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 her 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 (1.1 billion people) are afflicted by a vicious cycle of poverty
  • About 852 million people worst hit by hunger and poverty are in developing countries
  • Out of 38 countries perpetually experiencing food emergencies globally, 25 are in Africa
  • In 2006, about 3 million people suffered from acute hunger in Kenya.


Global Status and Trends in Modern Biotechnology

Globally, in 2006, biotech crops occupied 102 million hectares, grown by 10.3 million farmers in 22 countries (11 developed; 11 developing countries). The global area under biotech crops has increased at unprecedented rate from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 90.0 million hectares in 2005 (a 50-fold increase). At this pace, the contribution of biotech crops to the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by 50% by 2015 is significant.

Other global milestones:
• The global net economic benefit to biotech crop farmers in developing countries in 2005 was US$13 billion.
• A 14% reduction in environmental footprints has been recorded.
• Six European countries – Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic and Slovakia grew commercial biotech crops in 2006

Experiences and Evidence from South Africa

South Africa is the only African country with commercial biotech crops, grown since 1997. Total
hectarage increased drastically from 197,000 ha in 2001 to 1.4 million ha in 2006. To date, the country has commercialized Bt cotton, Bt maize (both yellow and white) and soybean, enhancing farm incomes by an estimated US$ 76 million for the period 1998-2005.

As of 2003, there were:

  • 106 research organizations and companies participating in biotech activities.
  • 622 research groups involved in biotechnology-related activities.
  • At least 154 biotechnology products and/or services
  • Over 20 million pine and eucalyptus trees produced annually through tissue culture (tc) and some 12 million tc banana plants.

Which way out?

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of fulltime employment, 33 per cent 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, fibre 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.

Selected tools used to improve agricultural productivity:  Biotechnology is one among several tools available to complement but NOT to replace conventional agriculture

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 inbuilt 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.

Status of Bt Cotton in South Africa

Early adopters of Bt cotton were small-scale farmers in Makhatini Flats in the Eastern Cape who have been growing the crop since 1999 with the following milestones:

  • Adoption rate increased from 7% in 1997/1998 to 90% in 2001/2002.
  • Almost 80% of cotton seed planted is genetically modified.
  • The number of pesticide sprayings has reduced from 10 to 4 per season.
  • Women and children have more time for family welfare and education respectively
  • Lower production costs provide farmers with higher gross margins - US$ 70-130 per 2 ha of cotton.

Status of Bt Maize in South Africa

Bt maize, grown since 2001, occupies the largest  acreage out of the three commercial biotech crops with the following milestones:

  • Bt maize occupied 166,000 ha in 2001 rising to 1.2 million ha in 2006, (87% of all biotech crops).
  • White Bt maize for food is well accepted and occupied 704,000 ha in 2006 equivalent to 44% of the total white maize area.
  • Farmers planting Bt maize on average earn US$ 43 more per/ha from Bt varieties than from non-Bt varieties.

GM Crops in the Pipeline

One of the most important developments in GM crops in the near future will be drought-tolerance. Drought is among the biggest production constraint facing Africa. Other major challenges in the fight against hunger and poverty include climate change and biofuels production. Exploiting biotechnological opportunities to address these challenges call for greater cooperation among all players from both the public and private sectors.

Possible Biotech Products for Future Use in Africa

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”.

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 betacarotene, 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

  • Cumulative reduction in pesticides usage – estimated 224,300 MT of active ingredients for the period 1996-2005. 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.


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

Main Reference

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

Production of this Pocket K is a collaborative initiative among the National Council for Science and Technology (NSCT), Ministry of Agriculture, Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS -IFPRI) and ISAAA Africenter

*October 2009

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