South Africa a GM success story or biotech nightmare?

Position:GM INDUSTRY - Genetically modified

South Africa has been at the forefront of GM crop production in Africa. It was the first African country to start up commercial GM crop production. Bt cotton was introduced during the harvest year spanning 1997 and 1998. A year later, the authorities gave the green light for the production of Bt maize, and Bt yellow maize was immediately planted for the 1998 to 1999 harvest season. This was followed up in the 2001-2002 harvest with Bt white maize.

South Africa then went down in history as the first ever country in the world to become a subsistence producer of GM crops. In the same year herbicide-tolerant (HT) cotton came into commercial production, as did herbicide-resistant soya beans. Over the harvest season for 2003 to 2004, herbicide-tolerant maize also made it onto the commercial market. In subsequent years, some hybrid Bt and HT crops have also been developed, including Bt and HT maize, which was introduced in the harvest season of 2007 to 2008.

There are indications that in certain contexts, GM crops have benefited South African farmers, at least in the early years of production. For example, one study by the International Food Policy Research Institute indicates that Bt cotton planting has been advantageous for South African farmers in the Tonga, eastern South Africa and Makhathini Flats in northern KwaZulu Natal. Ninety percent of cotton farmers in the regions adopted the Bt variety within five years of its introduction. South African farmers increased yields as a result of using Bt cotton rather than conventional seeds, and also spent less on insecticides, claims the study. Although the Bt cotton seeds were more expensive than regular seeds, better yields and lower expenditure on costly insecticide ultimately meant that farmers gained from GM.

Nonetheless, Bt does not completely eliminate the effects of insects, so Bt cotton has not done away with all insecticide costs for South African farmers. The International Food Policy Research Institute report states that the yield that Bt cotton plantings produced also depended on factors like the intensity of bollworm infestations and the ability of farmers to deal with infestations through spraying.

Furthermore, the planting of Bt cotton seems to have been successful in the Flats of South Africa because the farming context was particularly favourable. For example, credit and necessary chemicals were at the disposal of farmers. So were ready markets for their cotton products. In addition...

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