A new report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) reveals that the global hectarage of biotech crops stood at 189.8 million hectares in 2017, a 3% increase from 2016 planting or an additional 4.7 million hectares in one year.  The report – Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017 – shows that 67 countries used biotech crops; out of which 24 grew the crops, comprising 19 developing countries that include two African countries.

South Africa and Sudan maintained the lead in planting of biotech crops in Africa, with the former remaining among top 10 countries that planted more than one million hectares of biotech crops. South Africa had a combined planting of biotech maize, soybean, and cotton totalling 2.73 million hectares in 2017 – a 2.6% increase from the reported 2.66 million hectares in 2016.  Interestingly, the country also recorded drastic reduction of Fall Army Worm infestation that has invaded many parts of the continent.

Sudan grew 192,000 hectares of biotech cotton in 2017 up from the previous 120,600 hectares in 2016, with an adoption rate of 95%. Exceptional performance of the biotech cotton program gained top attention by the Prime Minister and Ministers of the economic sector of Cabinet as it was the only crop that achieved the country’s economic remedy target.  An estimated 90,000 Sudanese farmers grew the crop on average farm sizes of 2.1 hectares. The country approved its first biotech crop – Insect Resistant (IR) cotton – for commercial planting in 2012 with a single variety under the trade name Seeni-1. Continuous research over the last six years has resulted in approval of two new IR hybrids, gradually increasing the acreage from an initial modest launch of 20,000 hectares in 2012. A change in the cotton financing policy where the Government has given more leeway to private sector led to the drastic cotton expansion. It has also emerged that the Sudanese IR cotton program is stimulating positive change in all spheres of the cotton sub-sector value-chain with growing prospects for exporting seeds, spinning, and textile production in neighbouring countries.

According to the report, 11 African countries sustained biotech crop research over and above South Africa and Sudan that have commercialized, making a total of 13 countries with crop biotech activities. The countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda – have together 14 traits on 12 crops under various stages of research.

Swaziland completed the evaluation of an environmental release application for IR cotton and in April 2018, the Swazi Environment Authority issued a seed import permit and commencement of commercial planting is underway. Mozambique planted the first field trial of genetically modified (GM) maize as part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program. This is a stacked trait and the trial will test the tolerance of GM maize to drought and insect pests.

Mozambique and Tanzania’s approval of a stacked trait – insect-resistant and drought tolerant maize demonstrates a growing interest in the continent to incorporate more traits in various crops. Malawi planted the second season of national varietal trials of IR cotton in eight agro-ecological sites as it aims to commercialize the crop by 2019 while Nigeria granted a permit for GM cassava modified for delayed post-harvest starch deterioration,” the report details.

On biosafety policy developments, it is Uganda that recorded the biggest milestone in 2017 with the passage of the long-awaited National Biosafety Bill by Parliament in October. The law now awaits assent after tabling of clarifications requested by President Yoweri Museveni.

The report also notes that throughout 2017, African farmers intensified their call for adoption of biotech crops dismissing misinformation and policy impasse out of perceived fears.  They relentlessly demanded for the technology, urging their Governments to remove hurdles that deny them access to biotech products. “In Burkina Faso, farmers called for reinstatement of IR cotton, citing poor harvests and intense spraying that has further impoverished them. They predicted collapse of the cotton farming industry in the next two years unless something drastic is done about the bollworm re-invasion,” the report notes.

The report suggests Africa is poised to deliver new biotech crops into the global basket in the coming years, given the vibrant research and advanced multi-location trials nearing commercialization for food security crops such as banana, cassava, and cowpea. It concludes by acknowledging the strong wave of endorsement of technology benefits through increased expression of political goodwill and budget allocations by various Governments as good pointers to this growth.