Why South Africa and Sudan lead the continent in GMO crops

By John Agaba

January 15, 2019

Why are South Africa and Sudan ahead of every other country on the continent when it comes to biotech? The answer is simple. The nations realized early on that they needed to embrace new technologies to develop faster maturing and better yielding disease-resistant and drought-tolerant crop varieties to counter a changing climate and soils rapidly losing fertility.

So as the rest of Africa dilly-dallied about proceeding with biotechnology, which significantly shortens the breeding time for desired varieties, scientists and political leaders in the two countries understood the benefits and were soon busy welcoming in a new era that aimed to produce enough food to eradicate hunger across the globe.

Dr. Hennie Groenewald, executive manager at Biosafety South Africa, which is a national biosafety service platform within the nation’s technology innovation agency, said the country immediately knew what to do when the first genetically modified (GM) crop variety was approved and introduced to farmers in 1996.

“This was a big opportunity for Africa and the entire globe to finally multiply food production and end one of the most disturbing problems related to food security: hunger, especially in poor and developing countries where famine and malnutrition is most prevalent,” he said.

But when the rest of Africa started to get cold feet about using the technology, especially after a resurgence of activism against GMOs, South Africa and Sudan had a decision to make. But the two countries could not let the endless debates around biotech derail their newfound formula for averting hunger. They refused to wait for the rest of the continent to make up its mind.

“We (South Africa) decided to dwell on our individual needs and to focus on what worked for us,” Groenewald said. “We realized what science and biotech could do for us and threw all our chips in. With this technology we would be able to more than multiply our farm produce.”

South Africa started with GM maize in 1996, then cotton in 1997 and soybean in 2001.  Adoption was a gradual process, but the results of the decision to move ahead don’t lie.

An August 2018 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) indicated the two countries led in biotech cultivation on the continent, with South Africa among the world’s top 10 countries planting more than one million hectares of GM crops.

South Africa had a combined planting of biotech maize, soybean and cotton totalling 2.73 million hectares in 2017, which is a 2.6 percent increase from the 2.66 million hectares planted in 2016. The country also reported a drastic reduction in the fall armyworm infestation that continues to devastate maize gardens across the continent.

Sudan, on the other hand, grew 192,000 hectares of pest-resistant biotech cotton in 2017, up from 120,600 hectares the previous year. That represents a 59 percent increase, with a 98 percent adoption rate among farmers. An estimated 90,000 Sudanese farmers grew Bt cotton on farms averaging 2.1 hectares in size.

Groenewald said South African farmers are able to access improved crop varieties, including pest-resistant Bt maize, soybean and cotton, which they in turn grow mainly large scale. The technology has facilitated even the smallholder farmer’s dream of planting for export—not just for home consumption—and has empowered a number of them to embrace mechanized farming, leading to a doubling of the nation’s agricultural exports in over the years.

GM technology has definitely improved the revenues of local farmers because now they can harvest more yield from smaller quantities of land and the growers are able to use these revenues to further invest in their projects, Groenewald said.

But though the two countries top the rest of continent, they are still miles away from the leading GM producers across the globe — the US, Brazil and India.

The report “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017”  showed 67 countries used biotech crops, out of which 24 (including the two African nations) grew multiple varieties. Global hectarage of biotech crops stood at 189.8 million in 2017, up from 185.1 million in the prior year.

Aside from South Africa and Sudan, 11 African countries — Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda —sustained biotech crop research, with 14 traits on 12 crops under various stages of development.

But indecision by political leaders in these countries, due partly to a rise in anti-GMO activism, is threatening to ruin these strides. The leaders know the benefits but don’t know whether to press ahead with the technology, said Humphrey Mutaasa, director of partnerships at Uganda National Farmers Association.

“They are open to what biotech can do to alleviate hunger and poverty in their countries. But they are giving too much ear to persons who are opposing the technology,” Mutaasa said. “They are listening too much to the antis instead of trusting their scientists. Now they are confused. They don’t know what to do.

“For instance, Uganda wants to go biotech,” he continued. “The political leadership know the thousands of farmers this technology can help, and the poverty it can stop. But Parliament passed a restrictive biosafety bill [in November 2018], with a strict liability [clause], which does not motivate scientists in any way.”

Daniel Otunge, former coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), said South Africa and Sudan top the rest of the continent when it comes to biotech because of “high-level” political support for the technology in the two countries.

Unlike the rest of Africa, where political leaders are unsure, the powers that be in South Africa and Sudan are very open minded and have given the nod for their countries to go biotech, Otunge said.

The rest of Africa needs to stop listening to “speculative propaganda” by activists against GMOs, and focus on realities like “climate change, population pressure and poverty” and the fact that soils today are rapidly losing fertility, he said.

“Our leaders need to find solutions to these realties. Biotechnology is one of the solutions,” Otunge said.

The ISAAA report attributed Sudan’s increased hectarage to a change in the nation’s cotton financing policy, with the government giving more leeway to the private sector.

Then again, there is the country’s insect-resistant (IR) cotton program, which is stimulating positive change in most spheres of the cotton sub-sector value-chain, with growing prospects for exportation of seeds and textile production to neighboring countries.

Dr. Richard Oduor, senior lecturer and head of the plant transformation laboratory at the Department of Biochemistry at Kenyatta University in Kenya, said biotechnology can be a tool for ending hunger in many developing nations. It can also be used to stimulate economic development and to stop over dependence on the developed west for some of these nations.

But though the technology has the potential to propel Africa to the next level, sustainable food security and economic development aren’t the only benefits.

The Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops” report indicated biotech use in agriculture can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Continued expansion of biotech adoption also offered beneficial nutritional quality traits that may help offset the nutrition-draining impact of climate change on certain crops.

What the continent can learn from RSA and Sudan 

Otunge called on African leaders to emulate the courage exhibited by political leaders in South Africa and Sudan, stand up to anti-biotech activists and make evidence- and science-based decisions when it comes to development, technology and science.

That way, the leaders can establish functional biosafety frameworks to govern biotechnology R&D and regulations, which in turn can benefit farmers and their economy. The framework can also give scientists and researchers freedom to operate without political interference, including the power to approve GM crops for commercial release.

Otunge also talked about how RSA is one of the major exporters of agricultural products globally, thanks to the adoption and commercialization of Bt cotton, maize, soy, etc.

Sudan’s textile industry also improved with adoption of Bt cotton. This has created more jobs and more revenues to drive economic growth. The rest of Africa needs to borrow a leaf, he said.

Barbara Zawedde Mugwanya, coordinator of the Uganda Biosciences Information Centre, said Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso are ahead of Sudan in biotech research. All they need is the nerve and political will to move the research from labs to gardens so farmers can benefit from the better crops.

“Ambivalence among the top leadership in many African nations is the problem,” Mugwanya said. “The leaders are unsure whether or not to go biotech and that cascades down to other agencies and public organs. The political leadership need to be more assertive.”

Unlike the rest of the continent, which remains skeptical about GM crops and their safety and would rather start with a non-food crop, like cotton, South Africa set the example and first commercialized food crops.

And the country’s tech developers are still in their labs creating the next generation of GM and hybrid crops.  Groenewald said a number of new varieties, including sugarcane, are in trial phases.

Scientists drove the biotech process in South Africa and were able to effectively communicate the value of the technology, Groenewald said.

The rest of Africa needs to focus on its own tangible needs and requirements and evaluate GM as one of the options for meeting them, he said. It should be self-evident that GM crops can add value.