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Plant genetic engineering in Africa

Disease-resistant bananas, drought-tolerant maize

Currently, genetically modified crops are only cultivated in three African countries on a commercial basis. However, in research and development plant biotechnology is already used more and more. Scientists work above all 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.

Bananas for example: In early October field trials with genetically modified bananas started in Uganda. They are resistant against the pathogen Xanthomonas. Since ten years these bacteria are spreading in banana plantations in central Africa where local farmers suffer damages of half a billion US dollars each year. Now the resistance technology is tested for the first time in the field. Foto: A. B. /

Maize for example: Still in 2010, field trials with drought-resistant maize are to begin in Kenya and Uganda. Maize is an important staple crop in Africa, but the plant suffers easily from drought. The objective of the researchers is to increase maize yields under drought conditions by 30 percent. As the development costs are borne by western donors, once commercialised the seeds will not be more expensive than conventional seeds. - Photo: Cultivation of maize in Zambia. Droughts affect yields (F.Sands/USAID)

Diagram Maize South Africa

South Africa: 80 percent of the white maize is genetically modified
In South Africa most of the cultivated maize is white maize, which is used as food. By now genetically modified varieties dominate maize cultivation in South Africa. – In 2009/10 the total acreage under GM maize was 1.9m hectares.

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. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Nguyễn Thanh Quang

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%) was cultivated with GM varieties, for soybeans the share was 85 percent and for maize 78 percent. For the upcoming harvest, the South African Department of Agriculture forecasts a production of over 13m tons 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 percent 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.

In early October 2010, 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

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