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May 10, 2010

South Africa Welcomes Agricultural Biotechnology & GM Crops

The Des Moines Register reports on the pro-agricultural biotechnology position in South Africa.  The article includes an interview with Tommie Olkers, production manager for Schoeman Estates in Delmas, South Africa, just east of Johannesburg.  This particular estate encompasses 23,000 acres at Delmas.  Schoeman Estates owns more acreage near the Zimbabwe border. 

The article reports that "[m]ore than 70 percent of South Africa's latest corn crop, the country's largest in decades, is biotech."  In 2009, South African farmers planted 4.7 million acres of biotech corn (73% of the total crop), which is up 29% since 2005.  By comparision in 2009, U.S. farmers planted 86% of the total corn crop to biotech corn.

The U.S. government and American biotech seed giants Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto hope the popularity of the biotech corn in South Africa will eventually spread to other countries in eastern and southern Africa where corn is a staple food.

Olckers, notes that at Schoeman Estates, his experience with biotech corn, "makes your management easier and it increases your yield." He estimates that he has he has increased yields by more than one-third on this estate and even better on fields near the Zimbabwe border.  He also noted that, "[i]f the premium [non- BTcorn] were not there ...we [would] definitely go to GM maize just for the (ease of) management."

Agricultural biotech companies such as Pioneer and Monsanto hope that the examples in South Africa pave the way for reforms in other parts of Africa.  Industry officials noted that the South African biotech crop would increase even more if it other countries in Africa would accept South Africa biotech corn exports.

In South Africa there are no government farm programs or system of market controls.   In other words, there are no federal subsidies or disaster aid available so farmers must manage their own risks.  In this climate, the number of farmers dropped from 58,000 in 1993 (when the new government eliminated government assistance) to fewer than 40,000 today.  With out government assistance, farmers must manage their own risk.  They are attracted to biotech corn as it minimizes risks associated with crop lost from insects and weeds.

USDA officials in South Africa estimate that corn acreage in South Africa has decreased significantly as farmers abandon marginal lands.  Yet, production is up dramatically due to higher yields from biotech tech corn - up 50% since the 1990s.  This year, the "crop is so big - the second largest in the country's history - that 30 percent could be exported."

In South Africa, new black farmers, known as "emerging farmers" are supporting biotech corn.  The article interviews, Samuel Moloi who grows "156 acres of corn on land that he rents in the Free State province, a vast region of prairies in South Africa's interior. He uses GM seeds that are both insect-resistant and immune to Roundup herbicide. He says he spends less on diesel by using his tractor less and less on labor because he doesn't have to hire workers to cut the weeds, a common practice in Africa."

"No data exist on how many black or small-scale farmers buy the biotech seed. However, Charles Matlou, who grew up on a small farm in northern South Africa and now works with small-scale farmers for Pioneer, says they are uneducated and slow to change. But they like the seeds once they try them and find that they have less insect damage and better yields, he said."

One exception to South Africa's pro-biotechnology position is its November 2009 decision to not approve SpuntaG2 potato that provided BT insect protection against tuber moths.  The government's decision was based on the fact that South Africa does not have a way of segregating biotech from non-biotech crops and that commercializing biotech potatoes would damage exports.  (see related blog entitled, "South Africa Rejects Approval of GE Potato," 4 Nov. 2009).

The 2002 World Food Prize winner, Pedro Sanchez, Director of the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program, Senior Research Scholar, and Director of the Millennium Villages Project at the Earth Institute at Columbia University "believes poor farmers in eastern and southern Africa could benefit significantly from genetically modified drought-tolerant corn varieties being developed for the region."  However, he doubts "South Africa provides much of a model for improving those farmers' methods, since they are generally poorer and lack the access to highways and other necessities that exists across South Africa. ... Their level of infrastructure development is so much higher, maybe not their level of education, but their level of infrastructure."

For more see: Brasher, Philip. "Biotech in Africa: In South Africa, the welcome mat is out," Des Moines Register, 10 May 2010.

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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