To the Editor:

Despite the technical knowledge available for improving food security in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), only three African countries (South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso) have commercialized biotech crops to date1. An important step toward improving agbiotech development and genetically modified (GM) crop adoption is to understand the factors that affect the transition of new agbiotech products from the product development stage, through commercialization to the hands of farmers and ultimate consumption by the population. As part of a broader study on a social audit preparation for the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project, we conducted 91 interviews with agbiotech stakeholders from a diverse range of groups within five SSA countries (Supplementary Methods). Analysis of the recordings of these interviews revealed four recurring factors that appear to influence agbiotech development in SSA: communication, culture and religion, capacity building and commercialization (Fig. 1). We expand in more detail on these factors below.

Figure 1
figure 1

Factors in the adoption and development of agbiotech in sub-Saharan Africa.

The first issue mentioned in the interviews is that poor communication is affecting agbiotech adoption. The majority of stakeholders interviewed identified a limited understanding of GM crops by the public as a major challenge to improving public perception of the technology for successful development and adoption of agbiotech in SSA. Indeed, one stakeholder stated, “My understanding is that a number of people, including politicians and some decision makers, do not know really what GM is.” Elitism in reporting and ineffective and inaccurate communication by the media and other stakeholder groups were described as barriers to appropriate information sharing and informed public perception.

Stakeholders from the media and research institutions found information sharing with grassroots communities to be elitist. One study participant from the media suggested that the modes of communication used may be “a little bit above the common man.” A need for “barefoot extension officers” was suggested by one government official as was the usefulness of grassroots approaches, to ensure the lay person is well informed about the multiple facets of agbiotech products and issues surrounding GM technology.

Similarly, it was mentioned by a research officer that the producers of knowledge around the technology, the scientists, may not be communicating information effectively: “...probably scientists will not be good communicators when it comes to talking or playing with farmer's psychology.”

The impact of negative perceptions shared about agbiotech among stakeholders was discussed mainly by government regulatory and biotech awareness organizations, who considered anti-GM crops lobbyists and some nongovernment organizations (NGOs) as major challengers to the acceptance of agbiotech in SSA. Environmentalists and stakeholders from anti-GM crops groups confirmed this, expressing their concerns that the introduction of agbiotech will threaten the survival of indigenous crops and affect biodiversity. Other stakeholders drew attention to the fact that anti-GM crops groups have the capacity for widespread dissemination of information at the grassroots level and can spread misinformation and create extensive public concern and distrust for agbiotech initiatives.

Another unifying concern among interviewees was the issue of capacity building. Agbiotech stakeholders, particularly from regulatory institutions in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania, identified inadequate training and expertise as a major constraint to the development of agbiotech in SSA. They called for an increase in the number of individuals with degrees at the graduate and post-graduate levels, and with trained expertise in biotechnological applications.

Stakeholders, particularly from regulatory institutions, farmer organizations, media and NGOs commented that the lack of a sufficient biosafety framework could hamper the development and adoption of agbiotech in many SSA countries. Several African countries have not developed biosafety regulations to govern agbiotech. For example, Uganda and Mozambique do not have appropriate laws to govern the commercialization of GM crops.

Study participants from research institutes and seed industries discussed the importance of developing agbiotech products locally to ensure adoption by the population. One participant stated, “A big problem I have with Americans [and] Europeans in terms of all those innovations, [it] happens up there and then they bring the final product here.” From this viewpoint, each new GM variety that is introduced is often perceived as “a project that is being imposed on them.” In contrast, a product developed within the country is considered “...more acceptable because it is being introduced by the local people.” Several participants saw the introduction of foreign biotechnologies as a means of control over the local people, whereby agbiotech was considered to be “... some effort by the Western world to come and take advantage of poor Africans.”

Stakeholders from seed companies, NGOs and agricultural research institutes commented on stakeholders' distrust of the private sector, particularly multinational companies, as a factor in resistance to agbiotech adoption. They spoke of concerns about the threat to food sovereignty and independence. One stakeholder asked, “How does that [agbiotech] affect their [the country's] right to food, their rights to food sovereignty, and will it be a war of farmers vis-à-vis multinationals?” On the other hand, stakeholders acknowledged the value that private companies and donors bring to bear in areas, such as agbiotech, in terms of technological expertise and experience.

