South Africa has reaped significant gains through genetically modified white maize

By Joseph Maina 

South Africa has reaped significant gains through genetically modified (GM) white maize in the past two decades, with significant gains recorded in the welfare of smallholder farmers who depend on the crop.

The successful cultivation of the crop has led to improved food security and pits South Africa as a continental success story in plant biotechnology, given that it was the first GM subsistence crop producer in the world following its adoption of the cultivar in 2001-2002.

South Africa’s total welfare benefits attributable to GM white maize between 2001–2018 amount to $694.7 million, notes a study conducted by a combined team from University of Arkansas and Kansas State University in USA, Agricultural Research Council, South Africa, and Ghent University, Belgium.

White maize is the only staple crop produced in South Africa on a widespread commercial basis for direct human consumption using GM cultivars. The country also grows GM soya and cotton.

“Food security benefits attributable to GM white maize in South Africa also manifest through an average of 4.6 million additional white maize rations annually,” states the report.

The additional land required to achieve these increased annual rations using conventional hybrid maize would range from 1088 ha in 2001 to 217,788 ha in 2014. By growing more productive GM crops, farmers can avoid bringing new land into cultivation.

Despite its relative advancement compared to other countries in the continent, South Africa has still had to contend with food insecurity among segments of its population.

“Although the World Bank classifies South Africa as an upper-middle-income country, food insecurity is an ongoing concern for a large segment of its population,” notes the report, adding that 11% of individuals and 10% of households in South Africa were vulnerable to hunger in 2018.

Additional factors have further worsened the country’s food security situation, such as the drought experienced in the last decade, which saw an increase in the prices of white maize. This had adverse consequences particularly on vulnerable households.

“There has been a marginal increase in the prevalence of undernourishment from five percent (2.8 million people) in 2014 to six percent (3.5 million people) in 2017”, the report states, adding, “In 2014–2015, 22% of households experienced food insecurity due to a severe drought and subsequent staple food price shocks.”

The study also compared the environmental impacts per hectare of GM and non-GM white maize production, with results indicating that GM maize reduces environmental damage by $0.34 per hectare or $291,721 annually, compared to conventional hybrid white maize.

In 2017, South Africa commercially produced approximately 1.1 million hectares  of GM varieties for direct human consumption. According to the study, adoption of GM white maize has contributed an average of 4.6 million additional annual rations with a high of 7.4 million in 2017 and a low of 29,215 in 2001. Between 2001 and 2018, GM white maize adoption has contributed 83.5 million additional rations of maize.

The study should help address some of the major criticisms that have been leveled against GM crops, which range from inability to increase food security and lack of producer profitability, through a medium that few GM studies have hitherto analyzed — a field-to-plate crop.

“These results are important as they refute, at least in the South African context, an often-cited criticism of GM crops have ambiguous effects on food insecurity”.

GM white maize ecosystem benefits were estimated to amount to $5 million from 2001 to 2018, citing lower pesticide requirements for GM white maize over conventional varieties as a key variable.

In their conclusion, the authors note that adoption of GM maize in South Africa has contributed to additional maize supply, which may have improved local and regional food security

They present GM technology as a strong candidate among other efforts to mitigate food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa. The threat of climate change and its effects on sub-Saharan agriculture – particularly maize production, have further magnified concerns surrounding food security.

“As we face a hotter and drier future, agricultural technologies such as GM may be one of the most salient ways to combat food insecurity while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production”, notes the study.

Earlier this year, a report published in the journal Nature Food showed that GM maize has produced higher yields than conventional hybrid varieties in South Africa, using data collected over a 28-year period.