Pocket K No. 30: Contributions of Agricultural Biotechnology in Alleviation of Poverty and Hunger


Reduction of poverty and hunger are key priorities and targets top of global agenda with year 2015 being the benchmark to reverse the trend by 50%. However, a decade after the 1996 World Food Summit, where this target was set, there are more hungry people in the world than there were then. The number is increasing at the rate of four million a year, with Africa having the largest proportion of people living in absolute poverty.

Agriculture remains predominantly traditional and majority of African countries exhibit a high dependency on food aid, which accounts for a quarter of all global food aid shipments. Reversing this trend requires strategic interventions that would dramatically raise agricultural productivity while taking into consideration realities and diversity of Africa’s farming systems.

Stark Reality of Hunger and Poverty Status

  • Poverty causes more sickness, suffering and death than any other problem on earth
  • One fifth of humanity are afflicted by a vicious cycle of poverty
  • Most people worst hit by hunger and poverty are in developing countries
  • Majority of countries perpetually experiencing food emergencies globally are in Africa
  • In 2006, about 3 million people suffered from acute hunger in Kenya.

Which way out?

Agriculture accounts for 70% of fulltime employment, 33% of total GDP and 40% of total export earnings in Africa. Yet, productivity level of most crops fall below global averages.
At the onset, African farmers face a multitude of highly complex and interrelated problems.
No single approach will provide solutions to the declining agricultural productivity trends
Conventional crop improvement ALONE will not cause a dramatic “quantum jump” to bridge the huge food deficit and poverty face of Africa.

A successful strategy should have MULTIPLE APPROACHES that address principal factors in the food, feed, fiber and fuel availability MATRIX. These include: good governance, improved infrastructure, farmer education, improved seed quality and delivery systems, inputs, market access, fair trade and appropriate technologies that integrate proven indigenous knowledge practices with emerging technologies such as modern biotechnology.

The Case for Modern Agricultural Biotechnology

Biotechnology enables diverse applications in agriculture, health, industry and the environment. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that biotechnological tools — tissue culture, genetic engineering and molecular breeding (marker-assisted selection) continue to provide promising opportunities for achieving greater food security while improving the quality of life. Biotechnology however is not a magical bullet. A high quality seed requires good agronomic practices, appropriate inputs and support services for the farmer to reap benefits. The comparative advantage of currently available biotech crops is the built-in defense against insects and tolerance to weed killers making them suitable for the average farmer. The technology is scale neutral and with proper stewardship, even the very small farmers benefit.

Experiences and Evidence from Africa

As of 2014, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Sudan were the African countries with commercialized biotech crops.


Biotech Crop Area (million hectares)

Commercialized Biotech Crops

South Africa


cotton (herbicide tolerant, insect resistant, HT-Bt); maize (herbicide tolerant, insect resistant, HT-Bt); soybean (herbicide tolerant)

Burkina Faso


cotton (insect resistant)



cotton (insect resistant)


Biotech cotton, maize, and soybean occupied 2.7 million hectares of land in South Africa in 2014. The total area planted with maize is estimated at 2.73 million hectares. Soybean planting increased from 520,000 hectares in 2013 to 600,000 in 2014. Total cotton area in 2014 is projected at 9,000 hectares.

Burkina Faso farmers have been reaping the benefits of planting insect resistant cotton for seven years. Out of the 648, 469 hectares of cotton planted in the country, 454,124 hectares (73.8%) were occupied with insect resistant cotton. An increase of 5% was noted in the Bt cotton hectarage from 2013 to 2014.

Sudan has been planting Bt cotton for three years. This amounts to 90,000 hectares of Bt cotton, up from 61,530 hectares (46%) increase from 2013.

About 30,000 farmers planted insect resistant cotton. This was a major breakthrough in the cotton industry of the country because cotton production has been declining in the past couple of years due to bollworm infestation.

