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May 17, 2010

In South Africa, the welcome mat is out for gene-modified crops

by Philip Brasher

The landscape in this area east of Johannesburg, a slightly rolling plain with fields of tall corn, could almost pass for the American Midwest. Except for one feature - the giant yellowish mounds that are remnants of abandoned gold mines.

There's another similarity that's less visible. Much of the corn, including a field that farmer Tommie Olckers is checking, contains a bacterium gene, known as Bt, that makes the stalks toxic to an insect pest.

The type of gene-altered corn that dominates corn production in Iowa is just as popular with growers in South Africa. More than 70 percent of South Africa's latest corn crop, the country's largest in decades, is biotech.

The U.S. government and American biotech seed giants Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto hope the popularity of the biotech corn in South Africa will eventually spread to other countries in eastern and southern Africa where corn is a staple food.

The biotech seed "makes your management easier and it increases your yield," said Olckers, production manager for Schoeman Estates, which controls 23,000 acres in the Delmas area.

The Bt gene eliminates the work of monitoring fields for the moths that will lay eggs in the plants and spraying the fields multiple times each growing season to kill them. Without insect damage, the corn is less susceptible to fungal toxins that can damage grain quality. Also, some of the corn lines best adapted to this area, including a fast-growing Pioneer variety Olckers buys, are biotech.

Around here, Olckers said he has increased yields by more than one-third. Yields have been even better, he says, in a region toward the Zimbabwe border where Schoeman Estates also grows corn.

Industry officials say an even larger share of South Africa's corn crop would be biotech except for the bans on biotech food in other African countries that import the grain.

Indeed, most of the corn that Olckers grows is actually of conventional varieties that are not genetically modified organisms, or non-GMO for short. But Olckers said he does that only because his buyer is selling the grain for export and is willing to pay a substantial premium, about 150 rand a ton, or about 50 cents a bushel.

"If the premium were not there and we don't have the niche market for non-GMO maize, we will definitely go to GM maize just for the (ease of) management," he said.

South African farmers planted 4.7 million acres of biotech corn in 2009, or 73 percent of the total crop, up from 29 percent in 2005. U.S. corn farmers planted about 86 percent biotech.

Some agribusiness executives linked that increase to the lack of government farm programs. After the fall of apartheid in the 1990s, the new black government swept away the system of market controls that had guaranteed the country's white farmers a stable income.

Consumers still enjoy a plentiful, relatively inexpensive, domestically produced food supply, including grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, dairy products and wine and beer. But the number of producers has plummeted as farmers have consolidated, from 58,000 in 1993 to fewer than 40,000 today.

With no federal subsidies, market controls or disaster aid to fall back on, farmers are on their own to manage their risk, through contracting, hedging, buying crop insurance, varying the crops they plant, or through the use of biotech seed.

Corn acreage has shrunk dramatically in recent years as farmers have abandoned marginal lands. Yet both yields and production have risen sharply, in part because of the biotech seeds, say U.S. Agriculture Department experts here. Yields in recent years are up 50 percent from the 1990s. This year's crop is so big - the second largest in the country's history - that 30 percent could be exported.

Some new, black farmers - "emerging farmers" as they are known here - swear by the biotech corn.

Samuel Moloi grows 156 acres of corn on land that he rents in the Free State province, a vast region of prairies in South Africa's interior. He uses GM seeds that are both insect-resistant and immune to Roundup herbicide. He says he spends less on diesel by using his tractor less and less on labor because he doesn't have to hire workers to cut the weeds, a common practice in Africa.

"The GM seed is a little bit higher (in cost), but it does a fantastic, a wonderful job for me," he said.

The black farmers are being aided by commodity groups that are wary of a repeat of what happened to the north in Zimbabwe, when blacks seized white commercial-scale farms and agricultural production collapsed. Moloi has been mentored by a representative of Grain South Africa.

The South African government, however, has struggled to figure out how to help farmers such as Moloi obtain their own land without taking it away from whites.

No data exist on how many black or small-scale farmers buy the biotech seed. However, Charles Matlou, who grew up on a small farm in northern South Africa and now works with small-scale farmers for Pioneer, says they are uneducated and slow to change. But they like the seeds once they try them and find that they have less insect damage and better yields, he said.

"The benefits at the end of the day outweigh the cost of the seed itself," Matlou said.

It's not clear yet whether and how quickly South Africa's rapid acceptance of genetically engineered crops will spread to other countries, particularly those where corn is a staple crop. Nor is it certain how much biotechnology will expand even in South Africa. Biotech versions of cotton and soybeans also are permitted here, but those are minor crops.

The government recently nixed plans for an insect-resistant potato out of trade concerns, according to media reports.

South Africa approved the first biotech crops at a time when the relatively new black government was under international pressure to liberalize its markets, said Marian Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety, an anti-biotech group in Johannesburg that wants the government to require labeling of foods with biotech ingredients. The government will accept biotech crops previously approved in the United States but won't risk allowing other products, she said.

"South Africa still believes the U.S. is the benchmark for high food safety standards," she said.

Columbia University's Pedro Sanchez, who won the 2002 World Food Prize for his innovations in improving agricultural production, believes poor farmers in eastern and southern Africa could benefit significantly from genetically modified drought-tolerant corn varieties being developed for the region.

But he doubts South Africa provides much of a model for improving those farmers' methods, since they are generally poorer and lack the access to highways and other necessities that exist across South Africa.

"Their level of infrastructure development is so much higher, maybe not their level of education, but their level of infrastructure," he said.

Pioneer's Matlou says he is convinced farmers in other countries could benefit from the technology, too. "Actually, that's my dream," he said. "If I had all those powers, I would go to all these countries and show all these farmers the benefits."

Des Moines Register

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