Nigeria learns from South Africa’s experience with GMOs

By Nkechi Isaac

June 6, 2018

“I feel I wasted my time working for over 20 years as an electrical engineer in Johannesburg,” said Khambi Frans Malele as he stood and told more than 30 people assembled in a small, make-shift tent in South Africa his story of becoming a successful farmer.

His audience was a delegation of Nigerians eager to learn how farmers had benefitted from the use of biotechnology in South Africa, which has become the frontrunner for genetically modified (GM) crops on the continent. Government officials from South Africa’s Gauteng Province, business representatives and other farmers were also in attendance.

As Nigeria prepares to commercialize its first GM crops this year, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) organized the tour, in collaboration with South Africa-based AfricaBio, to give delegates a chance to meet small-scale farmers who are using agricultural biotechnology to improve their livelihoods.

Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, the AATF West Africa regional representative, said the main lesson for the delegates was to learn how South Africa was able, in a very short period of time, to fully deploy modern agricultural technology to boost production. He also noted that the tour made it clear that anti-GMO propaganda has no basis, as South Africa has been consuming GM crops for over 15 years without any recorded negative health effects.

Malele, now in middle-age, told of how he’d left his home and family and migrated to the big city as a youth, and remained there to earn money to put his children through school. He returned home in 1999, after his children graduated.

“When I came back I went into farming,” he said. “I started with four hectares of cotton in 2000. We do not have enough rain here, but I moved from the four to six hectares in 2000. Comparing maize with the cotton, I saw maize was slow in production. So I was lucky I started with the Bt cotton because I didn’t have to bother with the drought and worms.”

Insect-resistant Bt cotton was the first GM crop grown in South Africa in 1997. Now herbicide-tolerant cotton and varieties that provide both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are also grown. Statistics show that virtually no conventional cotton is grown in South Africa. The herbicide-tolerant/insect-resistant cotton accounts for more than 95 percent of the cotton planted.

“In the second year, I start to increase my hectares to 10 hectares and in the coming year I moved up to 20 hectares and in the coming year I was planting 30 hectares,” Malele said. “So I started going around talking to people here, especially the younger ones, to show them this is the way. Many people left our place saying they are going to Pretoria, Joburg (Johannesburg), but the job is here.

“As you see now, I am about 19 years here at home,” he continued. “I have been farming and luckily I’ve got this technology, biotechnology, and as you can see cotton is not difficult to plant. Once you plant it you’re not worried about the weeds. You spray just once or twice and go your way. I am on 150 hectares that I am operating around here. I only plant cotton now. I am not talking only about me right now because we are 10 farmers, those who really want to do this business. They see that it works because when you plant the cotton, you’re quite sure you’re going to harvest.  During the good season we harvest about 1.5 to 2 tonnes per hectare, which I think is alright.”

Malele’s story is not so different from the one told by Phanuel Tlamama, a maize farmer who had been battling drought for several years until he was introduced to GM maize last year.

“I have been planting maize for over 10 years,” Tlamama said. “I started planting GM maize this year. Compared to the conventional maize, the GM maize seed is better because it is drought-tolerant. We have drought around this area, but even with that I still get good harvest with the GM maize. I think GM maize is more advantageous because it manages to protect from (corn borer) worms. When you go for the GM maize I don’t think any farmer will easily want to drop it because it is more advantageous to farm.”

Insect resistant maize was first grown in South Africa in 1998. Now farmers grow maize that provides drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, as well as varieties that offer combinations of those traits. Statistics show that 86 percent of the maize cultivated in South Africa is GM. South Africa also has grown herbicide-tolerant soybean since 2001.

South Africa’s experience with GM crops resonated with the delegates from Nigeria, which is currently concluding research on its leading biotechnology products — pest-resistant Bt cowpea and cotton — with a view to commercializing them this year.

Abu Umaru, AATF’s communications and partnerships lead for West Africa, said the tour was intended to give delegates first-hand experience with biotechnology stakeholders involved in the entire food chain, from farm to table, within an African context, as well as an opportunity to visualize the technology at both the laboratory and field stages.

Other objectives included receiving briefings from South African government officials on the measures in place to regulate biotechnology products, and why they’re needed, as well as to develop a network for sharing biotechnology information amongst themselves, according to Umaru.

Delegate Onyaole Patience Koku, chief operating officer of Replenish Farms in Nigeria’s Kaduna State, said that one lesson learned on the tour was that the South African government is very supportive of improving the lot of farmers, helping them to use advanced technology to meet the nutrition demands of the nation’s growing population.

“Here in South Africa, you see a direct involvement of the state governments,” she said. “In Nigeria, we really don’t expect so much from the state governments, whereas they are the ones who are closer to the people. We tend to put a lot of pressure on the federal or national government and expect them to be able to solve all our problems. We kind of excuse our state governments and forget that they get allocation for funds and it is their responsibility to create this environment that thrives. With all the states working, then at the end of the day, the whole nation works,” she added.