Global Status and Trends in Modern Biotechnolgy

Globally, in 2014, biotech crops occupied 181.5 million hectares, grown by 18 million farmers in 28 countries (20 developing ; 8 developed countries). The global area under biotech crops has increased at 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 181.5 million hectares in 2014 (a 100-fold increase). Other global milestones:

  • The net farm economic benefit in developing countries in 2013 was US$20.5 billion.
  • A 19% reduction in environmental impact of insecticides and herbicides has been recorded in 2013.
  • Five European countries – Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia grew commercial biotech crops in 2014.

Health Benefits of Biotech Crops

Besides reduction in pesticide residues, biotech crops have potential to increase the nutritional value of foods and enhance human health in various ways:

  • Lower levels of infestation by insects reduces fungal and mycotoxin in maize.
  • Nutritionally enhanced rice for beta carotene, would provide an alternative source of vitamin A to save millions of children who go blind every year.
  • Biotech processes can reduce presence of toxic compounds - e.g. cyanide in cassava.

Environmental Benefits of Biotech Crops

  • Global cumulative reduction in pesticides usage is estimated at 550 million kg of active ingredients for the period 1996-2013. This has contributed to reduction of pesticide residue in foods and minimized impact on non-target organisms.
  • Increased productivity per unit of land, minimizing encroachment into marginal lands, destruction of forests and pollution of fresh water resources.

Progress of Biotech Crop Research in Africa

Seven African countries are conducting field trials of biotech crops in 2014. These are Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda. These biotech crops, at different stages of testing, include banana, cassava, cotton, cowpea, maize, rice, sorghum, sweet potato, and wheat. Most of the trials aim to combat major challenges in Africa such as drought, nitrogen use efficiency, salt tolerance, nutritional enhancement, and resistance to tropical pests and diseases. For example, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project is conducting trials of nitrogen and water use efficient and salt tolerant rice in Uganda.

BioCassava Project is testing cassava with increased beta carotene (vitamin A precursor), iron, and proteins in Kenya and Nigeria. Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project focuses on trials of sorghum with enhanced vitamin A levels, bio-available zinc and iron in Kenya and Nigeria. The increasing number of field trials indicate that Africa is moving forward to adoption of important food security biotech crops.

Safety of Biotech Crops

With over a decade of production and consumption, biotech food and feed products depict a history of safe use with no credible evidence of risks to human health or the environment. This has been confirmed by a number of reputable independent scientific bodies such as the Research Directorate General of the European Union, the French Academies of Sciences and Medicine and the British Medical Association.

In May 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN reported: “to date, no verifiable untoward toxic or nutritionally deleterious effects resulting from the consumption of foods derived from genetically modified foods have been discovered anywhere in the world”.

Moving into the Future

Responsible and safe deployment of modern biotechnology can significantly enhance prospects for alleviating poverty and hunger in Africa. To realize the technology’s potential however, African governments should create an enabling policy environment and conducive institutional arrangements for investment in R&D and commercialization of these products. Mechanisms to facilitate access to proprietary technologies and to invigorate the public sector towards development of products relevant to local conditions should be strengthened.

One of the major constraints to acceptance  of modern biotechnology in Africa is misinformation. This continues to influence adoption and policy choices. Generation of accurate and science-based information is therefore crucial to informed decision-making, which would lead to greater appreciation of the contributions of biotechnology to food security and wealth creation.


  • Brookes, Graham and Peter Barfoot. 2015. GM Crops: Global Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2013. PG Economics Ltd: UK.
  • James, Clive. 2014 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops:2014. ISAAA Brief No. 49. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY.
  • The Role of Agricultural Biotechnology in Hunger and Poverty Alleviation for Developing Countries 2006, By: Prof. M .O. Makinde, Prof. J. R. Webster, Mr. N. Khumalo & Dr. D .P. Keetch

*September 2015

Next Pocket K: Biotechnology with Salinity for Coping in Problem Soils