Demanding Equality: Women Farmers in Africa

Editor’s Note: These days, it feels like a challenge to find stories of unity and empowerment. So we feel very honored and proud to present our readers with these uplifting stories of three African women farmers who not only challenge the status quo, but have dramatically improved the well-being of their families, their countries…and beyond.

In sub-Saharan Africa, smallholder farmers make up 80% of all farms, with women comprising at least half of the work force. However, a pervasive gender imbalance exists here, with men dominating the industry and given opportunities and resources their female counterparts can only dream of. Motivated by the stories of their mothers and their own experiences in rural Africa, these three inspiring women, Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, have created a better life for themselves, their families, and all women farmers through their educational and empowerment efforts.

From Ghana to Zimbabwe to Zambia, here are the stories of our farmers.

These are the stories of Ruramiso Mashumba, Slyvia Tetteh, and Sussana Phiri, exemplary women who have changed the face of farming in Africa. Together, they unify their voices through their Facebook page, Women Who Farm Africa, which shares resources, experiences, and information to empower women around the world. They take pride in Africa’s culture of leaving no one behind by educating women on preventing food insecurity and encouraging their role in strengthening the local and global economies.

These women believe that “closing the access gap between men and women farmers would increase agricultural productivity by 2.5 – 4% in developing countries – thus reducing hungry people by 150 million. The result is a thriving community, country, and world.

Ruramiso Mashumba, CEO & Founder, Mnandi Africa

I was born in the capital city of Zimbabwe, Harare. My mother worked in the rural areas. I remember when we were younger, she used to sit us down and tell us about the women she worked with in agriculture. Many of times they couldn’t afford to send their children to school if there was a drought in the country. The women worked tirelessly day in and day out to earn just a few dollars.

From that age, I made up my mind that I, too, want to work in supporting women in rural communities.

When I was 14 years old, my dad bought a farm and I was moved to a school next to the farm that had a focus on agriculture. This is where I learned about commercial agriculture and the power it had to transform the rural economy by transforming lives of farmers. I decided to further my studies at school and receive a diploma. My experience wasn’t easy. The school was not ready for women. They didn’t have a uniform for us. I had to wear khaki shorts, shirt and long knee-length socks as there was no uniform for girls.

For two years, I studied agriculture at my school. Throughout the entire time, I was bullied. They called me a boy because of my uniform. I remember the boys would pull my chair and laugh at me every day.

Despite how difficult it was, I was determined to make sure I didn’t give up. I felt I must persevere because I was an example for little girls in my school who were younger than me. I wanted to show them you can achieve anything, even when the odds are against you, if you put your mind to it. So I made sure I studied hard.

After two years, I graduated third in my class out of fifty students. I’m happy to report the two people above me were also girls.

We stuck together and yes, we did persevere.

I then went on to further my education in the UK. I remember my first day on a British farm. These farmers were so cool! They had tractors, combine harvesters – worlds apart from the women my mother described in her story who farmed with manual tools and torn clothes.

After I graduated, I decided to return to Zimbabwe. My goal was to change the face of my country’s agriculture. I was encouraged and motivated. I wrote a business plan.

I remember the day I finally got an appointment to see my bank manager. He was dressed smartly in a pin striped suit and looked very important.

I sat down anxiously and presented my proposal. After what felt like a lifetime, he inhaled and said, “Young lady how old are you?” I replied 25 years old. He said, “Hmm…do you have collateral?” I replied, “No, just my University degree.”

He replied, “Soon you will be married and what will that mean for our money? Hmmm, unfortunately, we are unable to assist you.” I went home in tears.

I sat down with my parents crying. My mother got up, got a box, and took out her savings she had put aside to buy a car and said, “My girl, you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. Now, go and conquer the world.”

That year, I planted 1 hectare of cabbages, oilseed vegetables, and king onions. I used the knowledge I had learned at university that farming is a business and within one month, I was already selling, and my product was very successful.

The reason for my success was because of the education I gained not only in practical farming, but also business management, which included modules like how to secure markets.

As a result of my high-quality products, the next year I got my first big break. My company was contracted by a local producer to grow snap peas for them to export into the EU and became their first woman grower, as well as their first grower younger than 30 years old.

The company had seen proof from the quality of my current crop that I was competent to produce high-quality product for them to export.

