trial of genetically modified crops, providing a glimmer of hope for the technology’s prospects across the continent.
This year, unusually high temperatures and a stronger-than-usual El Niño have inflicted crippling droughts upon many parts of Africa, leading to severe crop shortages. Now more than ever, crops that can withstand water shortage would be a valuable resource across the continent to ensure that there’s enough to eat. Bill Gates has been vocal about his belief that GM crops could help end hunger in Africa.
But genetic engineering is as controversial in Africa as it is in the West. Early tests of a GM staple called matooke in Uganda were met with intense political lobbying; in 2012, Kenya banned the import of GM crops. South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent to openly adopt GM crops, but it has done so under strict limitations—in fact, it took this year’s droughts for the country to soften some of those rules.
This week, though, one of the more reluctant nations, Tanzania, finally decided to run a GM crop trial. “Until last year, influenced by European NGOs, the country maintained such strict laws against plant genetic engineering that scientists were unable to continue their work,” environmental activist Mark Lynas explained upon the announcement of the news. “That has now changed.”
The trial sets out to demonstrate whether or not a drought-tolerant GM white maize hybrid developed by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project can be grown effectively in the country. The seeds developed by WEMA are royalty-free, which means they’re affordable for farmers who work relatively small plots of land.
If the initial experiments go well, an insect-resistant variety of maize may be tested next year.
Other countries also appear to be rethinking their approach to GM crops. Earlier this year, Zambia announced that it would embrace them, while Kenya is thought to be on the brink of reversing its ban on GM imports. Genetically modified foods may yet help feed Africa.