Patricia Kameri-Mbote

IELRC Briefing Paper 2002-4

Biotechnology and Food Security in Africa: Some Policy and Institutional Considerations


The issues of food security and poverty in the developing world and especially in sub-Saharan Africa have dominated public debate and are an issue of global concern. Exacerbating these issues is the com­plex subject of population growth. It is estimated that world popula­tion will bit the 8 billion mark in the year 2025; most of the increase is expected in the developing world.

Population growth has direct implications for available land (and this in the light of decrease in arable land worldwide). For Africa, where the rural population is close to 70 percent in most countries and where consequently the main economic and social activity is farming, these facts are an issue of grave concern.

The challenge for developing countries is to ensure that their citi­zenry enjoys food security. In Africa, there are other equally pressing issues that compete with the search for food security, namely diseases such as malaria and HIV-AIDS and political instability.


What Is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a science that deals with the use of microorganisms, plant cells, animal cells, or parts of cells such as enzymes to produce commercial quantities of useful substances. It also deals with the construction of microorganisms, cells, plants or animals with useful traits by recombinant DNA techniques, tissue culture, embryo transfer, and other methods besides traditional genetic breeding techniques.

Biotechnology applies across a number of fields. Agricultural biotechnology is most crucial for African countries and especially for resource-poor farmers whose sole livelihood depends on agriculture. Indeed, worldwide there has been a shift towards greater emphasis on agricultural biotechnology than on pharmaceutical, which dominated the terrain before.


Biotechnology and Food Security

The role of biotechnology in the economic transformation of Africa is the subject of academic and public discourse in the region. The dis­course has placed emphasis on whether the technology has potential to enlarge Africa's food security status. While a wide range of policies is required to address some of the structural rigidities that undermine prospects of achieving the necessary food security status, biotechnol­ogy can enhance agricultural production in the region.

The cluster of techniques that comprise biotechnology can, if effec­tively harnessed and applied, radically transform farming systems by reducing post-harvest loss and increasing crop resistance to drought. For instance, the application of tissue culture in the production of bananas has increased yields for small-scale farmers in parts of Kenya. Pathogen-free banana planting material can reduce crop loss due to pests.

The biotechnology and food security in Africa debate raises several key-issues:

  • How do you transfer biotechnology to African countries and strengthen their technological competence to acquire, assimilate, further develop, and effectively apply the technology for enhanced agricultural production?

  • What policy and institutional arrangements should be put in place to make the technology and its products accessible to rural farmers in the region?


These are complex issues especially considered against the back­ground of the empirically empty rhetoric on biotechnology that is con­ducted at two extremes. On the one hand there are the pessimists who perceive biotechnology as eroding opportunities to address food inse­curity and generating more environmental harm. In this category are environmental lobbies. On the other hand are the optimists who see biotechnology as the panacea for all problems including food insecu­rity. In this category are biotechnology scientists.

The debate on whether biotechnology can solve Africa’s food inse­curity problem is moot in my view. Similarly, I eschew the debate on whether African countries should embrace biotechnology as intellectually because:

  • No technology by and of itself has internal momentum to create food security for any society or region. It is how the technology is applied and moulded by society that determines its usefulness. Indeed, if biotechnology were the panacea for food insecurity problems, we would not be talking about hunger and starvation today in light of the net increases in food production recorded in the world in the last two decades.


There are obviously other problems, such as access to the food (Is it affordable? Can it be moved across regions effectively?), equity (at the international and national levels), and distribution of the food globally and nationally, which impact on food secu­rity. Such issues impinge on food security but are not strictly speaking biotechnology problems.

  • There is no inherent goodness/badness in any one technology. Most technologies have advantages and disadvantages. For instance, the introduction of the motor vehicle and airplane must have been opposed on grounds of the dangers these technologies exposed people to. The same argument may have been used for computers and cell phones.


The concern should be on how to maximize the benefits of the technology while minimizing its risks. Indeed, there is a relation­ship between ignorance and lack of information on any given technology and the level of acceptance of that technology by the ignorant or uninformed person.

  • The biotechnology revolution is with us and is witnessed by the increase in the acreage of genetically modified crops and the pro­liferation of genetically modified products and processes. Biotech­nology has transformed agricultural and economic systems of countries such as the United States, Canada, and some countries in Latin America and Asia.

  • To deal with biotechnology processes and products requires some level of biotechnology competence. Only those countries that understand genetically modified organisms can effectively monitor and regulate their application. In this regard, African countries such as Egypt and South Africa are poised to leapfrog to higher levels of technological competence and performance as they have invested in sound institutional structures for managing biotechnology.


The Status of Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa

It is noteworthy that most African countries have not taken deliberate efforts to understand biotechnology, tap its potential, and use it to address some of their basic agricultural problems. This is so despite evidence that the last two decades have witnessed increased invest­ment in biotechnology research and development (R&D) by a number of African countries. Indeed, national agricultural research institutes, public universities, international institutions, and private companies have engaged in some form of agricultural biotechnology.

There are generally three categories of countries in terms of biotech­nology R&D capacity and potential in Africa:

  • Countries that are generating and commercialising biotechnol­ogy products and processes using third-generation techniques of genetic engineering (Egypt, South Africa, and Zimbabwe)

  • Countries engaged in third-generation biotechnology R&D, but           which have no products or processes yet (Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda)

  • Those engaged in second-generation biotechnology – mainly tissue culture (Tanzania and Uganda)


The actors in agricultural biotechnology R&D in African countries can be distinguished from those in the developed countries where pri­vate corporations such as Monsanto are emerging as the main drivers of biotechnology R&D, and consequently own and control biotech­nology information.

The globalization of the world economy and the emergence of the giant transnational corporations (with economic potential greater than that of a group of developing countries put together) are shaping the development of countries in Africa and elsewhere in the develop­ing world.

The concentration of agricultural biotechnology R&D in a handful of companies has implications for access to the technology and prod­ucts thereof, given the trend toward tighter control of intellectual prop­erty promoted by the World Trade Organization’s agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS). This con­centration and the provisions of TRIPS have resulted in the progres­sive privatization of biotechnology innovations that have resulted from material provided freely by communities of farmers around the wor1d; this is an issue of great concern today.

The main constraints to the capacity of biotechnology to engender food security in Africa are limited capacity – human, financial, and infra­structural; ill-defined or non-defined institutional arrangements for biotechnology R&D; and ambivalence to or indecision on biotechnology.


Policy Challenges for Africa

  1. To establish clear priorities in investment in biotechnology. Countries should identify specific areas or technology trajecto­ries in which to invest to meet specified goals and to utilize the available skills and resources optimally.

  2. To ensure availability of finances for biotechnology R&D. Cur­rent investment in this area is not sufficient. This could be done by forging strategic alliances with the private sector, ensuring that the public good of availing food to all is not compromised by profit motivation.

  3. To consider the role of intellectual property rights and their impact on the acquisition, development, and diffusion of biotechnology.


Concluding Remarks

Biotechnology is with us and is poised to influence agricultural systems in the world tremendously. It has, like all other technologies, advan­tages and disadvantages.

We should net throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we should ensure that we have the requisite capacities (human, infrastructure, legal, policy, and institutional) to tap the benefits of biotechnology and minimize the risks in terms of environmental harm and human health risks and check the trend toward concentration of ownership in a hand­ful of multinationals through monopoly intellectual property rights.