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The Chinese National Crop Variety Approval Committee released two standards that clear the path for cultivating genetically modified (GM) crops in the country. We understand that this has been the missing piece in the regulations for the commercial production of GM maize and soya beans in China, as the government has two steps in these regulations, namely, a safety certificate and a variety approval before crops can be commercially cultivated.
Various GM maize and soya bean varieties have received the safety certificate since 2019, and the missing piece has been the variety approval, which has now been approved. This means the full approval and commercialisation of GM crops in China is a real possibility. This message was also echoed by the Chinese Agriculture Ministry, noting that “China plans to approve more GM maize varieties”.
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What this means for agriculture
Currently, China imports GM maize and soya beans but prohibits domestic cultivation of the crops. The change in regulations would potentially lead to an improvement in yields. This is aligned with China’s ambition of becoming self-sufficient in essential grain and oilseeds.
Currently, China’s maize yields are comparable with the likes of South Africa, the United States (US), Argentina and Brazil, which have long adopted GM seeds. The added benefit is that in countries like the US, Brazil and Argentina, among others, GM seeds have had additional benefits such as lowering insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practices and crop yield improvements. This insight is demonstrated in a research paper by Purdue and Kansas universities’ agricultural economists, Jayson Lusk, Jesse Tack and Nathan Hendricks. If maize and soya bean yields improve in the coming years, China’s import dependence could lessen.
Currently, China is one of the world’s largest maize and soya bean importers. The country accounted for 13% of global maize imports in 2021 and roughly 60% of the world’s soya bean imports. A reduced volume of China’s soya beans and maize imports in the global market would mean downward pressure on global prices. However, we do not foresee this happening within the next two seasons as widespread planting of GM crops in China will likely take some time.
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Lessons for African countries
There are also lessons here for the African countries, which, for a long time, have resisted the cultivation of GM crops. South Africa is the only exception in the African continent that has embraced the use of GM crops. According to the International Grains Council, South Africa produces approximately 16% of sub-Saharan maize, utilising a relatively small area of an average of 2,5 million hectares since 2010.
In contrast, countries such as Nigeria planted 6,5 million hectares in the same production season, but only harvested 11 million tons of maize, equating to 15% of the sub-Saharan region’s maize output. Irrigation has been an added factor in South Africa, but not to a large extent, as only 10% of the country’s maize is irrigated, with 90% being rainfed and making it similar to other African countries.
South Africa began planting genetically engineered maize seeds in the 2001/02 season. Before its introduction, average maize yields were around 2,4 tons/ha. This has now increased to an average of 5,6 tons/ha as of the 2020/21 production season. Meanwhile, the sub-Saharan African maize yields remain low, averaging below 2 tons/ha. While yields are also influenced by improved germplasm (enabled by non-GM biotechnology) and improved 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, 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 the likes of Argentina, Brazil, the US and South Africa. Many African governments should re-evaluate their regulatory standards and embrace technology. Of course, this typically introduces debates about the ownership of seeds and how smallholder farmers could struggle to obtain seeds 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, but not close off innovation. The technology developers also need to be mindful of these concerns when engaging various governments in the African countries.
Geopolitical and climate change risks present the urgency to explore the technological solutions to increase each country’s agricultural production. The Chinese regulators are following that path. South African farmers and agri-businesses will need to pay close attention to these developments. The increase in production in other parts of the world, specifically in maize, where South Africa is a net exporter, could bring increased competition and downward pressure on prices in the medium term. Some of South Africa’s key maize export markets are South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam, and all have proximity to China.
If China progressively increases production and becomes a consistent net exporter of maize, South Africa will have to explore markets elsewhere, which would be a challenge. This is one aspect that must be kept in mind for the long-term growth of the domestic agricultural sector. – Wandile Sihlobo, Agbiz