I have since shared my story and inspired other young ladies in rural areas, as well as in the urban areas. I tell them that agriculture is male-dominated, but women farmers can and should stand shoulder to shoulder with men.

Together, we can do more. Together, we can change the image of the continent and we can feed the world.

Today, I am the first woman chairperson of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union youth. I have represented women in ag across the world by sharing not only my story, but also the stories of the many women food producers who need access to education in agriculture, technology, and finance.

A lot of people see me today winning awards, traveling the world, farming with tractors, working with planter and center pivots, and think I have arrived.

In many ways I have, but honestly, as a farmer I am still faced daily with army worm, increases in pests and diseases, and climate change. I understand personally how hard things are and have the education to know that there are solutions. That’s why as a farmer, I have become an advocate for women in science.

Together, men and women can feed our growing population. Science is not moving fast enough for us as farmers. We need seeds that can adapt to today’s challenges and my involvement with Cornell’s Alliance For Science is motivated by my strong belief that science needs to hurry up.

The technology is there. I conclude by this popular African saying, “alone you can go faster, but together we can go far”.

Let’s come together — farmers both men and women, scientists and innovators — to help feed the world and leave no man behind.

Slyvia Tetteh, Administrator, Chamber of Agribusiness, Ghana

My name is Slyvia Tetteh. I’m from the United States of Africa; specifically, Ghana.

Famous Ghanaian educator Dr. James Kwegyir Aggrey famously once said: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation”. I believe this to be true. I want to share with you why I’m dedicating my life to empowering the women farmers of Africa.

My passion for empowering women began with my mother, Lawrencia Larbi. Despite so many obstacles, my mother had a dream of completing her education. Unlike here in America where families live on farms, in Africa our farms are usually located far away from our homes, and you must travel by foot because the paths are too narrow for vehicles. My mother would wake up every day at 4am. She would do this to help her parents feed the family and to raise money for her education. After putting on her school uniform, she would walk one hour to work on our family farm.

After working for several hours, she would then walk upwards of two hours with her mother to the market. There, they would sell our farm produce, and sometimes banana leaves. My mother did this every day. Only then did she depart for school. Unfortunately, some days it took hours before she and grandma could sell any of our farm produce. Often, by the time they made enough money, morning classes had already ended. Sometimes they did not sell anything until midday. By then, it was already too late for my mother to go to school. My mother was pressed between a rock and a hard place.

She was the youngest in her family. Her brother and sisters had found this schedule impossible to maintain. She had worked so hard to try to finish school, but eventually reality hit her. It was literally and physically impossible to follow the daily routine and achieve academic success. With no other options, she had to marry early and start a family, just like generations of women before her.

While she was being educated, my mother dreamed of becoming a lawyer and eventually a Legislator who served her nation. But with no support financially, and unable to achieve an education, my mother had to give up her dream.

My mother was seventeen when she got married.

No one should give up their dream at seventeen years old. My mother was determined to give me and my sisters the opportunities she didn’t have. And she did. She didn’t always have the money to keep us in school. But despite the fact that she didn’t finish school, she remembered everything she had learned. When we couldn’t afford school, she used her knowledge to homeschool us. I believe my mother was an exceptional woman, but in terms of what she did with the education she had, she was not atypical.

In my country, if you educate a father, he is expected to take his education out of the home and into the workplace to earn money for his family. A woman’s role is to stay home with her children. When mothers are educated, they keep their education in the home and use it to educate their children. If you educate a woman, you educate her children, and by extension, her community. A nation of educated women is an educated nation.

Out of 80% of women farmers with children in the 1990s, I’m one of the lucky ones to obtain a higher education. I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Information Studies. My mother’s hard work gave me the opportunity to stand on this platform before you here today. This is why I work so hard to help other women. My mother’s unwavering dedication to educate me drives my passion.

Today, I educate womenI work with women farmers so that they can farm successfully and more easily using modern agricultural biotechnology. I do this because I believe if you educate a man you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation. Our male counterparts also have challenges, yet the current system advances men. Men hand their farms down to their sons from generation to generation.

Therefore, only less than 20% of agricultural land in the world is owned by women farmers. Because men own their land, they have the collateral to secure loans to buy machinery, which allows them to scale their farming.

