Africa can explore genetically engineered seeds to boost production, Agbiz

South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. File

South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. File

Published Mar 8, 2023


With Africa currently struggling to meet its annual food needs, using genetically engineered (GE) or modified seeds should be an avenue to explore to boost production, says Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) chief economist Wandile Sihlobo.

He argues the benefits of such an increase in agricultural output are evident in Argentina, Brazil, the United States and South Africa.

“The EU, which has arguably a major influence on the general perception of GE crops in Africa, is changing its stance, at least on imports. This should serve as a signal to African countries. Still, their actions shouldn't aim to match that of the EU, but go further and argue for access to these technologies to domestic farmers under fair agreements with the seed and technology developers, all of which can be negotiated at a country level,” Sihlobo said.

He said the EU had long restricted the importation and cultivation of GE crops, but last year it had approved certain varieties of maize, soybeans and rapeseed. But these had not gone through the authorisation stages that would open the door for trade in the approved varieties.

“It was only on February 22, 2023 that the EU authorised imports of certain types of GE soybeans and rapeseed for use in food and animal feed for a period of 10 years. Still, this authorisation does not include cultivation. These will mainly be imports, all subject to the EU’s labelling and traceability rules. After roughly a quarter of a century of opposition to GE crops, this perhaps signals a move to wider future acceptance of the technology within the EU,” he said.

This change in sentiment was probably underpinned by a growing desire for nations and regions to improve their food security conditions after the Russia-Ukraine war caused notable disruption in global grain and oilseed supplies.

And last year, the Chinese National Crop Variety Approval Committee released two standards that cleared the path for cultivating GE crops in the country.

Unlike the EU, Sihlobo said China currently imports GE maize and soybean, but prohibits domestic cultivation of the crops.The regulation change was to encourage domestic cultivation, and would potentially lead to improved yields.

He said such an improvement would align with China's ambition of becoming self-sufficient in essential grains and oilseeds in the coming years.

Agbiz said African countries should pay close attention to this wave of change in sentiment in key economic regions.

It said some African countries closely followed the EU's approach to GE crops by prohibiting their imports and cultivation.

“With this new development in the EU and the authorisation process completed, it is plausible that some African countries might consider evaluating their current restrictions, especially for vital staple grains such as maize.

"Kenya is one such country which seeks to clear white maize cultivation. But in February 2023, lobby groups took legal action to block GE white maize seeds planned for release to farmers by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) in March and April 2023.”

The chief economist said the only country that is an anomaly in Africa is South Africa, which began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season.

“Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare. This has now increased to an average of an expected 6.1 tonnes per hectare in the current production season of 2022/23.

According to an article titled, How Africa Can Escape Chronic Food Insecurity Amid Climate Change, published on the IMF Blog recently, climate change was intensifying food insecurity across sub-Saharan Africa, where Russia’s war in Ukraine and the pandemic were also adding to food shortages and high prices.

The authors of the article said climate events, which destroy crops and disrupt food transport, were disproportionately common in the region.

“One-third of the world’s droughts occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and Ethiopia and Kenya are enduring one of the worst in at least four decades. Countries such as Chad are also being severely impacted by torrential rains and floods.”