South Africa Leads in Crop Biotechnology Development


A country that field tested Bt cotton in 1990, commercialized it in 1997 and commercialized Bt corn in 1998 followed by herbicide tolerant cotton and soybeans in 2000 is certainly a leader in biotech development and use. The country of South Africa has done all of these. South Africa ranks seventh in the world in acres planted to biotech crops at 1.2 million acres in 2004.

Government and university researchers are now field testing a Bt potato that is resistant to the tuber moth and have a virus resistant potato undergoing tests in greenhouses. Public and private efforts are ongoing on sugarcane with modified carbohydrates and corn and cotton with stacked Bt and herbicide tolerant genes.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the South African government first established a government committee in 1978 to draft biosafety guidelines. By 2001 a draft National Biotechnology Strategy was completed with three centers of excellence funded at $64 million over three years. A $4 million facility at the University of Pretoria is a hub for crop biotechnology. The ISAAA states, “South Africa plays a critical role as an African and global hub in the sharing of knowledge and experience about biotech crops.”

South Africa was designated by Ford Runge of the University of Minnesota as one of five “spheres of biotech investment and research” outside North America and Europe (the other four are China, Argentina and Brazil, Australia and India). In “Global Diffusion of Plant Biotechnology: International Adoption and Research in 2004” Runge stated, “In Africa, South Africa has the scientific capacity, political stability and investment resources to lead the continent in plant biotech.”

South Africa has a population of 44 million with 20 million people living in rural areas and 30 percent of the labor force in agriculture. Production agriculture accounts for only 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Production agriculture is split between 60,000 commercial farms that produce 87 percent of the agricultural output and millions of small farmers, including some that are totally new to agriculture as the government transfers land to families who have not previously lived on farms.

Aggressive programs are operating to help small farmers learn how to use the technology. The U.S. Grains Council recently sent a team to South Africa to review the status of six demonstration plots the Council supports with a local stakeholder group called AfricaBio. They found the participants in the training programs interested in expanding the use of biotech corn.

South Africa is unique in that white corn is a staple of the diet of many people, and about 10 percent of the almost 4 million acres of white corn is biotech. They often have a surplus of white corn that is exported. While countries like Argentina and Brazil produce soybeans that are processed into oil and meal and China and India produce biotech cotton, South Africa has led the way in producing a biotech food crop for direct consumption.

Soybeans are grown on about 250,000 acres, half of which are biotech. Yellow corn is produced for livestock feed, and about 25 percent of the 2.5 million acre of yellow corn is biotech. Biotech cotton accounts for about 85 percent of the 80,000 acres of cotton grown.

The use of biotech crops in South Africa is a far cry from the headlines of recent years about leaders of African countries rejecting food aid that may have some biotech crops. Press reports indicate that Zambia will have a shortfall of 200,000 metric tons of corn production for the 2004-05 marketing year, and its leaders continue to talk of rejecting biotech food aid.

Another rejection of biotech food aid is at substantial odds with the hopes of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations expressed in its The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004. In the section on “Making Biotechnology Work for the Poor” they outlined a scenario under which private companies would use “GMO friendly” countries as a base for developing technology that would then spread to neighboring countries with similar agro-ecological conditions.

Analysis by Bennett, Morse and Ismael (2003) cited in the FAO report shows how quickly biotech cotton use expanded in South Africa. In 1997/98 Bt cotton was released to a few large farmers in the Makhathini Flats area. The following year 10 percent of the small landholders in the area used Bt cotton. In the following three years, 25 percent, then 50 percent and finally 92 percent of the small landholders in the area used Bt cotton. Higher seed costs were offset by lower chemical costs. Increased yields led to net profits 3-4 times higher than conventional cotton. The analysis showed that smaller farmers actually had higher per acre gross margins than larger producers.

South Africa has clearly established a template for other developing countries to follow for production of biotech crops. The starting point is an early commitment to a regulatory structure that recognizes the need for food safety and protects the property rights for both publicly and privately developed biotech crops. That is closely followed up by research institutions that add to the knowledge base for crops of interest in the country and begin the process of communicating the value of biotech crops to producers. Then the market place learning curve begins and farmers use the technology and gain financially from the effort. While learning from the experiences of South Africa can shorten the timeframe for adoption of biotech crops, the similar process has to be followed to benefit producers and consumers.

Ross Korves

Ross Korves

Ross Korves served Truth about Trade & Technology, before it became Global Farmer Network, from 2004 – 2015 as the Economic and Trade Policy Analyst.

Researching and analyzing economic issues important to agricultural producers, Ross provided an intimate understanding regarding the interface of economic policy analysis and the political process.

Mr. Korves served the American Farm Bureau Federation as an Economist from 1980-2004. He served as Chief Economist from April 2001 through September 2003 and held the title of Senior Economist from September 2003 through August 2004.

Born and raised on a southern Illinois hog farm and educated at Southern Illinois University, Ross holds a Masters Degree in Agribusiness Economics. His studies and research expanded internationally through his work in Germany as a 1984 McCloy Agricultural Fellow and study travel to Japan in 1982, Zambia and Kenya in 1985 and Germany in 1987.

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