GM crops aid SA food security

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Wilma den Hartigh

South Africa’s adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops continues to expand at an impressive rate. According to Dr Kobus Laubscher, CEO of Grain SA, this is an important development for sustainable food production in South Africa.

The challenge for agricultural production is to keep up with population growth and demand.

“We have to produce more food, and applying the technology means that we can increase production on fewer hectares of land available,” Laubscher said.

South Africa has maintained an impressive eighth position in the world ranking of biotech crop countries, planting more than 1.8-million hectares of genetically modified crops.

A survey funded by the Maize Trust indicated that in 2008 GM maize plantings in South Africa increased by 10 000 hectares, even with an almost 8% decline in commercial maize area planted.  Soya beans increased by 40 000 hectares and cotton by 2 000 hectares.

Laubscher also pointed out that farmers have adopted the technology for profit as well as improved production. A Maize Trust study found that 15-million tons of GM maize was produced on 4.2-million hectares from 2000 to 2008. Calculated at an average yield increase benefit of 10.6% and using average annual grain prices over the period, maize farmers gained an additional income of R2-billion.

Smallholder and resource-poor farmers are also benefiting. GM maize produced a 31% higher yield than conventional maize and 134% more than conventional open-pollinated varieties.

Although there is a certain amount of resistance to GM products, the benefits outweigh the perceived disadvantages. Laubscher said every year 40-million South Africans, in one way or another, consume GM food without a single medical or scientifically-substantiated adverse effect on humans, animals or the environment.

There are in fact a number of proven environmental and health benefits. According to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, biotech crops also resulted in reducing pesticide use by 359 000 tons of active ingredient.

GM production gains of 32-million metric tons in 2007 would have required 10-million extra hectares, had biotech crops not been used. Production gains from biotech crops between 1996 and 2007 were 141-million tons. At 2007 average yields, this would have required 43-million additional hectares without biotech crops.

Other advanced biotech research in South Africa includes: drought tolerant and streak virus resistance in maize, biofortied GM sorghum, increased insect and herbicide resistant maize, tuber moth and virus resistant potatoes, drought-tolerant soybeans and groundnuts and maize with tolerance to two herbicides.

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