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April 10, 2008

GM maize field trials show 20% yield increases: AfricaBio

Despite the genetically modified (GM) crop debate that continues to rage, the AfricaBio association on April 10 celebrated five years of successful white maize demonstration trials, which recorded average yield increases of over 20%, and went some way to secure a sustainable food supply for emergent farmers.

As global food shortages and escalating food prices continued to make headlines, AfricaBio executive director professor Jocelyn Webster emphasised that Africa could benefit from GM technology, but said that "strict regulatory procedures" were slowing down the adoption.

A shortage of funding for agricultural biotechnology research was also slowing down South African participation in the industry, she said.

South Africa is the only African country commercially growing GM crops, and currently, over 50% of the country's maize, 70% of its soya, and 90% of its cotton that is grown is genetically modified. About 1,8-million ha of GM crops were planted in South Africa in 2007, an increase of 30% from 2006.

Webster affirmed that biotechnology, or technologically enhanced seeds, were not a stand-alone ‘cure-all', and farmers still needed basic agricultural knowledge and good farming practices before technology could help.

"It is important that the technology is used responsibly, safely, and ethically," added AfricaBio chairperson Dr David Keetch. The safety approval mechanism for any GM crop required extensive testing and independent scientific reviews to ensure its safety to human health, and the surrounding environment.

AfricaBio is involved in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, with training programmes and workshops for agricultural biotechnology development, and provided assistance to emerging farmers.

The demonstration trials conducted by AfricaBio used a genetically engineered seed making the maize plant less susceptible to the effects of the maize stalkborer - a pest that penetrates the stalk and feeds on the cobs. The project was in collaboration with the National African Farmers Union, the Buhle Farmers academy, Cedara Agricultural college, provincial Departments of Agriculture, and the emergent farmers.

The trials took place on 53 demonstration sites in six provinces, and over the five years cob damage reduced to an average 0,6% in the biotechnology (BT) maize plats, compared with over 14% damage in the conventional plots.

Emergent farmer Motlatsi Musi whose land in Olifantsvlei, in Soweto, was used for the trial explained that his yield had increased by 34%. With the extra money earned from selling the maize, he was able to buy a hammer mill, as well as a tractor, and now milled for his neighbours, thereby earning an extra income.

"A farmer will always look for the cheapest way to produce the best quality and highest yield. Our customers are not scared or worried about eating or buying BT maize," Musi added as he showed journalists his plot, which clearly distinguished BT plants from non-BT plants.

Surrounding farmers who gathered at Musi's farm also indicated an eagerness to plant the GM crops, but it was apparent that an education process of what was involved would need to go along with that.

It was said that a 20 kg bag of GM maize seed was a "couple hundred rand more than a bag of conventional maize," but from the increase of the yields at the end of the day, a small-scale farmer could potentially boost his income by thousands.

Testing of BT crops was taking place throughout Africa, and would likely commercialise in the future. Various African presidents have indicated that the continent would need to increase food production 12-fold to satisfy the needs of the population, and stated that Africa should acquire and adopt biotechnology to meet this requirement.

The next GM trait viewed as potentially having great effect, would be the drought resistant crop, which would still need to be tested in South Africa before being made commercially available.

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