Friday, March 31, 2023

Can the EU’s acceptance of GE maize imports influence Africa?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

The European Union (EU) is one of the regions that has, for some time, resisted the importation and cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops. But this changed at the beginning of July when the European Commission approved imports of GE maize for food and animal feed. This follows a similar approach with soya beans.

This authorisation for imports is valid for ten years but does not include cultivation. Imports will be subject to the EU’s labelling and traceability rules. After close to 25 years of opposition to GM crops, this perhaps signals a move to wider future acceptance of GM crops in the EU, though the recent concession was perhaps more forced by shortages and grain prices than European consumers’ support of the well-proven science.

Read more about biotechnology in South Africa here.

Importantly, some African countries arguably closely followed the EU’s approach on GE crops by prohibiting their imports and cultivation. With this new development in the EU, it is plausible that some African countries might consider evaluating their current restrictions, especially for vital staple grains such as maize. Kenya is one example – a country with maize import needs of 700 000 tons in the 2022/23 marketing year. Yet, Kenyan consumers cannot access the abundant GE maize in the world market, let alone utilise the crop technologies to reduce crop losses.

With a change in regulations, Kenya would be able to access more affordable maize from the likes of South Africa (SA), the United States (US) and South American countries, directly benefiting consumers and stimulating the struggling animal sector. The typical major suppliers of non-GE maize to Kenya have been Tanzania, Mexico and small volumes from Zambia and SA.

Read more about crop farmers’ agri input costs here.

Permitting cultivation

The most critical step in GE regulations, particularly in Africa, remains to permit cultivation. Of course, this typically introduces debates about the ownership of seeds and how smallholder farmers could struggle to obtain seeds and support inputs in some developing countries. These are realities that policymakers in the African countries should manage in terms of reaching agreements with seed breeders and technology developers without closing off innovation, as is currently the case.

The technology developers also need to be mindful of these concerns when engaging various governments in African countries. This discussion should occur even sooner in Africa, as the geopolitical and climate change risks present the urgency to explore the technological solutions to increase each country’s agricultural production.

Read more about the port of East London’s re-opening for maize exports here.

The only country that is an anomaly in Africa is SA, which began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2,4 tons per hectare. This has now increased to an average of 5,6 tons per hectare since the 2020/21 production season.

Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan African maize yields remain low, averaging below 2 tons per hectare. While yields are also influenced by improved germplasm (enabled by non-genetically modified biotechnology) and enhanced low and no-till production methods (facilitated through herbicide-tolerant GM technology), other benefits include labour savings and reduced insecticide use, as well as enhanced weed and pest control.

With the African continent currently struggling to meet its annual food needs, using technology, genetically modified (GM) seeds, and other means should be an avenue to explore to boost production. The benefits of an increase in agricultural output are evident in Argentina, Brazil, the US and SA. The EU, which has arguably had a major influence on the general perception of GE crops in Africa, is changing its stunts, at least on imports.

This should serve as an essential signal to African countries. Still, their actions shouldn’t aim to match that of the EU but go further and argue for access of these technologies to domestic farmers under fair agreements with the seed and technology developers, all of which can be negotiated at a country level.

Read more about plant cultivars and cultivar development here.

The EU doesn’t have as much urgency to improve maize yields through GE crops as much of Africa. The EU’s maize yields are comparable with SA, the US, Argentina and Brazil, which have long adopted GM seeds. In these countries, among others, GM seeds have had additional benefits such as lowering insecticide use, encouraging more environmentally friendly tillage practices and crop yield improvements.

The recent change will ensure that the EU can supplement its maize yields with imports from a range of countries that produce GE crops. For SA farmers, this is an opportunity to access a broader EU market for maize exports, as the government has already started exporting large volumes of maize to Italy. Ultimately, these are essential developments worth monitoring as they follow the example of China, which has also recently cleared the path for cultivating GM crops in the country.

In conclusion, the EU’s GE crops import approval is positive. However, it is unclear what it really means and is specific event/s approved. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz

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