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Advances in Crop Technology Benefit Africa’s Smallholder Farmers
January 28, 2015

Smallholder farmers in Africa are starting to reap the rewards of steady advances in crop technology.

One of the most promising advances for farmers is agricultural biotechnology. With nearly 3 million hectares planted in maize, soybeans and cotton from seeds derived from biotechnology, South Africa ranks as the leading sub-Saharan country to grow biotech crops, according to a new report from the nonprofit International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the world’s leading network of agricultural research centers. South Africa grows three biotech crops: maize, soybean and cotton.

In 2014, 18 million farmers, 90 percent of them smallholders, planted biotech crops in 28 countries around the world, says the report from the group, also known as ISAAA.

Credit: Courtesy of ISAAA
Karembu continues her research, examining a young plant in an ISAAA greenhouse.

“Developing countries [20], not just in Africa, grew more biotech crops than developed countries [8],” Margaret Karembu said in a 2014 video available on YouTube. Karembu is director of the ISAAA AfriCenter in Nairobi and holds a doctorate in environmental science education from Kenyatta University. She is the author of “Biotech Crops in Africa: The Final Frontier” (2009) and “The Adventures of Mandy and Fanny in Africa,” a cartoon booklet on biotechnology (2012).

Agricultural biotechnology encompasses a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques, that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. Modern biotechnology includes tools of genetic engineering.

First commercialized in 1996, crops bioengineered through biotechnology with traits to enhance disease resistance, repel insects or increase harvests are being raised in other sub-Saharan African nations. Burkina Faso and Sudan — with 500,000 and 100,000 hectares, respectively — grow biotech-improved varieties of cotton, an important fiber and cash crop in Africa.

Karembu highlighted the continued annual growth of biotech hectarage in South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

“We can see that African countries are picking up very fast. Farmers are opting to continuously grow biotech crops. The hectarage is increasing by the year. Africa is quickly picking out those technologies that are relevant to their situation,” Karembu said.

Field trials on biotech rice, maize, wheat sorghum, banana, cassava and sweet potato are underway in Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda, preparing those crops for commercialization, ISAAA says.

A variety of wheat that can both withstand drought and control insects will be cultivated in another field trial to begin in South Africa in 2017. ISAAA reports that other field trials are being planned.

The crops in trials “are very important for Africa from a food-security perspective,” Karembu said, noting that the countries hosting the trials “are distributed in all four of the sub-regions of Africa.”

As the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times, biotech crops are part of the solution to the challenges of food security and climate change, according to their supporters. Both consumers and farmers must prepare to face those challenges, ISAAA says. It notes, however, that biotech crops are not a “panacea.” Crop rotation, pesticide management and other good farming practices are also critical for biotech crops, just as they are for conventional crops.

Margaret Karembu examining young plant in greenhouse (ISAAA)
Karembu continues her research, examining a young plant in an ISAAA greenhouse.

Biotech crops contribute to food, feed and fiber security by making crops more affordable and by raising farmers’ incomes through greater productivity, ISAAA adds. These enhanced crops also help conserve biodiversity and control deforestation by making greater harvests possible on the same amount of arable land used to grow less-productive conventional crops. And they reduce agriculture’s environmental impact by reducing the need for chemicals to protect against pests and disease.

Karembu noted that farmers in countries neighboring those with field trials are learning from the example of Burkina Faso. “They are asking: ‘Why can’t our governments allow us to grow a crop [cotton] that we have already seen with our eyes is already making good progress and is making significant changes in the lives of Burkinabe farmers?’”

Links to highlights of the report and a video released January 28 featuring Karembu are available on the ISAAA web site.