Society still argues about the use of genetically modified (GM) crops. But two lessons are beyond the debate. Firstly, the GM crops have contributed to an increase in yields in countries that have adopted the seeds, notably the United States, Brazil and Argentina, amongst others. This is evidenced in a working paper by agricultural economists, Jayson Lusk, Jesse Tack and Nathan Hendricks, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in June 2017 (see here).

But there is also compelling evidence here at home. South Africa is the only country in the African continent that has thus far adopted the use of GM seeds. Thus, it is not surprising that South Africa produced 16% of sub-Saharan maize in the 2018/19 production season while utilising a relatively small area of 2.3 million hectares. In contrast, countries such as Nigeria planted 6.5 million hectares in the same production season but only harvested 11.0 million tonnes of maize, which equates to 15% of the sub-Saharan region’s maize output.

GM maize crops were introduced in South Africa in the 2001/02 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare, as illustrated in Exhibit 1 below. These have since increased to an average of 5.2 tonnes per hectare over the past five seasons. Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan Africa region’s maize yields remain negligible, averaging at levels below 2.0 tonnes per hectare.

Secondly, the 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 (Lusk et al., 2017). Another study that corroborates this observation is by agricultural economist, Graham Brookes, published in a Journal of Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain. Brookes assesses the economic and environmental impacts of using insect-resistant (GM) maize in Spain and Portugal over a period of 21 years (see here). The study found that the use of GM maize seeds resulted in reduced insecticide spraying, as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops.

This ultimately is a contribution towards improving food security. While society might continue to hold different views about the use of biotechnology, one thing we should not ignore is the aforementioned benefits and the improvement thereafter to those in need of affordable food supply. This is the good of GM seeds.

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Exhibit 1: South Africa’s maize yields have increased notably over time
Source: SAGIS, Agbiz Research


Follow me on Twitter (@WandileSihlobo). E-mail: wandile@agbiz.co.za

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