A new chance for genetically modified crops

The European Union is reviewing its rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with a view to relaxing restrictions on genetically modified (GE) crops. It is a welcome initiative and African countries should consider emulating it.

There are fewer controversial topics in global agriculture. Many fear that GM crops will have adverse effects on the environment and health and risk undermining food sovereignty, as the handful of companies that make the seeds may gain undue power over global agricultural production – and the farmers who produce them. It is because of these fears that the EU and most African countries are currently restricting the cultivation of GM crops.

And yet, many countries – including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Uruguay, Paraguay and my country, South Africa – have adopted transgenic crops. These countries generally subscribe to the view that gene editing in crops is safe, as it primarily accelerates natural processes.

Additionally, advocates argue, gene editing may be the key to developing more resilient and sustainable crops. These claims are supported by significant evidence: countries that have adopted GM crops report reduced insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practices and improved crop yields.

South Africa is a good example. We started to plant genetically modified corn seeds extensively during the 2001-02 season. Previously, 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 has managed to produce almost 20 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s maize on just 2.5 million hectares of land.

In contrast, Nigeria typically plants around 6.5 million hectares of maize, but accounts for only 15 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s production, according to data from the International Grains Council. Across the region, maize yields average less than two tonnes per hectare. And irrigation does not explain the difference: only 10 percent of South African maize is irrigated; the rest of the harvest is rainfed, as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

For the EU, the benefits of GM crops are becoming impossible to ignore. Like a recently published study According to the European Commission, “the products of new genomic techniques have the potential to contribute to sustainable agrifood systems in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and the farm-to-fork strategy”.

The Commission hopes to be able to harness the potential of transgenic crops to “ contribute to sustainability ”, while “ addressing concerns ”, for example by preventing gene editing in agriculture from “ undermining other aspects. sustainable food production ”, such as organic farming. It will be a difficult road to travel. As the study shows, there is still significant resistance to transgenic crops among Member States, and many are calling for a more in-depth risk assessment.

Yet there is also significant support for change. German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner welcomed the possibility of a “late modernization” of the EU’s approach to GM crops, which are currently subject to the same rules as GMOs. France has previously expressed support for the creation of separate rules for transgenic crops.

If the EU relaxes its restrictions on transgenic crops, the effects will extend far beyond its borders. On the one hand, higher yields of European crops will put downward pressure on world grain prices by creating additional competition for major grain exporters, such as the United States, Ukraine, Argentina. , Russia, Brazil, Canada and South Africa.

But this is only the beginning. The EU decision could also prompt African countries that have yet to adopt GM crops to rethink their approach. Like the EU, African countries should “respond to concerns” related to the adoption of GM crops. For example, they should ensure that smallholder farmers – who may not be able to afford transgenic seeds every season – are not left behind.

The obstacles are real, but overcoming them will be worth it. Amid rapid population growth and increased competition for land, water and other resources, the case for using proven technologies to produce more food more efficiently is stronger than ever. .

: Project union

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