Genetically modified soyabean: a viable option for smallholders in Africa?

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In 2011, roughly three quarters of the global soyabean cultivation area was planted with genetically modified (GM) soyabean (James, 2012). In Africa, GM soyabean is only commercially cultivated in South Africa. Is the rest of Africa missing out on a great opportunity, or are the disadvantages of GM soyabean for smallholders outweighing the benefits?

The vast majority of GM soyabean worldwide has been modified to withstand the application of a broad-spectrum herbicide, in most cases glyphosate. GM soyabean with other traits such as improved insect resistance (Bt) and particular grain qualities have been commercially released recently or are about to be released. Herbicide tolerant (HT) soyabean has eased weed control, and also facilitated the application of reduced or no tillage techniques by reducing weed control problems associated with the adoption of such techniques (Franke et al., 2011). A downside is that reliance on a single herbicide for weed control, typically though not exclusively associated with HT cropping systems, can lead to the development of herbicide resistant weeds.

For smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa, weeding is a very labour demanding activity (Van Heemst et al., 1981; Franke et al., 2010), and labour scarcity is in many areas limiting an expansion or intensification of crop production. Thus, it is well possible that GM HT soyabean has a niche among smallholders in Africa as a labour saving technology. African women would especially stand to benefit as they currently bear the brunt of the weeding work.. The experience with Bt cotton in India adopted by millions of resource-poor farmers has shown that GM crops can indeed contribute to the livelihood of smallholders (IFPRI, 2009; Choudhary & Gaur, 2010).

Despite the potential benefits, there are some major obstacles to the widespread adoption of HT soyabean by African smallholders. First it is important to note that technology adoption especially by smallholder farmers is a complex process that transcends social and economic considerations. Despite the availability and worldwide use of herbicides since the 1950s, adoption of herbicides among smallholder African farmers currently stands at below 5% (Overfield el al. 2009). Adoption of HT soyabean is likely to be a challenge especially given that the cultivation requires access to affordable herbicides complemented by skills to handle and apply herbicides safely. Secondly, patent rights on GM genes could make the widespread practice of re-using part of the legume grain yield as seed for the next season (farmer saved seed) illegal for GM crops. Large biotech companies may delay the release GM crop lines in many African countries, until requisite patent laws and enforcement mechanisms are in place. However, as costs of the development of new GM lines are rapidly declining and patent rights on some older GM traits will expire in the next couple of years (the patent on the glyphosate tolerance trait for instance expires in 2014), opportunities arise for Africa-based public breeding institutes and private companies to develop GM lines adapted to the needs of African farmers.

There is little up-to-date information on the current state of "enabling environments" for green biotechnology in Africa. In many African countries, a strong anti-GM stance has grown among government officials, consumers and some non-governmental organizations based on unsubstantiated fears about the technology. Another issue is that various African countries do not have a functional legal framework in place for the cultivation and use of GM crops. In addition, the choice for GM or non-GM can affect access to markets and output prices. In markets where labelling, traceability and identity preservation systems are in place, prices for GM soyabean grain are often lower than those for non-GM soyabean, reflecting a premium paid by some end users for non-GM produce. In the future, part of the African soyabean sector may be able to capitalise on this niche market for non-GM soyabean. The commercial cultivation of GM soyabean in African countries is likely to annihilate the opportunity of serving non-GM soyabean markets, as unintended mixture of GM and non-GM soyabean in the chain is hard to avoid. Among the large soyabean producers in the world, only Brazil is able to keep flows of GM and non-GM soyabean segregated and export non-GM soyabean (at increasing costs though).

Clearly, genetic modification does not offer any magic solutions to food security problems in Africa. However, the technology has the potential to increase productivity and/or relieve management constraints in an African smallholder context. It is unlikely that small-scale sub-Saharan farmers outside South Africa will adopt GM soyabean en masse in the near future. In the longer term, the availability of GM lines adapted to the needs of African smallholders, the legal and institutional ‘enabling environments’ for GM crops in Africa, market preferences, and other socio-economic factors are likely to determine the adoption rate of GM soyabean and other GM crops in Africa. 


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Linus Franke, Anne Turner, Edward Mabaya