Africa Wrap-Up

Hello from Dubai! It’s currently Friday afternoon here. I just spent 10 days in Tamale, the capital of the Northern region of Ghana. On Tuesday I traveled to Accra, Ghana, where I spent the night before beginning my travels to Malaysia via Dubai (as someone afraid of flying it was just lovely waking up to news that an Emirates flight had crash-landed in Dubai hours before I was due to board an Emirates flight to Dubai. Of course everything was fine but our landing was a bit delayed because one of the runways was closed). I took yesterday afternoon to go to the beach and relax a bit and am spending today catching up on emails, background research, applications, and of course blogging. Tomorrow I have another long flight to Kuala Lumpur. The heat here is unfathomable: it’s like when you open an oven and it breaths dry burning air into your face, except there isn’t an oven and it’s just the wind breathing dry burning air everywhere. Yesterday the high was 117 F.

I’m going to do this post in two parts, so you can read whichever interests you most (or both!). Part 1 will be a wrap-up of GMOs in Africa and Part 2 will be a wrap-up of the other fun things I’ve done this month. So without further ado…

Part 1: GMOs in Africa

One could write entire books on each country alone (see Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science for an overview of GMOs on the continent), but here I’ll talk about my experiences in Ghana and South Africa.

Currently four African countries have produced GM crops (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan). The technology hasn’t been used commercially in the other 50 African countries because of a host of factors including lack of regulatory framework and public disapproval. However, in the past few years Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Malawi and Cameroon have begun research and field trials for a variety of crops and traits, many of which will likely be commercialized soon. Unlike the projects I visited in Brazil and Argentina that focused on improving output of soy – a large-scale commodity crop – the main goals of many of the African research projects are to improve smallholder income, food security, and resilience of staple crops such as bananas and legumes. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is a body that facilitates the public-private-philanthropic partnerships that allow many of the research activities to be not-for-profit. I would highly recommend browsing their website for more info.

In South Africa I visited with some of the leaders of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. As the name suggests, the goal of this project is to breed maize varieties that are resistant to drought using conventional breeding practices as well as a biotech trait. Eventually the varieties will be distributed to local seed companies to sell to smallholders in South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. Several large philanthropic organizations fund the research, which Monsanto and public research institutes in each country carry out. Because Monsanto donated the traits and research royalty-free, the seeds will sell at the competitive market price for maize in each locality.

During field trials the researchers realized that the drought resistance trait wouldn’t benefit smallholders if they lost all of their crops to insects. Hence, Monsanto also donated the Bt trait, a bacterial gene which makes the maize resistant to insects. This gene is the second most commonly used transgenic trait next to glyphosate resistance (which I discussed extensively while in South America). Bt crops can dramatically reduce insecticide sprayings and crop loss, which always made me feel as if it were somehow better than the glyphosate resistant trait, which requires the use of herbicides. This was why I was surprised at a backhanded comment made by a representative from the South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council: “Monsanto donated the Bt trait, but herbicide resistance would have been better.” Why? Smallholder farmers spend 40% of their time weeding their fields by hand. Sometimes the weeds get so bad that they’re forced to abandon their fields, resulting in 100% crop loss. So for improving quality of life and reducing loss, glyphosate resistance has its benefits. A Monsanto representative responded that they didn’t donate the trait because they couldn’t afford to lose out on royalties, and that it would cause a PR problem with people who were against the glyphosate resistant trait.

Ghana isn’t participating in WEMA, but has its own GM field trial of Bt Cowpea that is also under the AATF. Cowpea is staple food in Ghana and as a legume is high in protein and fiber. It’s also delicious, and I ate it almost every day while I was there. I spoke to smallholder farmers in the North of Ghana, who said that in the past an insect used to devastate their cowpea crop, causing up to 30-80% loss. They recently learned that this insect is called Maruca, and it infects the plants at the flowering stage, eventually making its way into the pod and eating the peas inside. Because Maruca lives inside the pod, once a field has been infected it can’t be treated with a topical insecticide. Instead, the farmers say they spray their field up to twice a week to try to kill the Maruca before it burrows into the pod. This practice reduces loss, but it’s extremely costly and limits farmers’ ability to manage more than a couple of acres of land.

The Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Tamale, Ghana is currently trying to address this issue with biotechnology. With funding from USAID, they bred a local variety of cowpea to contain the Bt trait, which Monsanto donated royalty-free. So far field trials have been successful and they’re expecting to distribute the seeds to farmers and seed companies next year. The scientists at SARI said that the Bt trait will lower insecticide application because it will kill the Maruca from inside the pod so farmers don’t have to continuously spray. Furthermore the Bt cowpea is not a hybrid, so the farmers will be able to save and reuse their seeds as they would for any other variety.


Non-Bt cowpeas affected by Maruca (above) vs. Bt cowpeas


Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Tamale, Ghana


Can you tell which are GMO? (The ones on the left)


Preparing the cowpea and plantain to make Red Red, a delicious Ghanaian dish

When I arrived home after interviews my AirBnB host was cooking with cowpea! Red Red is a delicious Ghanaian tomato and cowpea-based stew served with fried plantains


Red Red, me and Pobby (who was fantastic AirBnB host and chef!)

Finished Red Red, served with fried plantains and eaten with the hands

Finished Red Red. It’s typical to eat all foods – even soup – with the hand in Ghana. This new skill came in handy today when my Indian carry out did not come with a fork.

After hearing so much about herbicide resistant weeds and the regulatory roadblocks faced by small institutions, it was nice to hear stories about GMOs engineered specifically to address food insecurity. Of course the distribution of drought resistant maize and Maruca resistant cowpea can’t solve world hunger alone, even if the varieties are royalty-free. Nevertheless, these projects are one way to give smallholder farmers the option to use a technology if they see the benefits.

Part 2: Fun in Africa

Ah you made it this far? Sorry, I know I got your hopes up but but Part 1 took way too long to write and I need to get some other work done. Luckily I have a 7-hour daytime flight tomorrow. Check back soon!