04/07/2014 10:58 am ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Are Genetically Modified Crops Good for Sub-Saharan Africa? An Overview

USA RIVER, TANZANIA -- Sebastian Mushi, or "Seba," as he is known around here, owns an agricultural business in Usa River, Tanzania. In his bare-bones shopfront he stocks chemical fertilizers, pesticide sprays, and an assortment of maize and rice seeds. Perched comfortably on a bag of maize is Seba's friend and rice farmer, Ramadan. While he waits for his phone to charge, Rama recounts how he took Seba's advice to use a combination of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides for his rice paddies and watched his farm's productivity bloom this season. Pleased with the profitable results, Rama has shared his success story with many other farmers who have since followed suit.

But for most other farmers in Tanzania, there is no such happy ending. One in two Tanzanians still lives on less than $2 a day, and most of the poorest are rural food producers themselves. According to the IFPRI's Global Hunger Index, while South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have all made significant gains in reducing hunger in the past twenty years, sub-Saharan Africa has been left behind. In ten African countries, the GHI index even worsened between 1990 and 2008.

Experts have pointed to consistently low agricultural productivity in the region as the culprit of chronic poverty and undernutrition. While irrigation, conventionally-bred hybrid crops, and other farming interventions can contribute moderately to increasing productivity, both agriculturalists in developed countries and farmers on the ground are demanding genetically modified (GM) crops. Consider drought resistance, long considered the "holy grail" of crop science. While crops like sorghum and millet perform better than maize in dry spells, they take longer to mature and produce lower yields. On the other hand, it is difficult to breed drought resistance into maize using conventional methods, due to insufficient genetic variation for successful sexual reproduction, time delays between breeding generations, and the loss of other important traits. GM allows specific genes to be targeted and substituted for those that occur in other organisms like bacteria, so that special traits like herbicide resistance or water efficiency can be added with greater control, reliability, and speed.

Yet, despite their promise, GM crops are banned in Tanzania. Since the 1990s, there has been sharp debate over GM crops, especially in the European Union. Although there is no scientific consensus that GM crop cultivation is any more ecologically destructive than conventional farming, nor that it has deleterious effects on human health, many sub-Saharan countries have continued to heed the warnings of European NGOs.

On the ground, though, it's a different story -- you would be hard-pressed to find a farmer here in Usa River who, offered affordable access to agricultural biotechnology, would refuse it. Savvy agriculturalists like Seba or Rama are not what come to mind when many think of "rural African farmers," yet many sub-Saharan African farmers do recognize the benefits of modern agricultural technology and the increases in productivity they bring.

But just how much do sub-Saharan African countries actually have to gain by adopting GM technology? A recent study by Kym Anderson of the University of Adelaide sought to put a number on the "potential benefits" touted by development experts. Using the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) world economy model, Anderson was able to simulate several scenarios involving sub-Saharan African countries' adoption of several GM crops and predict increases in overall welfare in each case. The model itself is complex, incorporating the activities of multiple countries and goods, but the concept is simple: If all else remains equal, how much more money can we expect sub-Saharan Africans to make if they just switched to GM? Anderson drew from peer-reviewed literature to make assumptions about farm productivity increase and the percentage of area that would be converted to GM varieties, making sure to err on the conservative side.

Anderson found that, if restrictions on GM were lifted in all countries, including sub-Saharan Africa, the region might gain an additional $60 million in the equivalent of income. What's more, if we then plug in 2nd generation rice and wheat -- which is not only more productive and disease-tolerant, but also nutritionally fortified -- the effects on labor productivity and income are striking. Supported by data from other sources, Anderson claims that healthier, more productive unskilled laborers would be able to bring in upwards of an additional $3.6 billion in all of sub-Saharan Africa (40 USD for every person), not to mention significant improvements in public health which are not captured in income.

The economic benefits, as compelling as they are, of course don't show the entire picture. There are legal complications to introducing patented biotechnology, for example, and the regulation infrastructure in sub-Saharan African countries is less developed than the U.S.'s. However, the growing evidence of the potential to alleviate mass hunger and drive development compels the international community, especially developed-nation consumers, to stop fighting all GM presence in Africa and instead work with sub-Saharan leaders to develop a more robust system of managing and distributing biotechnology.

In Usa River, for sure, farmers like Seba and Rama are echoing the same message -- asking for access to the same technology that helped so many other countries increase production and feed people.