Talk about GM crops resisting or failing to fend off certain pests and diseases dominates the GM debate in Africa. But there is rising interest in the potential ability of GM crops to avoid the ravaging effects of drought. Three quarters of the world’s droughts in the last decade have taken place in Africa.
GM drought-resistant crops have been slow to emerge, however. It was not until December 2011 that Monsanto first introduced a variety of drought-resistant maize in the US. In 2008 Monsanto, the Kenyan African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and the Howard G Buffett Foundation launched a programme called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).
The aim of the initiative is to come up with and introduce a royalty-free drought-tolerant and insect-tolerant maize for smallholder farmers in Africa. The project mainly focuses on producing a non-GM crop but Mitchener of Monsanto says that “in parallel, a biotech version is also being developed that will be offered to WEMA’s government sponsors as an option”.
The reason for choosing to create a drought-resistant maize seed over other crop seeds is clear: maize is the most popular staple crop on the continent, with over 300m Africans cultivating it as their main source of food. Unfortunately, maize is extremely vulnerable to environmental factors such as drought and irregular rainfall.
The project has just harvested its first WEMA non-GM crops and the first varieties could be on the market for farmers within the next two to three years. Depending on the progress of research and development and whether WEMA countries promptly approve the seeds, GM drought-tolerant and insect-resistant varieties could be on the market by the later part of this decade. According to Monsanto, the technology could yield an extra 2m tons of food, which could feed 14-21m people.
The project has made some significant breakthroughs recently, although this has mainly been for its non-GM hybrid seed varieties. In December 2013, Tanzania officially approved the commercial release of three out of five drought-tolerant maize varieties. They are WE2109, WE2112 and WE2113.
Tanzania follows in the footsteps of Kenya, which gave the green light for the introduction of WEMA drought-tolerant maize hybrid WE1101 in June 2013. Six local Kenyan seed companies have been distributing the seeds under the name DroughtTEGOTM since October 2013.
Critics of GM crops point out that non-GM drought-resistant crops are far more developed and diverse in Africa at the moment, which makes GM varieties harder to justify. Kenya in particular has made some significant strides in this area; the introduction of non-GM drought-tolerant crops in the dry area of Kitui by Farm Africa is reported to have more than doubled yields of cowpea, sorghum and millet from 119kg per acre to 275kg per acre. Over 1,350 households are believed to have gained as a result.
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology is also working on a non-GM maize specifically designed to withstand the harsh environment in arid and semi-arid conditions, which should be ready for market by 2017. According to reports, the development of the variety is going well, with test crops already showing more drought-tolerant characteristics, such as more robust stems and greener cells, which is indicates that the crops contain a higher amount of chlorophyll.
Other African countries are also already benefiting from non-GM drought-tolerant crops. The project ‘Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa’ first got under way in 2006 and now supplies 140 different varieties of drought-tolerant maize to a number of African countries. These include Zimbabwe and Kenya. Three million households and over 1m farmers are reported to have gained from the project, and 110 seed companies are involved in the production and distribution of the seeds. Nigeria’s International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan has also developed drought-tolerant maize.