South Africa has a population of almost 56 million people and with a recent scourge of droughts in South Africa, feeding this many people can be difficult. However, according to Wandile Sihlobo, South African agricultural economist and columnist for Business Day and Farmer’s Weekly SA, South Africa’s maize yields have increased in production since 1919. In 1919 South Africa produced approximately 0.7 tonnes of maize per hectare, in 2010 almost five tonnes of maize per hectare were produced, and the amount produced is continuing to rise.

South Africa has a long history with Genetically Modified crops (GM) the first GM crops being planted in 1998. This came after the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act of 1997 came into effect. South Africa is now the 8th largest producer of GMOs in the world. The Public Understanding of Biotechnology, an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology, says that in 2012 to 2013 “86% of maize cultivated in South Africa is GM maize.”

Dr Sanushka Naidoo, Senior Genetics lecturer at UP and researcher at UP’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) explains that, “GMO, or Genetically Modified Organism, is an organism that now contains a novel trait, something that is new. You won’t find that by [cross breeding] and conventional breeding; you’ll find that it has a new gene that has been introduced into this organism.”

In South Africa, a large portion of our GM maize is known as Bt-crops. This is because they contain the protein Bacillus thuringiensis. This protein, which is produced by a common soil bacterium, acts as a pesticide, killing bugs that ingest it. Adding this to the DNA of the crop has reduced the amount of pesticides that need to be sprayed on crops, and has increased the survival rate of crops. Dr Naidoo says that Bt-crops have impacted many lives and that farmers have mostly positive stories regarding its use. She explained that now farmers only have to spray their crops once per season, whereas in the past it would have been five or six times. Bt-crops have also had a positive effect on economic growth.

Another avenue of interest in South Africa is drought-resistant crops. Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is developing drought tolerant crops for use in Sub–Saharan Africa. Dr Naidoo explains that although researchers are looking at GM options, they are also looking at naturally drought tolerant crops, including soy and cassava.

According to a 2010 article in Farmer’s Weekly SA, despite the drought in their region between 2014 and 2015, smallholder farmers who planted the first WEMA variety doubled their harvests. Dr Thula Dlamini, an agricultural economist from the Agricultural Research Council, said that “The technology guaranteed output in difficult production seasons. We expect that more smallholder farmers will be enticed back into agriculture because of the increased yields,”

Science’s involvement in food production has been recently controversial with people questioning the safety of GMOs and chemicals used in agriculture. Biosafety South Africa, an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and funded entirely from public sources, explains the safety of GMOs in South Africa saying, “Because GMOs are regulated across the world, GM crops and the foods derived from them have to undergo extensive scientific safety assessments before they are released and used in food production. To date no reliable evidence of any harm to humans, animal or the environment has been published for the approved, commercially available GM crops; they are therefore unlikely to present a risk to human health. In addition, there is no epidemiological evidence of any effects on human health based on the large-scale consumption of GM foods in the many countries where these crops have been used for almost 20 years now.” Dr Naidoo feels that because science appears so far removed from everyday life that people are afraid of it and believe it has negative intentions. Dr Naidoo wants to remind people that scientists are also members of the public saying that, “We also eat GM. we eat GM soy and we eat GM maize, and because we understand how its produced we have no fear of it.”

Dr. Naidoo explains that going forward, “We need to think about how science can integrate. We need to work together with people who are growing the crops routinely and working with farmers. We need to also be working with people who are specialising in different things so that we can come together and we can find some solutions that are specific for certain areas where [they] are maybe harder hit with biotic stress or they may be harder hit with drought stress.”

Image: The Genetic Literacy Project