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GMOs, the newcomers

With over 3 million hectares of GM crops in 2018, Africa contains less than 2% of GM crops in the world. Apart from South Africa and Sudan, ten countries – Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Tanzania – are carrying out research and tests into biotech crops, with fourteen indicators covering twelve crops currently in development[1].

The Kingdom of Eswatini has started to grow IR (Bt) cotton commercially, with an initial launch of 250 hectares, making it the third African country to plant biotech crops.

Uganda is currently carrying out a series of GMO trials in National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) centres. These GM plants are designed to be resistant to two cassava diseases whose spread cannot be contained by pesticides: brown streak virus disease, which destroys the edible roots, and mosaic virus disease, which can impede the growth of plants or even kill them. Ongoing trials are also examining a vitamin-A fortified banana and drought-resistant maize designed for the semi-arid Karamoja region, in the north-east of Uganda.

In Nigeria, the authorities approved the introduction of GM cotton in 2017. The country was also the first in the world to approve biotech cowpea farming, adding another crop to the worldwide GMO basket. This development was important because cowpea constitutes one of the main sources of protein for people with low incomes in rural and urban areas. The advantage of this variety is that it requires fewer pesticides (two sprays instead of eight) to protect it from, in particular, the Maruca vitrata pod borer, one of the most destructive insect pests for cowpeas, which can cause losses in yield of up to 80%. The PBR cowpea variety has increased crop yields by 15 to 20% during moderate Maruca infestations and by more than 100% in the event of severe infestations, given standard farming practices. This new variety represents one million of the 3.8 million hectares of cowpea currently being grown. The Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) has also supported initial herbicide-tolerant soybean trials. The Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA Plus) project is in trial phase. As there are a great many varieties, applying the technology is complex, and approval is needed for each one. Furthermore, crops such as bio-fortified sorghum are at different trial stages.

Rice has become a priority crop with strategic importance for food security in most African countries, where consumption continues to increase at a rate of 6 to 12%, which is higher than the rate of increase in production (3.4%), leading to a rice deficit of over 12 million tons a year. Biotic and abiotic constraints are the main factors contributing to low productivity. Most of these pressures are connected to the depletion and imbalance of soil nutrients (salinity, nutrient deficiencies and toxins) and availability of water (drought and excess water) given levels of rainfall in Africa. Furthermore, salinity in the rice production system in Africa is seriously exacerbated by the use of large quantities of irrigation water in lowland rice due to poor farming practices on the part of farmers, involving the use of brackish groundwater. In Ghana, scientists are carrying out trials of NEWEST (nitrogen-use and water-use efficient and salt tolerant) rice, designed to limit the use of nitrogen fertilisers and to grow in salty soils, while offering a good yield. Field tests in confined conditions showed that yields for NEWEST rice were 14 to 25% greater than traditional varieties.

[1] Source: International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

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