PRESS RELEASE: Africa joins the world in celebrating 20 years of successful commercial production of biotech crops

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African Farmers Planted 3.5 Million Hectares of Biotech/GM Crops in 2015, the 20th year of global GM crops commercialization

Nairobi (April 13, 2016) – Today the world celebrates the 20th year of successful commercial planting of biotech crops. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA, AfriCenter) will launch the Annual Report on Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops 2015, highlighting the milestones on biotechnology and biosafety achieved in Africa during this period.

“For Africa, 2015 was the 18th year of successful commercialization of biotech crops. The cumulative hectarage from 1998 to 2015 in Africa stood at 3.5 million hectares (Ha). Three countries, Burkina Faso (350,000 Ha), South Africa (2.3 million Ha) and Sudan (120,000 Ha) spearheaded the commercialization of biotech crops. This production of biotech crops translated to an estimated economic benefit of approximately USD 2 Billion.” said Dr Margaret Karembu, the director of ISAAA AfriCenter

The exponential growth was witnessed despite the continent experiencing severe drought that led to crop failure in many countries. For instance a devastating drought in South Africa contributed to a 23% decline in hectarage, demonstrating the vulnerability of the continent to climate change. In 2015, South Africa approved the drought tolerant maize trait under WEMA – Water Efficient Maize for Africa project. This timely intervention will go a long way in mitigating the effects of climate change on food security.

In Burkina Faso, the Government in consultation with key players in the cotton industry decided to temporarily scale down the hectarage under insect resistant (Bt) cotton over the next two years. This will allow scientists to address the short-staple length issue observed in current varieties. The short-staple length issues are in no way related to the Bt technology which continues to offer numerous benefits. By 2014, the farm income gains accrued by Burkinabe farmers amounted to USD 41 million.

Sudan’s 4th year of Bt cotton growing recorded an impressive 95% adoption rate. Hectarage under Bt cotton soared six-fold from 20,000 ha in 2012 to 120,000 ha in 2015. Close to 45,000 farmers planted Bt cotton in 2015 compared to the initial 10,000 farmers in 2012 indicating satisfaction with the technology.

Over the last 18 years, 8 countries have conducted and are still conducting trials on crops that will address African challenges. The research focuses on key food security crops such as banana, cassava, cowpea, sorghum, sweet potato, maize, potato and rice. As a result, Africa could contribute 5 new biotech crops to the global biotech basket in the coming years.

The biosafety regulatory landscape also recorded significant developments.  In 1998, South Africa was the only country with a biosafety law. Since then, 19 African countries have developed their biosafety legislation and in 2015 Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, enacted its biosafety law in order to tap into the technology’s benefits. In the same year, Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority for the first time received two applications for open field cultivation of genetically modified maize and cotton. Initiatives to operationalize biosafety laws in other countries as well as the harmonization of regional biosafety policies are ongoing. 

During the period 1996 to 2015, biotech maize was successfully grown globally in about 15 countries by millions of farmers on 600 million hectares – these farmers benefitted from $50 billion of increased revenues.  Unfortunately farmers in Africa (except  South Africa ), where the need for improved maize is greatest,  suffered a big opportunity cost because they were denied the chance to adopt biotech crops for lack of regulation and support in their respective countries. In addition to maize, biotech cotton gave enormous benefit to farmers especially in China and India. In 2014 and 2015, an impressive 95 percent of India’s cotton crop was planted with biotech seed while China’s adoption in 2015 was 96 percent. Between 1997 and 2014, biotech cotton varieties brought an estimated $17.5 billion worth of benefits to Chinese cotton farmers, and they realized $1.3 billion in 2014 alone.  

Thus Africa must focus on accelerating adoption of those proven technologies that are appropriate in addressing Africa’s unique challenges and reposition itself towards being a global player in development and ownership of emerging technologies.

Brigitte Bitta
Program Officer
ISAAA AfriCenter
Email: bbitta@isaaa.org

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