South African farmers who have been early adopters of genetically modified (GM) seed technology are in the fortunate position of not only having access to the best seed technology available, but also of benefit from the widespread use of GM insect-resistant (IR) and herbicide-tolerant (HT) traits. CropLife SA brings us some expert insight into the advantages of GM seed technology.
For farmers, indirect advantages of adopting this technology include increased crop yields due to reduced crop losses and damage, higher farmer incomes and livelihoods, the use of fewer resources, and greater flexibility in managing weeds and pests.
Although evidence so far indicates that smallholder users of the technology have also reaped similar advantages, this success does not apply equally to smallholder farmers in every region of South Africa.
Lesley Mabasa, a representative of Mega Biotech Solutions, a service provider appointed by CropLife SA to coordinate and implement biotech maize demonstration trials, tells us more.
Seeing is believing
Mabasa explains that trials are established for demonstration purposes to showcase the potential of biotechnology crops and how beneficial the technology can be.
“In 2022 and 2023 during the maize planting season, CropLife established demo trials to showcase the benefits of biotechnology. It is a dual technology with pest control for maize stalk borer, and herbicide-tolerant crops for weed control for small-scale farmers in the Limpopo province,” he says.
Mabasa explains that adopting the technology is easy once farmers see results. Another reason for trials is to assess the feasibility and viability of the technology. It helps farmers to make informed decisions based on their trial experience.
There are different types of trials for different purposes. Smallholder farmers are targeted because they are poorly resourced in most cases.
“It matters where trials are planted. For example, if you want to plant drought-tolerant maize for demo trials, the demo trials will be established in areas where drought is a challenge to crop production,” Mabasa explains.
On the other hand, it is pointless to plant drought-tolerant maize under irrigation because the trial will not issue the correct results.
Exposure to technology
For farmers to use biotech seeds, they need to be exposed to the technology so that they can make an informed decision, Mabasa explains.
“Biotech seed technology is the use of improved seed varieties through thorough research to address challenges such as drought, pests, weeds, and others. The aim is not to convince but to expose,” he says.
Herbicide technology is aimed at weed management. It is a simplified way of controlling weeds that compete with plants for nutrients, air, water, and sunlight. “The herbicide application is easier in terms of operation; it costs less compared to hiring labour to do the weeding.
“On the other hand, when it comes to insect-resistant crops, they are specific and control maize stalk borer.”
Maize with insect resistance is called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) maize and is hardly eaten by maize stalk borer. Meanwhile, the maize stalk borer can damage non-Bt maize resulting in yield loss.
“Farmers will be then taken to the field for exposure to see the effectiveness of both herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant technologies that will be demonstrated to them. They will be able to see a rapid test experiment being performed proving that maize without pest damage has the Bt trait in it and that non-Bt maize does not have the trait,” he says.
Once farmers see the experiments performed, knowledge is easily built.
“It’s not something farmers are told. It is something that they have first-hand experience with and in such a manner skills are transferred.”
According to Mabasa, with any trial, there are challenges.
“We do experience different challenges and risks. Some relate to biotic and abiotic factors, others are natural disasters, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Currently, we are also experiencing heatwaves as a challenge.”
Other challenges include theft during the trial period and lack of proper equipment and implements, making it difficult to plant according to trial parameters.
There are cost benefits for farmers using biotech crops. “Farmers planting biotech crops realise good yields. Their operations cost far less than those who are using conventional methods; that’s where we talk about the costs of labour compared to conventional costs,” says Mabasa.
“Essentially, it is up to farmers to adopt the technology. The aim is to empower farmers and not to impose.”
Sign up for Farmer’s Inside Track: Join our exclusive platform for new entrants into farming and agri-business, with newsletters and podcasts.