Africa and the Monopolization of GM Technology

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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, GMOs—formally known as genetically modified organisms—led the forefront in groundbreaking technology. Referring to any living organisms whose genetic makeup has been artificially manipulated through genetic engineering [1], GMOs opened up a new world of possibilities. Genetic engineering allowed for the existence of genes in organisms that wouldn’t occur through traditional crossbreeding methods. From glow-in-the-dark fish to goats that could spin spider webs [2], genetic modification was touted among the scientific community as limitless in the scope and span of what it could achieve. 

In the following decades of genetic engineering’s inception, of the world’s many problems, debates over solutions to Africa’s growing hunger crisis had been increasingly intermixed with that of GMO usage. Amidst a now growing 264.2 million people facing undernourishment in Sub-Saharan Africa [3], 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 [4]. So, in spite of its seemingly miraculous capabilities, why has GMOs been so underutilized in Sub-Saharan countries both present-day and historically? 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 [5].

The answer to this question is rather nuanced, with several economic and political considerations affecting Africa’s firm stance against GMOs. To further delve into this issue, one must start with the mired 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. In the present day, four seed companies control more than 75% of plant breeding research, 60% of the commercial seed market, and 76% of global agrochemical sales [6]. This number is likely to increase in coming years, with large agribusiness corporations expanding their acquisitions by buying out small firms to accumulate increased intellectual property rights. Besides causing less variability of crops and higher food prices, this monopolization also lends itself to less innovation and stricter restrictions over seed usage [7] [8]

We can see this effect in current practice. In 2018, agribusiness company Bayer absorbed Monsanto following a $63 billion buyout [9]. Since then, the company has gained control of 98% of trait markers for herbicide-resistant soybeans and 79% of trait markers for herbicide-resistant corn [10]. Consequently, the ability to control a monopoly over a GM crop poses significant ramifications for biodiversity, food security, and democratic ideals. Monopolies decrease market variability, lending itself to price control autonomy and less innovation [11]. Bayer, for instance, holds patents for ‘genetic use restriction technology—genetically modified seeds that are sterile which farmers are unable to resow with [12]. Amid backlash that such technology was unethical, Bayer and like companies instead now employ contracts onto farmers stating that they cannot save and replant patented seeds [13]. In turn, this means that 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. Beyond the publicity large corporations gain when they offer to donate to impoverished countries, these corporations are also economically incentivized to do so as well. Sometimes, the GM seeds donated require additional and expensive inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides that must be bought from these corporations [14]. Other times, the GM seeds themselves may permanently change the soil quality [15], 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? Looking at South Africa as a case study, the country itself is the largest producer of GM crops in Africa and the ninth largest worldwide [16]. South Africa began its usage of GM crops in 1996, starting with genetically modified maize and later progressing to cotton and soybean variants in following years [17]. In turn, the country’s staple crop, maize, now has GM variations making up 80% of the maize consumed within the country [18]. While the country’s maize production has increased from 8.3 million tons in 1996 to an estimated 16.3 million tons in 2022 [19], famine and malnutrition still have yet to be solved. From 1999 to 2008, those at risk of hunger rose from 23% to 25% [20]. At the same time, food insecurity in the present day still affects 46% of South African households with 27% facing stunted growth and 44% being deficient of vital nutrients, vitamins, and minerals [21]

So why is it that although GM crops may have allowed for increased yield, millions of South Africans still face hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition? In turn, it is not a food shortage, 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 drive many farmers to be unable to afford the seeds and associated inputs [22]. At the same time, empirical research shows that trade liberalization and the increased presence of foreign industries in developing countries, like that of agribusiness, have caused increased income inequality, slower decline in poverty, and lower consumption growth [23]. GMOs have shown promise through a multitude of beneficial factors, however the gross monopolization of corporations and corruption within governments unwilling to pass antitrust laws make its use inaccessible for both farmers and consumers alike.

So, while there exist many reasons that farmers are unwilling to use GMOs—misinformation, reliance on European trade, uncertainty about long-term effects, etc. [24]—allowing for affordability may be the 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 themselves and their communities. This problem is not just endemic to the agriculture sector. To ensure economic stability so that citizens continue to afford basic necessities like food, local and state governments must ensure that their people continue to have a place in the market system unburdened by foreign enterprises. In doing so, GMOs may finally achieve what it was envisioned to do over fifty years ago—ending the ongoing food crisis.


[1] Diaz, J. M. and Fridovich-Keil, . Judith L. 2021. “genetically modified organism.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Lewis, Tanya. 2015. “Genetically Modified Animal Experiments.” Business Insider. October 17, 2015.

[3] FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2021. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO.

[4] Martignago, Damiano, Andrés Rico-Medina, David Blasco-Escámez, Juan B. Fontanet-Manzaneque, and Ana L. Caño-Delgado. 2020. “Drought Resistance by Engineering Plant Tissue-Specific Responses.” Frontiers.

[5] Eichstadt, Sarah. 2021. “Pros and Cons of GMOs in Africa.” The Borgen Project.

[6] “GMOs & Seeds — Food & Power.” n.d. Food & Power.

[7] Holmes, Thomas J., David K. Levine, and James A. Schmitz. 2012. “Monopoly and the Incentive to Innovate When Adoption Involves Switchover Disruptions.” American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 4, no. 3: 1–33.

[8] Stewart, Taimoon. 2000. “The Functioning of Patent Monopoly Rights in Developing Economies: In Whose Interests?” Social and Economic Studies 49, no. 1: 1–52.

[9] Pharmaceutical Technology Editors. 2018. “Bayer Completes Monsanto Acquisition for $63 Billion.” PharmTech.

[10] Food and Power.

[11] Thomas J. Holmes, David K. Levine, and James A. Schmitz.

[12] Lombardo, Luca. 2014. “Genetic use restriction technologies: a review.” Plant biotechnology journal vol. 12,8: 995-1005. doi:10.1111/pbi.12242.

[13] La Via Campesina. 2015. “Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback.” GRAIN.

[14] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Division on Earth and Life Studies. 2016. Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. N.p.: National Academies Press.

[15] Liu, Na et al. 2010. “Effect on soil chemistry of genetically modified (GM) vs. non-GM maize.” GM crops vol. 1,3: 157-61. doi:10.4161/gmcr.1.3.12810.

[16] “Lessons from Africa’s largest producer of GMO crops – Route To Food.” 2018. Route to Food.

[17] Andersen, Veslemøy, ed. 2020. Genetically Modified and Irradiated Food: Controversial Issues: Facts Versus Perceptions. N.p.: Elsevier Science.

[18] Teagle, Andrea. 2015. “SA’s genetically modified maize: Here’s what you should know about it.” Daily Maverick.

[19] “Crop Explorer – World Agricultural Production (WAP) Briefs – Southern Africa.” n.d. International Production Assessment Division (IPAD) – USDA.

[20] Labadarios, Demetre et al. 2011. “Food security in South Africa: a review of national surveys.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization vol. 89,12: 891-9. doi:10.2471/BLT.11.089243

[21] Ibid.

[22] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (U.S.). Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Division on Earth and Life Studies.

[23] Topalova, Petia. 2010. “Factor Immobility and Regional Impacts of Trade Liberalization: Evidence on Poverty from India.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2, no. 4: 1–41.

[24] Thomson, Jennifer A. 2015. “Why is Africa reluctant to use GMO crops?” The World Economic Forum.