More African countries could turn to GM crops

Up to an additional seven African nations are expected to start with the commercial production of genetically modified (GM) crops by 2015.

GM cotton is produced by 80,000 farmers in Burkina Faso

GM cotton is produced by 80,000 farmers in Burkina Faso.

According to an annual report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Mali, Togo, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi could all commence with the production of GM crops within the next few years.

GM seed creation involves the insertion of genes for specific traits into a plant’s DNA. Proponents of biotech crops say it leads to increased agricultural productivity with less labour and pesticides required. In a world with growing concerns about food security, these benefits can hardly be ignored. On the other hand there are also many people opposed to the commercial production of biotech crops, citing worries about its long-term health effects on consumers, as well as possible dangers it might hold for the environment and biodiversity.

Only three African countries – South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt – are currently biotech crop producers. South Africa is the leading producer on the continent with 2.2 million hectares under cultivation in 2010.

“In no continent is the need for biotech crops more urgent, and their adoption and acceptance more challenging, than Africa,” said Clive James, founder and chairman of ISAAA.

During 2010, the west African nation of Burkina Faso had the world’s second largest proportional increase in biotech crops cultivated with growth of 126%. “The impressive increase of over 100% in Bt cotton farmed by 80,000 farmers in 2010 in Burkina Faso is of strategic importance for neighbouring countries, like Mali and Togo, and more broadly for the African continent,” said James. Bt cotton contains a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a common bacterium found in soil. The gene helps the plants produce proteins that are toxic to certain insects.

According to James, the three African countries currently producing biotech crops should be role models within their respective regions on the continent.

During 2010, the global total of commercial biotech plantings reached one billion hectares. “It is hard to imagine that in just 15 years, farmers worldwide have planted biotech crops on an area larger than either China or the US,” said James.

For the first time, in 2010, the ten largest biotech crop growing countries all had more than one million hectares in production. In hectarage rank order, they include: USA (66.8 million), Brazil (25.4 million), Argentina (22.9 million), India (9.4 million), Canada (8.8 million), China (3.5 million), Paraguay (2.6 million), Pakistan (2.4 million), South Africa (2.2 million) and Uruguay (1.1 million).

James noted that there is considerable potential for increasing the biotech adoption of the four current large hectarage biotech crops – maize, soya bean, cotton and canola. ISAAA expects that in the next five years, the timing of commercialised biotech rice, and drought tolerance as a trait in maize and several other crops, will act as catalysts for the future adoption of biotech crops globally. Drought tolerant maize is expected in the U.S. as early as 2012, and importantly, in Africa by 2017. The decision, four years ago, to delay biotech herbicide tolerant wheat is also being revisited and many countries are fast-tracking the development of biotech wheat with a range of traits including drought tolerance, disease resistance and grain quality – the first of which are expected to be ready for commercialisation as early as 2017.

James anticipates that several medium hectarage crops will be approved for commercialisation by 2015. This  includes biotech potatoes resistant to the most important disease of potatoes in the world, “late blight,” the cause of the Irish famine in 1845. Sugarcane with improved agronomic and quality traits, disease-resistant bananas, Bt eggplant, tomato, broccoli, and cabbage, as well as some pro-poor crops, such as biotech cassava, sweet potato, pulses and groundnut are also expected to be approved.