Fund a Fellow

Biotech in Africa: Regulations Hinder Innovation

Joan Conrow

High regulatory costs are stalling biotechnology projects that could help African farmers, says Jennifer Thomson, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Thomson was instrumental in developing a variety of corn resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus, which greatly reduces yield by causing cobs to produce fewer kernels. African farmers sometimes lose 90 percent of their crop to the virus.

But her virus-resistant variety has been effectively shelved because “the regulatory burden is so huge on GM [genetically modified] crops and the cost is so enormous that there is no seed company in South Africa or even Africa that can afford to bring it to field trials,” Thomson says. “The cost of developing it in South Africa is enormous. And that is because the anti-GMO lobby has made it almost prohibitive.”

South Africa has been growing herbicide- and pest-resistant soy, maize and cotton since the early 2000s. These GM crops were developed for worldwide markets by multinational corporations, which have no economic incentive to pursue a crop resistant to a virus found only in Africa.

Still, Thomson thinks other GM crops will gain greater acceptance as nations grapple with the impacts of climate change.

“The demand for improved seed is going to just escalate,” she says. “My other project is the development of drought-tolerant maize and I think that is going to see a greater impact on Africa because here multinationals are more capable of being involved because every country will suffer due to climate change and many of them will have drought problems.”

Hybrid seeds met similar fierce resistance when they were introduced in the 1930s, she says. “Farmers wanted to plant their own seeds. It was only drought in those years that showed that these hybrids could help them.”

Part of the problem lies in the public's misunderstanding of the role of hybrid plants, Thomson says.

“They often say, oh, the poor farmers, they have to buy their seeds.  But if you plant hybrids, you've got to buy your seeds anyway. Even in Africa, smallholder farmers have the choice. They can ether buy open pollinated varieties or they can save their seeds or they can use hybrids. Many of them go for the hybrids. It's not that GM seeds will be closing the door on these other options. Farmers are not stupid. Farmers will choose what's best for them.”

Thomson sees farmers pushing for biotechnology as they continue to successfully cultivate GM crops.

“Of course, it is the farmers who will convince government because government consists of politicians and they want to be re-elected,” she says. “If farmers say we're not gong to vote for you unless you let us grow these, then of course that's a very good incentive. So we need to have farmer pressures. But we won't have farmer pressure unless farmers are allowed to grow these. That’s one of the biggest problems with GM crops in Africa. Farmers simply aren’t allowed to plant them so they can’t even test whether they work for them or not. They should at least be given the option.”

Much of the current opposition to GM crops in Africa is rooted in the resistance of “European countries, which are well fed and don't need any GM crops,” Thomson says. “Africa often takes its lead from Europe and the fact that Europe is so implacably opposed to it influences the government. It's really when the farmers say we need this, we really need this to feed our people and produce crops efficiently, that change can come. But they can’t say that unless they are allowed to test them.”

Thomson remains puzzled by the mixed standards that Europeans apply to GM products.  “They will not allow their own farmers to plant GM maize, but they import GM soybeans and GM maize to feed to their animals,” she notes. “I don't actually understand the logic.”

Though critics often believe that GM crops are the sole purview of industrial agriculture, Thomson says smallholder farmers in Africa have eagerly embraced maize with the dual traits of insect-resistance and herbicide tolerance. “They're the only group that is growing a crop that they eat themselves three times a day,” she says. “They're happy to do so because the input costs of labor for weeding and insecticides for pest control are diminished.”

Herbicide resistance is especially valued because farm labor for weeding is in short supply as villagers continue to move into urban areas, she says. Reducing insecticide use is another concern because African farmers often mix chemicals in receptacles such as Coke bottles, which could then be re-used by children for  drinking water. “So there is quite a danger of insecticide poisoning,” she says.

Though some American scientists have been criticized for working with the agricultural industry, Thomson says such partnerships are not a conflict of interest, but a practical fact of life.

“In Africa, the public sector facilities are not sufficient to take GM crops either to field trials or commercialization,” she says. “We do the laboratory work independently and they [industry] say that if it's going to work, they will take it to the next step. But I, as a scientist, have always been independent.”

Though Thomson has experienced delays in seeing her research come to fruition, she remains optimistic that farmers will one day have access to the technology that will allow them to flourish economically.

“I've never met a smallholder farmer who wouldn't like to grow his farm — or very often, her farm — to become commercial, to sell to market,” she says. “That might well happen as a result of the new varieties.”

Through her work with the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World — she chairs the South African Chapter — Thomson is also keen to help women advance in a field that is often dominated by men.

“That's very close to my heart, because early on in my career, I actually decided not to have children because I realized as a woman with children, I would have a very hard time rising to the top of my field,” she says. “I would not want other women to have to make that decision.

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