Meanwhile, so many women are still farming with manual tools.

Research has shown that women farmers produce 70% of food found on the continent, and yet 5 million people die of hunger every year. 5. Million. People. To be able to feed the continent with the expected population increase of 1 billion, things must change. Women must have the tools they need to farm more efficiently, maximizing output on every inch of farmland. Strong policies must be put in place.

The only way to bridge this vast gap of inequity is to educate women. Women Farmers Must. Be. Empowered. Equally. In order to increase yields and achieve sustainable growth, women must be educated about agricultural biotechnology and have access to other available breakthrough technology. Only then will women become productive, independent, and financially stable. Families with educated women are empowered to provide for themselves. Unlike my mother, these families can realize their dreams. There is no reason we can not empower the women of Africa to empower themselves. We. Can.

And when this day comes, we will be able to say the following: We have educated women. We have educated an entire nation. And the world IS a better place.

Sussana Phiri, Farmer & Advocate of Zambian Agriculture

I am Sussana Phiri and I am from Zambia. Chilanga is my hometown. Zambia has abundant arable land, many water bodies, and hardworking women. Zambia is home to a vibrant mix of cultures and is also widely considered to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming nations in the world.

In America, you’re either a farmer, or you’re not. It’s not that simple where I come from. In my country, we are all farmers. When I was little, my father made small farming tools for me and my siblings. They were cute. We weren’t doing much, but it was our introduction to farming being a part of the fabric of our lives. We farmed during the rainy season so we had enough maize to feed our big family through the next year.

My mother always used to say “pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo,” translated it means: ​bit by bit causes a heap.

Although we didn’t have endless supplies of food, we all worked together, bit by bit, to ensure we never went hungry. I am so thankful. ​No child should ​ever​ go hungry. Like many people in my country, there were early mornings, long days, and late nights. All day, every day, every year. By the time I was 22 years old, I was studying remotely to earn my degree in education, while farming my family’s land and also teaching pre-school.

Seeing children I worked with suffer because they did not have enough to eat was painful. Despite being hungry, these children worked hard and went to school every day. Theirs is a difficult yet inspiring story, but that is not the story I want to share with you.

I want to share a practice in my country which hurts me, but inspired me to make change.

I want to tell you about a practice called mashanga – a practice which taught me to question what is not right and think outside of the box for solutions. After the rainy season, we wait for the maize to dry. Once it dries, my family harvests it. Mashanga is what happens next, but it shouldn’t happen at all. ​After Harvest season, women with little babies on their backs would ask for permission to go on our land. We would grant it and they would walk through the field, looking for ​any grain we had accidentally left behind. ​They would walk our field for hours, hoping to find any scraps we left behind, and then they would go to other fields after that.

Mashanga is considered normal in my community. Mothers with little babies on their backs, looking for scraps.

This practice made me realize many things. First, in order to live in a better world you must question the world you’re in. Second, just because things have always been done one way, it does not mean they are right, fair or just. And finally, there can be better ways to do things than the way we have always done things. We must question what we think is normal to create change. And if we are to feed every hungry child, we must question what that looks like.

In Zambia, women farmers comprise over 70% of the farming labour, yet they do not have access to information on how to farm better beyond just thinking farming is a way of life.

We also do not have access to technology that would reduce labor while providing greater yields. Women’s work is not valued as it should be given the majority of labor we provide.

We can question this. It should not be normal. No. Things must change. ​Women farmers in Africa are feeding the African continent even under unfavorable conditions. But it is not enough. 1 in 4 children go undernourished everyday. Now imagine the year 2050, when Africa’s population is projected to have 2.4 billion people. ​We cannot move forward accepting things as they have always been. ​This is not sustainable.

pang’ono pang’ono ndi mtolo… bit by bit causes a heap.

I am a twenty-five year old who is working for that heap of change.

Change does not have to happen overnight, but it can and we must work bit by bit to cause a heap.

Today, I am a co-founder of the Women Who Farm Africa campaign. Women Who Farm believes that if we empower women farmers in agribusiness, agricultural technologies, and communication, we can​ feed the world in 2050.

Whether you are a business expert, scientist, communications expert, farmer, or policy maker, you can contribute a bit to create ​a heap of food for all of us. ​

Bit by bit, we can create change together. ​It’s time ​for a new normal, one that empowers women.

