Transforming agriculture is central to sub-Saharan Africa's development prospects. Three-quarters of people in extreme poverty – existing on less than $1.25 a day – live in rural areas, and crop yields across the region are often a fraction of those in developed countries.
Increasing productivity could help close that gap and increase farm incomes and food availability, in turn reducing hunger and poverty. But the transformation must go beyond raising farm productivity – it must also build resilience to climate change, which, in the absence of significant investment and adaptation, threatens to devastate African crop yields.
Biotechnology offers an important opportunity to improve crops. In particular, genetic modification (GM) enables plant breeders to increase the potential of crops and reduce the timescales involved. It is especially useful in the case of African staples that have narrow gene pools or are slow-growing or difficult to cross.
Governments, donors and philanthropic foundations have invested considerable resources in the development of GM varieties of staples such as sorghum, cassava, matoke and cowpea in an attempt to bolster nutrient content and resistance to pests, disease and drought. These crops are crucial to the food security and livelihoods of millions of sub-Saharan Africans, but are shunned by private-sector researchers, mainly because of the small market opportunity they offer.
This investment has yet to translate to anything more than successful field trials: no GM trait developed for African farmers has been cleared for release by a government. There are many reasons why this is so, but chief among them is the polarised debate about GM crops.
As my fellow authors and I note in a Chatham House report, opponents have waged effective campaigns against GM technology based on misinformation and scaremongering. Consider Uganda, where the banana crop is under attack from pests and diseases, spurring the government to develop genetically modified, resistant varieties. Anti-GM campaigners have linked the technology to obesity, cancer and infertility and used images of deformed cattle to heighten consumer fears about health risks.
Unsurprisingly, public support for GM is low and politicians see only downsides in promoting the technology. Consequently, a proposed biosafety law to regulate and control the release of GM varieties has been suspended, and Uganda's modified bananas remain at the field trial stage.
This is not to say that there are no risks associated with the introduction of GM varieties, or that regulation is not needed. The release of any new variety, GM or otherwise, entails risk that must be assessed and managed accordingly.
But what typically determines whether a GM crop is approved for release in Africa is not a balanced, independent assessment of risks and benefits, but a political judgment shaped by distrust and suspicion of the technology.
Politicians are reluctant to progress biosafety legislation or take decisions towards the release of GM varieties. Even when a functioning biosafety regime exists, regulatory decisions may be unpredictable and subject to political interference.
As a result, GM crops are stuck on a treadmill of continual field trials. Governments are in effect attempting to balance the demands of pro- and anti-GM lobbies: proponents have a pipeline of technologies; opponents are appeased by the failure of any to gain approval.
This balancing act may be politically expedient, but it represents poor value for money for the public bodies and foundations funding research and does nothing for the farmers and consumers who could potentially benefit from GM crops.
• Rob Bailey is acting research director of energy, environment and resources at Chatham House