GM Crops in Africa: Who Stands To Benefit?

Cradle to Grave Care

Genetically modified food has been widely publicised as one of the ways to ensure food security. PIcture courtesy of

In Brief

  • As the world rallies against climate change, a multimillion-dollar quest to develop drought and insect resistant crop varieties in Africa has gained track
  • South African activist organisation, African Centre for Biodiversity has accused WEMA – a climate change project focused on developing hybrid and genetically modified maize seeds for smallholder farmers – of ‘green washing’ farmers to benefit a few big seed and agro-chemical companies
  • The organisation wants the Gates Foundation and other projects donors such as USAID and DfID to shift their funding from ‘catastrophic green revolution interventions to genuine solutions’


A recent report co-authored by Oxford University academics put the agriculture sector at the top of a list of jobs that are threatened by computerisation and robots. The report titled Creativity versus Robots said the growing of cereals and fibre crops, raising dairy cattle, sheep and goats, mixed farming and marine fishing are among the least creative occupations, and are therefore prime candidates for automation.

Agriculture employs about 65% of the population in Africa and accounts for 32% of the continent’s overall GDP. There is no need for the sector’s stakeholders to panic yet, as this study focused on industrialised countries. However, going by the number of African governments seeking and adopting technology, the robots might not remain in the distant future for too long. 

What is really alarming now is the rate at which big seed, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are becoming vertically integrated both upstream and downstream of farmers, and the credibility of various initiatives designed to adapt and mitigate climate change.

Climate change has affected agriculture production and particularly the cultivation of maize. Maize, the most popular staple crop in Africa, is extremely vulnerable to environmental factors such as drought and irregular rainfall. The existing projects aimed at developing drought- and insect-tolerant maize (hybrid and genetically modified) have seen varying degrees of success. One visible regional programme, perhaps due to the heavyweight backers, is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

WEMA was launched in 2008, with a US$47 million pledge by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G Buffet Foundation. Seed and chemical maker Monsanto partnered in the initiative, offering its technology and technological support to implement the project. Other partners include the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the national agriculture research institutions in each WEMA countries, namely, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique and Uganda. The Gates Foundation has so far given some US$85 million to WEMA.

WEMA aims to increase food security in sub-Saharan Africa through the development of ‘drought-tolerant maize using convectional breeding, marker-assisted breeding and biotechnology’ and to make it available to small-scale farmers ‘royalty free’, meaning it is available at a reduced price to some but not all farmers. 

The project has made some breakthroughs in the recent past, although this has mainly been for its non-GM hybrid seed varieties. Last year WEMA harvested the first non-GM crops and the first varieties are expected to be in the market in the next two years. GM drought tolerant and insect resistant varieties are expected to follow suit. The technology could yield an extra two million tons of food that could feed up to 21 million people, according to Monsanto.

Critics of Monsanto say its participation in WEMA has provided an opportunity for the company to influence biosafety legislation in participating countries and clear the path for other commercially viable GM products.

Unimpressed by WEMA’s purported successes is the South Africa-based African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), an activist organisation. ACB recently published a report labelling WEMA as ‘nothing more than corporate green washing designed to ensnare smallholder farmers into adopting hybrid and genetically modified maize in order to benefit seed and agro-chemical companies.’ 

The organisation wants the Gates Foundation and other donors involved such as USAID, DfID, SIDA and DANIDA to shift their funding from ‘catastrophic green revolution interventions’.

"The fact that WEMA project is being touted as a Climate Smart Agriculture case study is a shocking indication of how much ground has been lost to multinational agribusiness in the climate policy space in Africa and internationally," says Mariam Mayet, director of ACB.

The report titled Profiting from the Climate Crisis; Undermining Resilience: Gates and Monsanto's Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project claims WEMA, under the guise of philanthropy and fighting climate change, is facilitating a take over of ownership of maize breeding, seed production and marketing to the private sector.

The discourse on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has always been emotive, with proponents saying science trumps and that this is the best way to feed the burgeoning population. The opponents are adamant GM crops make consumers sick and don’t even live up to promises of increased yields. Caught in the middle is the public who really don’t know who to believe.

The fact that companies like Monsanto are able to patent seeds like software companies patent software is of grave concern in many quarters. Farmers are encouraged to abandon their traditional seed diversity and adopt GM-monocultures, locking them in long-term and dependent relationship with seed companies and other downstream players.

Policy advisor on climate and agriculture at Bread for the World, Eike Zaumseil, says WEMA justifies fears of civil society that Climate Smart Agriculture provides a dangerous platform for corporations to implement industrial agriculture.

“There is overwhelming evidence that industrial agriculture is destructive to people, biodiversity, seed, water, soils, and the climate,” he says. 

The report also argues that Monsanto's GM drought tolerant maize is likely to spell disaster for smallholder farmers as it will not perform predictably under conditions of environmental stress - exactly the kind of conditions it is meant to thrive in.

"The inclusion of Monsanto's insect resistant GM maize MON810 into the WEMA project is astounding given that this variety has already dismally failed both commercial and smallholder farmers in South Africa," says Gareth Jones, the author of the report.

WEMA's partners have made their best maize germplasm lines available to the project, with Monsanto ‘donating' the drought-tolerant gene while retaining complicated intellectual property rights on it. Much of the germplasm from CIMMYT is the result of another Gates funded initiative, the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project. WEMA's implementing partner is the industry-backed African Agricultural Technology Agency (AATF). 

“The WEMA model will reach only a select subsidised layer of small-scale farmers. Further, the costs and technical requirements of both GM and hybrid seed production, currently beyond the reach of small African seed companies, will inevitably lead to industry concentration, enabling multinational agrochemical/quasi seed companies to dominate," says Mayet.

Consolidation and vertical integration in the global seed industry is not novel and continues unabated, according to Professor Bruce Blumberg of University of California.

This month Monsanto made an offer to buy Swiss crop chemical company Syngenta for $45billion. A combination of the two companies would create the biggest provider of seeds and crop chemicals, challenging industry players such as Bayer, BASF, Dow Chemical and DuPont. 

Says Professor Blumberg; “If you look at the graph (below) there is a vertical integration in the industry that is quite disturbing;

  • Nearly all seed companies were, or are being purchased by pesticide and biotech companies.
  • Pesticide and biotech companies are either owned by, or divested from pharmaceutical companies. The seed companies sell crops that are resistant to parent company’s pesticides and herbicides.
  • This leads to increased agrochemical use. Increased use of agrochemicals probably leads to adverse health consequences. Pharmaceutical parent company’s drugs are used to treat these adverse health consequences

“I call it ‘cradle to grave’ care,” says Professor Blumberg.