Rethink GMO rules for gene-edited crops – Sihlobo

South Africa should follow in Germany’s footsteps and modernise its rules and views on genetically modified crops. This is the view of Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo. Biosafety South Africa says such crops can withstand climate change.

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Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo says Africa ought to also loosen up rules for genetically engineered crops. This, after Germany’s agriculture minister, Julia Kloeckner, welcomed the “overdue modernisation” of European Union policy enabling gene-editing technology.

“She is right,” believes Sihlobo, referring to Kloeckner who this week called on the EU to review the legal framework for gene-editing which said could help farmers produce sufficient food sustainably.

Sihlobo says, “The EU’s decision could also inspire African countries that have not yet embraced gene-edited crops to rethink their approach. Like the EU, African countries would need to address concerns related to GE-crop adoption. For example, they would need to ensure that smallholder farmers, who may not be able to afford to purchase GE seeds every season, are not left behind.”

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Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz. Photo: Supplied.
Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

While the obstacles are real, tackling them will be well worth the effort, believes Sihlobo.

”Amid rapid population growth and intensifying competition for land, water, and other resources, the case for taking advantage of proven technologies to produce more food more efficiently is stronger than ever.”

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He furthermore mentions that many other countries, including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Uruguay, Paraguay and South Africa, have embraced gene-edited crops.

“These countries generally subscribe to the view that gene editing in crops is safe, because it mostly just accelerates natural processes. Moreover, advocates argue, gene editing may be the key to developing more resilient, sustainable crops.”

Backed by science

According to Sihlobo these claims are backed by significant evidence.

“Countries that have embraced GE crops report lower insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practices, and improved crop yields. South Africa is a case in point. We began planting GE maize seeds widely in the 2001-2002 season. Prior to that, average maize yields were around 2.4 tonnes per hectare.

“Last season, that figure was 5.9 tonnes per hectare. As a result, South Africa managed to produce nearly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s maize on only about 2.5 million hectares of land.”

He says, by contrast, Nigeria typically plants about 6.5 million hectares of maize, but accounts for only 15% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s output, according to data from the International Grains Council.

Dr Hennie Groenewald, executive manager at Biosafety South Africa, says growing genetically engineered crops has made inroads into food production and revolves mainly around herbicide tolerance and resistance to insects.

Dr Hennie Groenewald, executive manager at Biosafety South Africa. Photo: Supplied/ Food For Mzansi

“The scientific advantages of genetically modified organisms (GMO) include less frequent application of pesticides, more rapid plant growth, increased food supply at reduced cost, foods with a longer shelf life and, importantly, crops that can withstand climate change elements such as drought.”

Scientists believe that it is possible to responsibly develop and use GMOs sustainably, within an appropriate sustainability framework, adds Groenewald.

“One of the measures taken to assure this, is that only authorised people in laboratories can reconfigure genes in crop plants or add new genes to it. An even more important aspect to take into consideration is that a GMO must undergo strict risk analysis before it can be approved for commercial use.”

GMO crops: Cotton is now grown in five provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and North West. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Cotton is now grown in five provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and North West. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Road ahead for GMO cultivation

Groenewald reveals that in South Africa, the number of hectares in the country covered by GMO crops, is estimated at more than 2,3 million hectares.

Three commercially grown GMO commodities have been established, namely cotton, maize (85%) and soya beans (95%). Cotton was the first genetically modified crop to be approved and today 100% of locally cultivated cotton is gene-edited.

“GMOs are potentially novel, living organisms with a genetic trait that may not have been associated with the particular organism previously,” adds Groenewald.

“This new trait may impact the way the organism interacts with its environment, for example growing, propagating, or the ability to act as a food source for other organisms. They must therefore be regulated and scientifically assessed for safety reasons before they can be released and consumed.”

He furthermore notes that the cultivation of GMO crops is deemed to be a well-established system in South Africa. “It is functioning effectively, and little has changed over the last few years since legislation was passed in respect of the development and use of GM products.”

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