It’s time for a heap of change, a heap of change that feeds the world.


Bettering Farms in Zimbabwe…and Beyond

Dirt to Dinner is excited to introduce Nyasha Mudukuti, a science communication and network associate with the Cornell Alliance for Science, where she was a 2019 Global Leadership Fellow. Nyasha is a Mastercard Foundation scholar from Michigan State University, where she majored in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology. She is also a BSc honors graduate in biotechnology from Chinhoyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe. Nyasha served as the 2016 AGCO Africa Ambassador, advocating for agricultural reforms across the African continent. 

Nyasha is a member of the Global Farmers Network, a proud Global Youth Ambassador fellow of the United Nations initiative, “A World at School”, and a 2016 Young African Leaders Initiative fellow as an emerging young leader.

Nyasha’s dream is to help her continent see the importance of biotechnology in agriculture and use it to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am sitting in my apartment in Ithaca, New York, trying to call home to check on my family in Zimbabwe. My sister picks up and says, “Let me call you back, I am in a queue.” “For what?” I ask. “Mealie meal,” she replies. “I need to send some to mum!

Concerns amidst a Food Crisis

Our mother lives in a rural area, Chikombedzi, which is where I grew up, while my sister works in the city. It’s 8 a.m. her time and panic-shopping has started there, too. With the government’s announcement of a 21-day nationwide shutdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, basic commodities are now scarce. She hangs up and I try to get some sleep but I can’t. There is a level of comfort knowing that my family will be OK but there’s a restlessness in my mind as I wonder what the next 21 days will be like for the majority of Zimbabweans, who rely on the informal sector and feed from hand to mouth.

What will they eat? The government had announced a shutdown without providing a strategy of how to feed its struggling citizens in abject poverty. This shutdown exposes them to a silent threat, and the very real fear that hunger may kill them before the coronavirus does.

Thirty minutes later, I am still tossing and turning in my bed, contemplating how times have changed. It used to be that people in rural areas would send food to those in the city. But now, my sister has to send food to my mother, whose small piece of farmland has not been yielding much. I remember her recent calls complaining of how the fall armyworm had destroyed her maize. I would then try to put a smile on her face, laughing about how back in 2011 we used to handpick and squash stem-borers with our feet because we could not afford pesticides. Yet we still survived, even after losing almost half of our three hectares of maize and sorghum to the stem borer. “It will be OK, Mum,” I would try to assure her over the phone. But the truth is, it’s NOT going to be okay.

Farming in Chikombedzi

See, I grew up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe. From it, we could feed ourselves, sell the surplus, and pay the fees that allowed us to attend school. But I took no pleasure in farming. I didn’t want to get up early, before school, to weed the fields. I didn’t like the long days in the hot sun. I didn’t want anything to do with agriculture. I wanted to be a doctor, a profession I thought of as “classier”.

However, everything changed in 2011 when I was admitted to study biotechnology as an undergraduate student at Chinhoyi University in Zimbabwe. That is where I started learning about the role of science in agriculture and its potential benefits, especially for African farmers like my mother, in developing drought-tolerant, insect-resistant herbicide-tolerant crops.

An Agricultural Disconnect

My journey began with a Facebook post. While scrolling through my timeline, I read an article about genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa and how some of my people were destroying the products. Reading the comment section, I realized there were a lot of misconceptions about GM food products. I decided to engage in the conversation, and of course, that didn’t come without a backlash! It didn’t make sense to me that the very same people earning less than US$2 per day, struggling with weeds and crop failures due to climate change, were the very first to object. Misconceptions fueled by fear can paralyze people, so I took on a mandate to raise awareness of ways we can leverage this technology to our benefit.

My first Facebook post on GM ultimately got the attention of Dr. C. Prakash from Tuskegee University, who later invited me to tell my story with the Global Farmers Network (GFN) at the World Food Prize in Iowa in 2014. During my time in Iowa, I got to see a GM cornfield for the first time.

By visiting farms in Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous potential of modern agriculture to help us overcome enormous challenges. I took those lessons and observations and ran with them to ensure African farmers are not left behind.

