Some African countries are still sceptical about the health risks associated with Genetically Modified (GM) crops. However, farmers in the southern tip of the continent, South Africa, have long been planting GM crops for over a decade and there seem to be minimal health risks, but rather greater benefits in terms of yields and savings on inputs cost.
A recent study by agricultural economists Jayson Lusk, Jesse Tack and Nathan Hendricks shows that the adoption of GM maize has led to a 17% increase in yields across the globe. Moreover, the study shows that there are several other benefits from the adoption of GM crops beyond yield increases. These non-yield benefits come in the form of labour savings, reduced insecticide use, and improved weed and pest control which has facilitated the ability to adopt low and no-till production methods and utilise higher planting densities.
This shows that the restrictions on the growing of GM maize crop in African countries deprive farmers an opportunity to prosper like other nations such as South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the US, amongst others.
One might raise the point of Mexico, which has also banned the growing of GM crop. However, Mexico is an exception for two specific reasons. Firstly, maize is a heritage crop in Mexico, therefore the country strives to maintain the pure genes of the crop – as a national pride. Secondly, Mexico does import the GM crop, particularly from the US, it just domestic planting that is restricted.
GM maize crops were introduced in South Africa in the 2001/2002 season. Before the introduction of GM maize, average yields in South Africa were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare, but these increased to around 6.4 tonnes per hectare in the 2016/2017 production year, which is the highest average national commercial yield on the African continent to date. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan African average maize yields have remained at levels below 2 tonnes per hectare.
The benefits of planting GM crops were further exemplified in 2017 when the African continent was hit by an outbreak of the Fall Armyworms. Countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia relied heavily on pesticides to mitigate spread of the pest, whereas South Africa had minimal damage, with GM crops proving to be resistant to the pest.
Given these pest outbreaks (and benefits of GM crops), 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?
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