Plant genetic engineering in Africa

Increasing cultivation of GMOs in three countries

Even though research is intensifying, genetically modified crops are still only cultivated commercially in three African countries: South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt. South Africa authorised the first GM crops in 1998, Burkina Faso and Egypt followed ten years later.

By 2009 there were 2.2m hectares with GM maize, GM soybeans and GM cotton in South Africa. All three crops are available as herbicide-tolerant plants; for maize and cotton there are also insect-resistant varieties. In the case of cotton almost the entire acreage (98 per cent) was cultivated with GM varieties, for soybeans the share was 85 per cent and for maize 78 per cent. For the upcoming harvest, the South African Department of Agriculture forecasts a production of over 13m tonnes of maize, which is the biggest crop since 1982. GM varieties of both yellow and white maize are cultivated in South Africa. White maize is traditionally used as food (see figure), while yellow maize is used as feed. In South Africa it is above all smallholders, often women, who cultivate GM crops.

In Burkina Faso GM cotton was cultivated on 115,000 hectares in 2009. Thus, in the second year of cultivation, GM varieties already covered almost 30 per cent of the national cotton area. In the same year farmers in Egypt grew GM maize on 1,000 hectares. There were not enough seeds to plant a bigger acreage: because of problems with import licences, farmers could only use locally produced seeds.


Governments create authorities and legal frameworks

Preconditions for commercial cultivation of GM crops are the existence of competent regulatory authorities and practical legal provisions. Many African countries have already drawn up their own national biosafety frameworks to regulate the use of GM crops, often supported by the Global Environment Facility of the United Nations Development Program. However, most countries still need to complete the establishment of authorities that can approve field trials and the commercial cultivation of GM crops.

Recently, the 19 member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have taken a step forward when they proposed a common biosafety policy. The proposal of the trade bloc envisions a joint regional safety assessment of new genetically modified crops. This approach would allow the participating countries to combine their capacities and overcome regional bottlenecks. In any case, the cultivation decision would remain with each national government.

Most African countries have also signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety already. This international agreement governs the safe handling, transport and use of genetically modified organisms. At the fifth meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol in October, the participants agreed on general liability rules for the international trade with GMOs. In future, such liability issues will be dealt with according to national law. This outcome had also been promoted by African governments. In the context of this meeting Kenya’s Minister for Science and Technology declared that his country wants to create the legal groundwork to be able to benefit from the advantages that genetic engineering offers.


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