After returning to Zimbabwe, I continued to participate in GFN activities and wrote columns on my country’s anti-GMO attitudes. Our government recently relaxed and lifted the ban on the importation of GM products. However, the ban still stands on planting GM crops. Upon completing my undergraduate studies, I decided to advance my knowledge on biotechnology issues in agriculture.

Finding A Platform

In 2016, one of my articles was published in the Wall Street Journal, where it caught the eye of Robin Buell, a professor of plant biology at Michigan State. She connected me with the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which recognizes academic achievement and a commitment to Africa. She later served as my principal investigator in her genomics lab, where I researched dry beans. This gave me a deeper understanding of the science behind GM crops and an appreciation of the amount of work scientists put into developing new varieties.

However, knowledge of genetic engineering is just not enough to ensure that those who need this technology can benefit from it. What’s the point of making a product that the end-user doesn’t fully understand? They will eventually reject it, no matter how beneficial it may be to them. This brings me to one of my biggest challenges as a scientist: how do I communicate in ways that people like my mother, without a scientific background, can understand?

Spreading the Message with Science

Today my work with the Cornell Alliance for Science involves addressing some of these issues. One of our approaches is hosting a “seeing is believing” activity, where we bring non-scientists to the lab so they experience the extraction of DNA and realize it’s not rocket science! They even participate in a hands-on, personal DNA isolation from their cheeks. Another example is bringing media professionals to GM field trials and exposing them to peer-reviewed scientific literature so they can better report on agricultural innovations.

I might not have become a doctor but nothing gives me more fulfillment than knowing that with these modern technologies, I am helping farmers feed their families and send their children to school as they farm better and smarter.

As I finally begin to drift off to sleep, I make a silent prayer thanking the farmers for risking everything so we can have food on our tables. They are the truly essential workers! For once, it seems that no one cares whether food is organic as we hoard food like there is no tomorrow. The empty shelves should help us understand how privileged we are to be able to choose. In desperate times, food is food — it all comes down to survival.

When this pandemic is over, I hope we remember how anxious we were about stockpiling sufficient food and realize that more than 815 million people go to bed hungry every night, in desperate need of food.

People and Nature: Thriving Together in the African Grasslands

The Plight of the Pastoralists

Imagine an African landscape where wildlife, cattle, people, and native grasslands thrive together in harmony. North of Mt. Kenya and stretching toward the southern border of Ethiopia is an area called the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. This expansive, beautiful landscape is occupied by 26 indigenous tribes, mostly pastoralist communities who rely on cattle grazing on the grasslands for their livelihoods.

It was also once one of the most abundant wildlife areas on the continent, teeming with scores of black rhinos; however, poaching reduced the rhino population in Kenya from over 20,000 individuals in the 1960s to just over 500 in the 1980s.

The Start of Northern Rangelands Trust

My first trip to the Northern Rangelands came in 2017 while the area was in the grips of a long drought. It was desperate times with armed conflicts taking place between rival tribes trying to secure enough land to graze. Population growth and cultural traditions of managing cattle as a walking bank account led to dramatic growth in livestock numbers and overgrazing of the grassland. I had never seen a grassland in such tough condition and, given the circumstances, I was not overly optimistic on the prospects for renewal.

At the time, plans were being laid by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to create a new business model with market incentives for pastoralists who follow a planned grazing approach with the goal of improved grassland condition.

I questioned how the program would work given the simple fact that tribes who did improve their local grassland condition based on an adaptive management plan of grazing and rest, would simply attract other pastoralists from neighboring tribes to opportunistically graze off their good efforts when needed.

A Hopeful Return

Just recently, I returned to the same areas I visited in 2017. Following a period of above average rainfall, the grassland was in amazing condition, demonstrating the inherent resilience of the landscape. To the eye, it was a night and day difference. The team I had met with three years ago had made great progress, starting a new business model and partnership between the pastoralists and NRT called LivestockWORKS.

This program allows pastoralists to enter their livestock in a program designed to offer better market returns for the cattle. Pastoralists access the program by investing $10 per head, which is then matched by an investment of $20 per head by NRT. Their cattle are microchipped to maintain identity and then managed in a program involving adaptive planned grazing, access to veterinary services and better cattle genetics.