A third common theme is the importance of cultural and religious issues. Several stakeholders, mainly from farmers' organizations, identified the roles of women and men in agriculture as important factors for the development of agbiotech. Although the substantial contribution of women to agriculture in SSA is seldom acknowledged and men are often at the forefront of decision making, women were repeatedly referred to by stakeholders interviewed as the primary agriculturalists, whereas men are associated with secondary work of buying and selling agricultural products. One stakeholder stated, “There is also the issue of most farmers being women, and yet women being limited in decision making. So that limits the technology uptake...The men are the ones who decide whether you should open a new piece of land or whether you should take up new things into the family.” Stakeholders indicated that for agbiotech to be successful, changes must be made to the current system to involve women in leading the decision-making process concerning agbiotech and ensure that GM products reach women farmers and consumers.

We also learned from the interviewees that current GM products may not fit into existing traditional agricultural practices. There is public perception of current GM crops “...changing their [people's] practices and changing their culture....” Concerns exist about modern agbiotech practices and business models adversely affecting traditional seed systems, including seed selection and breeding, seed sharing and storage, leading to a loss of indigenous varieties. Participants, mainly from farmers' associations and NGOs, were particularly emphatic about this concern. One stakeholder stated, “Some people believe this [GM crop] is going to overshadow traditional crops, or probably kill them and render them extinct.” Another stakeholder drew attention to the fear that exists about the irreversibility of using these technologies: “So we may be able to say that by helping the person you may actually be harming perhaps their traditional farming methods that have kept them alive. Now you change it and lose their knowledge and certainly they can't go back to where they were.” Nonetheless, some stakeholders hoped that new agbiotech approaches will be adaptable to traditional seed systems and provide safeguards to traditional seeds that have been cultivated over the years.

The interviews also revealed that the conformity of GM crops to culturally established norms is important for the adoption of agbiotech in SSA. As one participant stated, “I think the final product has somehow to relate to the local use and the way that it is consumed or in the way that it is marketed.” Stakeholders from organizations that work closely with small-scale farmers, such as extension staff, NGOs and farmers' associations, expressed views that failure to produce culturally appropriate products, in terms of appearance, taste, texture, processing qualities and storability may ultimately result in low uptake of the technology.

Participants described perceptions of many Africans regarding agbiotech as unnatural and interfering with nature. In terms of the strong adherence of people in many parts of SSA to their religion, participants commented that modern agbiotech and genetic engineering may be regarded by some people as taking on the role of God. One participant from a seed trade association said, “People get worried and say if you are interfering with what God made, then you are interfering with my inner feelings already.”

A last unifying aspect of interviewee feedback related to issues surrounding commercialization of GM crops. Farmers and stakeholders from farmers' associations, seed companies, government regulatory organizations and agricultural extension services identified the need to see some sort of benefit (either in yield, health outcomes or other tangible advantages) as a key factor in adoption. In addition, one stakeholder identified perceived quality of the GM products as having greater importance than affordability as a deciding factor for adoption: “If the [agricultural] technology is more efficient, it will be adopted. Farmers are not much sentimental.”

One other aspect of considerable concern was difficulties associated with maintaining exclusivity between GM and non-GM crop plots, and the potential for admixture, outcrossing and a loss of local seed varieties. A labeling system to distinguish agbiotech products in a market setting was suggested by some stakeholders from academia and the seed industry to protect against product counterfeiting and ensure compliance with biosafety regulations.

In summary, interviews of 91 agbiotech stakeholders in five SSA countries have identified four prominent factors that influence the development and adoption of agbiotech products and technology in the region. The two most prominent of these factors are communication, and culture and religion2. The factors that arise within these themes may play more critical roles in agbiotech development and uptake in SSA than was previously thought. According to the stakeholders interviewed, the requirements of accurate, effective information sharing about agbiotech from reliable sources, for successful development and adoption, have not been upheld in SSA. Stakeholders explained that there is a great deal of controversy about the opportunities and risks posed by agbiotech, owing to a lack of, or insufficient access to, reliable information.

The use of agbiotech products and technologies that attempt to change traditional agricultural practices and food production norms in SSA may face great resistance. On the other hand, products that can complement local food production and consumption practices and involve primary agriculturalists, especially women, in decision making around the technologies, are likely to be more effective. Women are responsible for up to 70% of food production in Africa3, a percentage that is likely much higher in rural areas. The establishment of biosafety regulations and the provision of high-quality products with tangible benefits are also likely to facilitate the adoption of agbiotech in the region.

Another facet is the negative perception and public distrust in SSA of foreign, private sector involvement in agbiotech, which poses a substantial challenge to the development and adoption of these technologies and products. The concerns expressed by stakeholders relate to the fact that the proprietary global seed market is controlled by only a few multinational seed companies, mostly in the North, whose business and innovation agendas are not necessarily in line with the food security concerns of SSA nations4. Stakeholders indicated that improved local participation of farmers and the public in development and provision of agbiotech approaches would likely be an effective way to improve transparency and accountability and build trust in agbiotech projects.