London (24 May, 2005) – Although few if any proponents of biotechnology have ever claimed that GM crops “could feed the world”, it is generally agreed by those familiar with the technology that they could make a significant contribution. Evidence in support of that contention is now to hand, from southern Africa.

Although maize in the staple crop in the region (making up nearly two-thirds of their diet for many people), production has been declining in some countries, notably Zambia and Zimbabwe. Much of the problem lies in a lack of money to buy commercial fertiliser and insecticides to control the insects which destroy the stalks of plants.

In South Africa, following the successful cultivation of insect-resistant GM-cotton on the Makhathini Flats in the province of Kwazulu Natal, farmers are now benefiting from the use of Bt corn, bioengineered to kill corn borers.

With yields on large farms up by about 11%, small-scale farmers have also gained: their yields have often increased by more than 50% in some areas. Those increases are very important because average yields in South Africa, which has by far the region’s most productive farmers, are less than 50 bushels per acre. That compares with about 170 bushels per acre in Iowa in the American mid-West where more than half the maize is GM.

Biotech corn plantings in South Africa started in 2001 and 2002. By 2004 GM maize was planted on about a million acres, around 15% of the total for this crop.

That should be good news for all farmers in the region and could significantly reduce food shortages, particularly in Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe where production is often even lower than in South Africa.

But the governments in those countries, prompted by various environmental and other interested parties, have set their faces against the use of biotechnology, much to the disadvantage of their own populations.
Even in South Africa there are problems of getting the seeds to the farmers who may not be able to afford the cost while the very fragmented nature of the seed market makes it difficult for the producing companies to cut their own costs.

In other countries the difficulties are much greater because governments refuse to allow farmers to use GM seeds and have even declined food aid from the US on the grounds that the donated maize is GM, even though they face serious food shortages. Some countries fear that if they do grow GM maize they will be unable to sell any of their crops to European supermarket chains.

“Resistance to genetically modified seeds will ease as farmers hear about the growers' experience in South Africa and China”, said Calestous Juma, a native Kenyan a Harvard University expert on biotechnology and international development. “You can’t underestimate the power of a good example,” he said.

Sources:

1. Marnus Gouse, Carl E. Pray, Johann Kirsten and David Schimmelpfennig (2005). A GM subsistence crop in Africa: the case of Bt white maize in South Africa. International Journal of Biotechnology, 7, Nos. 1/2/3.

2. Phillip Brasher. Report: Biotech corn in Africa can relieve hunger. Des Moines Register (May 15th, 2005) (http://desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050515/BUSINESS01/505150319/1030)


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  GM food and crops in southern Africa