The fees invested also pay for NRT to provide grazing consultants to the community of pastoralists as well as funding the removal of invasive species, which overtake the grasslands in degraded areas. The fees also help manage plots to produce and harvest perennial grass seeds for reseeding of degraded areas.

These projects provide additional sources of employment for community members and it was encouraging to witness the dividends of their hard work when aided by the recent timely rains.

Another significant benefit of enrolling in the program is the opportunity to have access to grasslands on wildlife conservancies and private ranches closer to the market. The opportunity to add weight to their cattle immediately before harvest creates a more certain profit and is starting to reverse the long-held traditions of acquiring and managing more cattle as a sign of prosperity.

Now, some pastoralists are beginning to selectively cull their herds and add back individuals with the genetic potential to maximize the benefits of the new planned grazing program. As a result, the pastoralists can be confident to receive higher profits by participating in the LivestockWORKS program.

Benefiting Pastoralists and Beyond

It is often surprising for tourists visiting the wildlife conservancies to see cattle foraging areas thought to be reserved only for wildlife. When properly managed, the timely presence of cattle grazing actually improves the rangeland condition for wildlife, owing to the fact that cattle will forage different grassland species than a cape buffalo or rhino, benefitting all. NRT has invested in a sophisticated and effective security program, which has nearly eliminated the poaching issues in the area. With a healthy grassland and greater security wildlife numbers are increasing and tourism to the region is growing.

After several years of collaborative efforts between NRT, TNC, Soils for the Future and Native Energy to build a science baseline and develop effective monitoring, NRT is eligible to start earning carbon credits for the soil carbon sequestration activities their grassland restoration efforts are beginning to deliver.

The proceeds from this new revenue source will be reinvested in the improved management activities, with the hope of growing the number of tribes and community lands which can benefit from this new community-based conservation approach.

Taken altogether, it stands as a remarkable restoration example. While the program is still early in its implementation, it shows the potential of wise management anchored by a new business model where wildlife, tourism, tribal pastoralists, and cattle grazing together can make a more resilient landscape, improving both livelihoods and nature.

Valuing Conservation in the Economy

The Northern Rangelands Trust area may be one of the more extreme examples I have witnessed on the vital importance of restoring degraded lands, but it is not unique regarding the nature of the opportunity. Globally, the estimated value of ecosystem service losses due to land degradation is $6.9 to $10.6 trillion per year.

Equipped with the right knowledge and market incentives, we can create a new conservation-oriented economy based on the life-giving value of nature.

Are GMOs Bad for the Environment?


I have a lovely, peaceful vegetable garden in our backyard. Though I spend a lot of time weeding and watering, my very small garden is only for our friends and family to enjoy. If my tomatoes or peppers fail, then my back-up plan is to run to the grocery store or the farmers’ market. The entire vegetable garden experience is for fun, and also a lesson in patience for my children. I don’t depend on the food in my backyard to feed my family of five.

However, for those farmers whom we depend on to feed all 7.9 billion of us, there is no back-up plan when weeds and pests destroy their crop. Weeds strangle plant growth by stealing water, sunlight, and soil nutrients that crops need. Insects defoliate young shoots and leaves faster than you can say “pesticide.”

As a result, farmers must constantly manage the economic and environmental balance between overspending and over-spraying pesticides on crops. Fewer passes through the fields with sprayer equipment means burning less fuel, fewer carbon emissions, and less compaction of the soil. A win-win-win!

So, how does genetic engineering play a role on the farm? These technologies help farmers use less pesticide, less water and less landMatin Qaim and Wilhelm Klumper at the University of Goettingen, Germany completed a 2014 meta-analysis on the global impacts of GMOs.

  • They discovered that GMOs have made incredible changes to our agricultural performance:
    • Reduced agricultural chemical use by 37%
    • Increased crop yields by 22%
    • Increased farmer profits by 68%

Additionally, a 2017 report, Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2016, focused on the pesticide and greenhouse gas emission reduction from genetic engineering, primarily with canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans. Using these GM crops reduced the Environmental Impact Quotient by 18.4%. It also cut down on farm equipment fuel usage via fewer pesticide sprays and no-till farming practices. In 2016, this decrease was equivalent to removing 16.7 million cars off the road. To put this in perspective, this is more than all the cars registered in California!

