GM maize: less work for her, and more maize for him

GM maize: less work for her, and more maize for him

One of the research papers I read this weekend was by agriculture economists, Marnus Gouse, Debdatta Sengupta, Patricia Zambrano, and José Falck Zepeda published in World Development, a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal, in July 2016. It assesses whether men and women farmers derive different benefits from using genetically modified (GM) maize in South Africa.

While GM crops were introduced in 1996 in the United States, with several countries following through in the years after, in South Africa, the first commercial GM maize was planted in 200/01. Since then, the maize area plantings in the country is over 85%.

There have been several writings about the contributions of GM maize in improving yields and also other non-yields benefits, as well as cost-savings from herbicides and pesticides which I highlighted in a Business Day today (see here). But there hasn’t been much research on the gender question that Gouse et al. (2016) focuses on. The study draws from data collected from smallholder farmers in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. It trenches over a period of eight seasons.

In brief, the study found that men preferred GM maize because of yield benefit (higher yields). Meanwhile, women farmers had a different motivation. They planted GM maize because of the quality and taste of maize (this surprised me), as well as because of it being labour-saving (women farmers save in weeding time).

Overall, what this research reveals is that men and women farmers in South Africa derive differentiated benefits from the cultivation of GM maize, at least from a perception point of view. This can be summed up by; growing GM maize means less work for her and more maize for him.

Download Gouse et al. (2016) paper here.

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The good of GM seeds

The good of GM seeds

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.

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

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Zimbabwe’s decision to lift a ban on GM maize imports could benefit South Africa in the near term

Zimbabwe’s decision to lift a ban on GM maize imports could benefit South Africa in the near term

Necessity is the mother of invention, and this rings true in Zimbabwe where the government is reformulating policy. The Zimbabwe government has for years maintained a ban on the importation or growing of genetically modified (GM) maize, but the current food shortages in the country have forced the government to change its policy stance. The ban on GM maize imports was lifted on the 31st of January 2020 as the country seeks to improve local supplies following yet another poor harvest season.

Zimbabwe’s maize production fell by 53% y/y in the 2018/19 production season to 800 000 tonnes, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. This was far below the country’s annual maize consumption of between 1.8 and 2.0 million tonnes. Therefore, the country had to import at least a million tonnes of maize in order to meet the local supply requirements.

But the dearth of timely and credible data has made it a challenge to track the maize importation activity into Zimbabwe. Observing from reports of food shortages at the beginning of the year, I am inclined to believe that the country was unable to import the required maize volume for the 2019/20 marketing year (this corresponds with the 2018/19 production season which was a drought year).

Zimbabwe imported 100 000 tonnes of maize from Tanzania in 2019, according to Japhet Hasunga, Tanzania’s Agriculture Minister, and 79 283 tonnes from South Africa between May 2019 and January 2020, according to data from the South African Grain Information Services. This data supports my view that Zimbabwe has thus far imported less than the required maize quantities to meet consumption requirements. The slow pace of imports might have been caused by fiscal constraints on the back of the country’s ongoing macroeconomic crisis. The stringent regulations on the importation of GM maize might have also contributed to the slow pace of imports.

South Africa had about 1.2 million tonnes of maize available for export markets in the 2019/20 marketing year which ends in April 2020, however, roughly 80% of its maize is produced from GM seeds. This means that South Africa was inhibited from supplying the Zimbabwean market under its stringent GM policy. This is evident from South Africa’s maize exports data; the country exported 900 585 tonnes of maize between May 2019 and January 2020. But Zimbabwe imported only a 9% share of this total volume. With international humanitarian organizations such as the World Food Programme actively assisting Zimbabwe to avert the current food crisis, the lifting of the GM maize import ban could accelerate maize import activity into Zimbabwe in the coming months. The maize might originate from South Africa and other leading maize exporting countries such as the United States, Brazil, Mexico and Russia, amongst others, who have in the past exported maize to Zimbabwe.

The challenge for countries aside from South Africa and Mexico is that they are not major white maize producers, which is the preferred maize variant across Southern Africa. Hence, the recent GM policy change will benefit maize exporters from South Africa and Mexico in the near term. Moreover, Zimbabwe’s maize deficit might not end in May 2020, which would have marked the end of their harvesting period. The country’s 2019/20 maize production season started on a bad footing because of delayed rainfall. The plantings were delayed and so far, the area planted and the expected maize harvest in the 2019/20 production season remains unclear but on the lower end.

Fortunately for Zimbabwean consumers, neighbouring South Africa and other major maize producing countries are expected to remain maize exporters in the 2020/21 marketing year (this corresponds with the 2019/20 production season). The locust infestation in East Africa could limit surpluses from that region, but overall global maize exports remain awash. For instance, at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz), we estimate that South Africa could see its maize harvest improving by at least 11% from the 2018/19 season, reaching 12.5 million tonnes. Here we’ve applied the preliminary maize planting data of 2.5 million hectares (up 10% y/y), at an average yield of 5.0 tonnes per hectare, which is plausible with current soil moisture.

This means South Africa could have over a million tonnes for export markets in the 2020/21 marketing year, which starts in May 2020. Part of these supplies will help ease pressure on Zimbabwean consumers, and trade should be more free-flowing now with the GM ban having been lifted.

These measures could assist in the near term. In the long run, the Zimbabwean authorities should consider legalizing the growing of GM maize in order for domestic farmers to produce higher yields such as South Africa, Brazil, United States and other GM growing countries. The ultimate beneficiaries of such a policy shift would be consumers, as an increase in Zimbabwe’s maize production would lead to relatively lower prices. Moreover, in seasons of unfavourable weather conditions, GM crops wouldn’t be as badly affected as the conventional seeds that are currently grown in Zimbabwe. Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention.

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