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Plant genetic engineering in Africa

Currently, genetically modified crops are only cultivated in three African countries on a commercial basis but in research and development plant biotechnology is already used more and more

Plant, genetic, engineering, Africa, Farming, African, GM, crops, maize, bananas, cottoGenetically modified crops are only cultivated in three African countries on a commercial basis but in research and development plant biotechnology is already used more and more.

Scientists work on crops that are better adapted to local growing conditions or that are more nutritious. At the same time, many African governments increase their efforts to regulate genetically modified crops in their countries.

Plant breeding adapted to local needs

While genetically modified crops are only cultivated commercially in very few countries in Africa, various research and development activities regarding GM crops are going on in a number of countries. In fact, many plants are already grown in trials (see table below). This regional research work targets crops and traits that are important for food security in Africa, like drought-resistant maize or biofortified cassava. This is an important difference to the commercialised GM crops, which were developed by western companies mainly for the US market.

Many of the research projects on GM crops are run by international consortia. Governments and foundations from industrialised countries fund the projects, private seed companies provide the basic technology royalty-free, and regional organisations are responsible for the overall coordination. The actual research and development is being done by western and regional universities and research institutes as well as by international agricultural research centres. Examples for such collaborations are the “Water Efficient Maize for Africa” (WEMA) or the “Africa Biofortified Sorghum” (ABS) projects.


Increasing cultivation of GMOs in three countries

Even though research is intensifying, genetically modified crops are still only cultivated commercially in three African countries: South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. South Africa authorised the first GM crops in 1998, Burkina Faso and Egypt followed ten years later.

By 2009 there were 2.2m hectares with GM maize, GM soybeans and GM cotton in South Africa. All three crops are available as herbicide-tolerant plants; for maize and cotton there are also insect-resistant varieties. In the case of cotton almost the entire acreage (98 per cent) was cultivated with GM varieties, for soybeans the share was 85 per cent and for maize 78 per cent. For the upcoming harvest, the South African Department of Agriculture forecasts a production of over 13m tonnes of maize, which is the biggest crop since 1982. GM varieties of both yellow and white maize are cultivated in South Africa. White maize is traditionally used as food (see figure), while yellow maize is used as feed. In South Africa it is above all smallholders, often women, who cultivate GM crops.

In Burkina Faso GM cotton was cultivated on 115,000 hectares in 2009. Thus, in the second year of cultivation, GM varieties already covered almost 30 per cent of the national cotton area. In the same year farmers in Egypt grew GM maize on 1,000 hectares. There were not enough seeds to plant a bigger acreage: because of problems with import licences, farmers could only use locally produced seeds.

 

Governments create authorities and legal frameworks

Preconditions for commercial cultivation of GM crops are the existence of competent regulatory authorities and practical legal provisions. Many African countries have already drawn up their own national biosafety frameworks to regulate the use of GM crops, often supported by the Global Environment Facility of the United Nations Development Program. However, most countries still need to complete the establishment of authorities that can approve field trials and the commercial cultivation of GM crops.

Recently, the 19 member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have taken a step forward when they proposed a common biosafety policy. The proposal of the trade bloc envisions a joint regional safety assessment of new genetically modified crops. This approach would allow the participating countries to combine their capacities and overcome regional bottlenecks. In any case, the cultivation decision would remain with each national government.

Most African countries have also signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety already. This international agreement governs the safe handling, transport and use of genetically modified organisms. At the fifth meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol in October, the participants agreed on general liability rules for the international trade with GMOs. In future, such liability issues will be dealt with according to national law. This outcome had also been promoted by African governments. In the context of this meeting Kenya’s Minister for Science and Technology declared that his country wants to create the legal groundwork to be able to benefit from the advantages that genetic engineering offers.

 


 

Genetically modified crops that are tested or cultivated in Africa

 

Crop

Trait

Country

Cotton

Insect resistance

Egypt, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe

Maize

Drought resistance, insect resistance

Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe

Cassava

Nutrient density, disease resistance, virus resistance

Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda

Cowpeas

Insect resistance

Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria

Sorghum

Nutrient density

Kenya, South Africa

Potato

Virus resistance, insect resistance, fungal resistance

Egypt, South Africa

Banana

Nutrient density, disease resistance, fungal resistance

Uganda

Sweet potato

Virus resistance

Kenya, South Africa

Sugarcane

Growth, sugar content, virus resistance

Egypt, Mauritius, South Africa

Coconut

Virus resistance

Ivory Coast, Ghana

Squash

Virus resistance

Egypt

Grapes

Fungal resistance

South Africa

 

 

Cowpeas for example

Insect-resistant cowpeas that were developed at African research institutes could be commercialised over the next years. Their protein content makes cowpeas an important staple crop to help counter malnutrition, and their hardiness should help them adapt to climate change. However, crop yields are threatened by the Maruca vitrata pod borer, an insect pest that currently costs African smallholders over 200 Million Euros and that they fight with strong insecticides.


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