Anti-GMO sentiment holds back agricultural advancement in the developing world, but an Iowa State University agronomist hopes his research will clarify the scientific consensus and spark wider acceptance of the technology in Africa.
A paper recently published in the academic journal Global Food Security analyzed dozens of previous scientific studies on the safety of Bt corn, a genetically modified (GM) crop capable of resisting pests.
The study upheld the conclusion that the GM crop is safe for humans and the environment. Walter Suza, an adjunct assistant professor of agronomy at ISU and a co-author of the study, says Bt corn could help farmers in Africa to combat an emerging pest capable of devastating their crops, but fear of GM crops in Africa has slowed adoption of the technology.
Need for tech in Africa
“My hope is policymakers in Africa will take hold of this paper and implement this technology that’s been tested for many years,” Suza says. “There’s a real need for Bt corn to be grown and used in Africa.”
Bt corn is a transgenic organism altered by transferring a gene found in soil bacteria to corn plants to help the crop fight off insect pests, such as European corn borer. Farmers in the U.S. first received permission to plant Bt corn in 1996, and it accounted for 82% of U.S. corn acreage in 2018, according to USDA.
Suza grew up in Tanzania and has worked on food security projects in Zimbabwea and Angola. Misunderstanding of GM technology, both globally and in Africa, has held back progress for many African farmers. He says 13 African countries are testing GM crops, but only South Africa has approved Bt corn for commercial availability to farmers.
Fall armyworm emerging pest
This is a problem because an emerging pest called the fall armyworm is spreading rapidly through Africa and threatening corn harvests. He says Bt corn could help fight the pest immediately, while developing resistance through traditional plant breeding will take years.
Suza worked with a research team to review the scientific literature concerning the safety of Bt corn. The review included a risk assessment that found delaying the adoption of genetically modified crops, such as Bt corn, in the developing world presents risks to both humans and the environment. The study cites 58 references on topics including the application of genetic engineering in agriculture, the food and environmental safety of Bt crops, and the importance of educational outreach regarding biotechnology.
The publication fits with Suza’s ongoing work as the director of the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa program, which develops online learning materials intended for use by faculty and students at African universities to train a new generation of plant breeders.
Training next generation of breeders
The program collaborates with Makerere University in Uganda, University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, but the curriculum modules are free and available to anyone who wishes to see them. The modules cover critical topics, such as molecular plant breeding and crop genetics, with an emphasis on conditions specific to Africa.
“I believe all humans at all times have the right to sufficient and nutritious food, but lack of human and institutional capacity for agriculture in Africa is a key barrier to food security,” Suza says. “I’m helping to improve food security in Africa by leading a project to train the next generation of scientists to develop farmer-preferred crop varieties that are nutritious and adapted to changing climate.”
The prosperity of African agriculture and food security depends on African farmers and scientists working together, as opposed to external actors and considerations dictating the direction of African agriculture. “To me, this is the future, Africans identifying and developing their own technology to address their situations,” he says.