Amid the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century and the growing voice of global actors, innovations across the agricultural sector gave hope to the idea of ending the international hunger crisis. Of these innovations, genetically modified organisms, commonly known as GMOs, embodied the forefront in groundbreaking technology. A GMO refers to any living organism whose genetic makeup has been artificially manipulated through genetic engineering. GMOs opened a new world of possibilities — genetic engineering now allowed for the existence of genes in organisms that would not occur through traditional crossbreeding methods. From glow-in-the-dark fish to goats that could spin spider webs, genetic modification was touted among the scientific community as limitless in the scope and span of what it could achieve.
In the decades following the inception of genetic engineering, debates over solutions to Africa’s growing hunger crisis increasingly intertwined with that of GMO usage. Amid a now growing 264.2 million people facing undernourishment in Sub-Saharan Africa, genetically modified (GM) crops pose an alluring solution to this challenge. Pest resilience, drought tolerance, increased yield, and longer shelf life were just some of the modifications that GM crops could achieve. Yet despite its seemingly miraculous capabilities, GMOs have been curiously underutilized in Sub-Saharan countries. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, only five of them — Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and Nigeria — allow for GM crops to be commercially grown.
Several nuanced economic and political considerations underlie Africa’s firm stance against GMOs. To further delve into this issue, one must start with the intricate history of capitalism and monopolization within the global agriculture sector. At the same time that genetic engineering continued to advance, agribusinesses utilizing GM technology continued to consolidate. As of 2019, four seed companies control more than 75 percent of plant breeding research, 60 percent of the commercial seed market, and 76 percent of global agrochemical sales. This number is likely to increase in the coming years, with large agribusiness corporations expanding their acquisitions by buying out small firms to accumulate intellectual property rights. Besides causing less variability of crops and higher food prices, this monopolization also engenders less innovation and stricter restrictions over seed usage.
The consequences of this consolidation frequently manifest in current practice. In 2018, agribusiness company Bayer absorbed Monsanto following a $63 billion buyout. The company has since gained control of 98 percent of trait markers for herbicide-resistant soybeans and 79 percent of trait markers for herbicide-resistant corn. Such monopolies over a GM crop pose significant ramifications for biodiversity, food security, and democratic ideals. Monopolies decrease market variability, lending itself to price control autonomy and less innovation. Bayer, for instance, holds patents for ‘genetic use restriction technology’ — genetically modified seeds that are sterile which farmers are unable to resow with. Facing backlash that such technology was unethical, Bayer and similar companies instead began forcing contracts onto farmers stating that they cannot save and replant patented seeds. As a result, farmers must purchase new seeds from the agribusiness each season.
While critics may claim that this is done to protect the intellectual property of the company, full control of the seed creates a dangerous cycle of dependency between buyer and seller, especially in monopolized industries. Besides the publicity large corporations gain when they offer to donate to impoverished countries, these corporations also possess an economic incentive to donate, as the GM seeds donated require additional and expensive inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides that must be bought from these corporations. Other times, the GM seeds themselves may permanently change the soil quality, causing non-GM seeds to not be able to grow in the soil in later seasons. Both these scenarios quickly lend themselves to codependency between farmer and agribusiness, allowing for the seed lenders to increase their prices when no other competition exists in the available market.
Despite this, for those that choose to go down this path, do the potential benefits of famine alleviation outweigh the hefty price tag of using GM crops? South Africa provides a relevant case study. The country is the largest producer of GM crops in Africa and the ninth largest worldwide. South Africa began its usage of GM crops in 1996, starting with genetically modified maize and later progressing to cotton and soybean variants in the following years. The country’s staple crop, maize, now has GM variations making up 80 percent of the maize consumed within the country. While the country’s maize production has increased from 8.3 million tons in 1996 to an estimated 16.3 million tons in 2022, famine and malnutrition have yet to be solved. From 1999 to 2008, those at risk of hunger in South Africa rose from 23 percent to 25 percent, amounting to nearly 15 million people. At the same time, food insecurity in the present day still affects 46 percent of South African households, with 27 percent facing stunted growth and 44 percent being deficient of vital nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Thus, though GM crops have allowed for increased yield, millions of South Africans still face hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition. It is not a food shortage, then, but rather a misallocation of resources and economic instability — partly stemming from GMO usage — that contributes to the ongoing hunger epidemic. While countries like South Africa may produce enough food, the increase in prices from GMO agribusinesses causes many farmers to be unable to afford the seeds and associated inputs. Empirical research also shows that trade liberalization and the increased presence of foreign industries in developing countries, like that of agribusiness, induces increased income inequality, slower decline in poverty, and lower consumption growth. GMOs have demonstrated promise as an intrinsically beneficial technology; however, the rampant monopolization of corporations and corruption within governments unwilling to pass antitrust laws make its use inaccessible for both farmers and consumers alike.
While many reasons exist to explain why farmers are unwilling to use GMOs — such as misinformation, reliance on European trade, and uncertainty about long-term effects — allowing for affordability remains the crucial first step that will help the livelihood of Sub-Saharan Africans. Agricultural companies specializing in genetic modification must be held responsible in adhering to fair market prices, environmental regulations, and health standards. The growing monopolization within the agriculture sector must be halted to ensure that farmers are able to adequately participate in the market for their own economic benefit as well as their communities’. This problem is not just endemic to the agriculture sector. To ensure that citizens continue to afford basic necessities like food, local governments and state institutions must protect their people’s place in the market system unburdened by foreign enterprises. In doing so, GMOs may finally achieve what they were envisioned to do over fifty years ago — ending the ongoing food crisis.
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