THE BLOG

Africa Should Follow In South Africa's ‘Food Steps’ And Embrace Genetic Modification

Not only do genetically modified crops withstand some pests, they also boost productivity.

25/01/2018 09:39 SAST | Updated 25/01/2018 09:39 SAST
Riccardo Gangale/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images
An agriculture officer inspects maize plants damaged by fall armyworm in the Trans Mzoia region of Kenya, on Wednesday, May 24, 2017.

I was reminded this weekend of an article I wrote for Business Day late last year, arguing that Africa would do well to follow South Africa's lead in order to feed her children.

In the article, I discussed the continent's standing in global grain production in anticipation of the 2016-17 bumper maize harvest in some Southern African countries. However, I also offered a cautious view regarding the 2017-18 production season, which is currently underway:

'There are still risks that could turn things on their head, most notably the possibility of a return of the fall armyworm. The Zambian government has already warned it expects another outbreak and it will be working closely with farmers to manage the situation if it recurs'.

These words came hurtling into my head this weekend when I read on the news that Zambia's maize production could decline from the 2016-17 production season's level of 2.8 million tonnes (the magnitude of the expected decline was not specified).

The reasons offered for this expected decline include the outbreak of the fall armyworms and the late delivery of farming inputs in areas under a government-subsidised programme, among others.

The presence of the fall armyworm makes this seem like a repeat of the 2016-17 production seasons challenge, where countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia had to rely heavily on pesticides and other measures to mitigate the effect of the pest.

South Africa is still the only African country that grows genetically modified maize, so it is not surprising that it produced 26 percent of sub-Saharan maize in the 2016-17 production season.

Meanwhile, while there was also an outbreak of the fall armyworm in South Africa, farmers experienced minimal crop damage as genetically modified crops proved far more resistant.

More than 80 percent of South Africa's maize production is now genetically modified, which is why the country managed to harvest its biggest crop in history last year - 17.5-million tonnes - despite the worm.

South Africa is still the only African country that grows genetically modified maize, so it is not surprising that it produced 26 percent of sub-Saharan maize in the 2016-17 production season while using a relatively small land area of 2.6-million hectares.

In contrast, countries such as Nigeria planted 4-million hectares and only harvested 7.2-million tonnes.

This shows that not only do genetically modified crops withstand some pests, they also boost productivity. Given these pest outbreaks, we should ask whether it's time for Africa to follow in South Africa's "food steps" and embrace genetic modification technology in order to boost production and feed her children.