Less Pesticides

In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, 80% of the food supply is produced by small-holder farmers – farms with 25 acres or less. Plant biotechnology is finally making it possible for them to feed their families and communities, improve profits and dramatically reduce pesticide use.

In India, farmers depend on brinjal, or eggplant, as a significant source of food and income, but it comes with a cost. A small-holder farmer growing brinjal needs 85-120 insecticide sprays during a growing season, harming both the farmer and the environment. Despite all this effort, the eggplant fruit and shoot borer insect can still destroy up to 80% of the crop.

Feed the Future, a global partnership of research and educational institutions, introduced the Bt eggplant by genetically-engineering four different eggplant varieties to produce a protein from an organic pesticide that targets the pests.

According to Tony Shelton, Cornell professor of entomology and director of the Bt Brinjal Project, these new varieties of GMO eggplant now only need about seven sprays a season to control the insects, resulting in pesticide reduction of 92%!

The engineered eggplant is no longer desirable to the pest, thus stopping crop loss. Even more important, the protein does not damage or kill the beneficial insects in the farmer’s field.

In Uganda, 300 small-holder farmers recently grew GMO blight-resistant potatoes for the first time in 2017. Without this technology, they would spend about 15% of their income to spray their crops up to 15 times a season with insecticides, while still losing close to 60% of their crop. Now these potato farmers can increase their income and put less insecticide in the air, soil and their clothing and skin – an environmental triumph.

Nigeria. After almost 10 years of study, Nigeria has approved its first genetically-engineered crop. Black-eyed peas, otherwise known as cowpeas, are an important source of energy, protein and fiber. Nigeria’s small-holder farmers grow about 58% of the world’s supply. Growing cowpea is not easy, as it is susceptible to multiple insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, which can cause as much as 90% crop loss. The Institute for Agricultural Research in Zaria, in collaboration with a world-renowned institute in Australia, found that a protein from the soil bacterium can control the pest. This genetically-engineered crop reduced pesticide use and increased yields by about 20%.

Less Pesticides and Healthier Soil

What is often overlooked in the GMO debate is that genetic engineering can create healthier soil and a cleaner watershed next to the farms. How? Let’s go back to my home garden. When I have weeds surrounding my tomatoes, I can just pull them up or hoe them back into the soil. In a small garden, this works perfectly. On acres of land, when farmers till the soil, the water evaporates more quickly, and the soil can blow away.

When a farmer uses Roundup Ready crops, i.e., crops that are tolerant to Roundup herbicide, they can practice no-till farming. No-till farming means farmers do not have to turn over soil to rid it of weeds. This prevents the soil from water evaporation, puts nutrients back into the soil, and keeps the soil dense with organic matter to avoid the soil blowing away. Finally, fewer emissions are released since a tractor doesn’t need to drive back and forth to turn over the soil.


Despite recent controversies regarding Roundup or glyphosate, it has been proven effective to dramatically reduce pesticide applications. Read here for more information on glyphosate safety.

Less Water

Globally, food and agriculture use about 70% of our fresh water supply. While there is the same amount of water today as there was millions of years ago, clean and usable water is not always available to grow crops. According to the FAO, droughts have affected more people worldwide in the last 40 years than any other natural hazard.

Certain GMO seeds can help agriculture use less water and grow more drought-tolerant crops. Scientists believe wheat, corn and soybeans can be genetically modified to require less water. For instance, by altering a plant’s stoma – the microscopic pores in leaves and stems – to save water, these food crops could be extremely resourceful as we attempt to feed our rapidly growing population.

Let’s illustrate this using rice, a vital crop for much of the world, particularly in Asia and Africa. Scientists have taken a gene related to cabbage and mustard and inserted it into rice as a strategy for plant improvement. Why? Inserting this gene allows for drought resistance, salt tolerance and thicker leaf production, which then increases photosynthesis.

For corn, Monsanto has created a DroughtGard variety to help the plant resist drought stress. This allows the corn to maintain some water without needing to draw as much up from the root system. Drought-resistant corn could increase harvests in Africa by an average of 20%.

Just like my own garden, whether it is vegetables or flowers, it is much more cost-effective and less toxic to my watershed when I grow tomatoes or roses without chemicals. Genetic engineering helps large and small holder farmers around the world do just that.