Lessons from Africa’s largest producer of GMO maize

Genetically modified maize on a farm in Randfontein, Gauteng Province, South Africa. Eighty five per cent of the maize grown in South Africa is genetically modified.


What you need to know:

  • Even though genetically modified maize has been grown in South Africa for the last 27 years, efforts to replicate the success in Kenya and other African nations are yet to bear fruit.
  • Is it time to embrace the technology to boost food security?

A majority of Kenyans still believe that foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are mostly unsafe for human consumption. Others believe the foods are safe and have several benefits to nutrition and global food security.

This is even as food security becomes more urgent in the face of climate change, which is affecting crop productivity. Experts say one way to improve food security is to increase crop yields, and thus new technologies are needed to achieve this. Over the past decades, several technologies have been developed to increase food production, with some African countries adopting them. For instance, South Africa was one of the last countries to gain independence, but it has some valuable insights into food security. It is the first country in Africa to pass legislation regulating the cultivation of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in 1997 with the Genetically Modified Organisms Act 15.

Animal feed

Almost three decades later, South Africans have been consuming GM maize and soy beans. Like Kenya, maize forms a considerable component of their daily food and animal feed.

Simon Tefu, a farmer who grows genetically modified maize and soya beans in his 325-hectare farm in Randfontein, Gauteng Province.


The GMOs topic is often met with mixed feelings in Africa, mostly involving mistrust and concerns for personal health. However, scientists argue that this perception is misguided. The National Human Genome Institute defines a GMO as a plant, animal, or microbe with one or more changes to its genome, typically using advanced genetic engineering techniques to alter the organism's characteristics.

Biotechnology is the use of technology in biological systems, living organisms, or parts of them to develop or create different products. It is used primarily in medicine, food, industries, agriculture, the environment and marine biology.

The Healthy Nation team was recently in Pretoria, South Africa for the 2nd Biosafety Regulators and Policy Makers Retreat organised by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. More than 60 delegates from 16 African countries, including lawyers, customs officials, biosafety regulators and scientists met to examine the state of biotechnology adoption on the continent, including the successes and challenges.

We set off to the South African farms to see GMO crops. Our first stop was at Randfontein in rural Johannesburg, which was formerly a gold mining town. Here, large swathes of land have been dedicated to farming, with mechanised overhead irrigation machines dotting the landscape.

During the one and a half hour drive from Pretoria, we saw combined harvesters ploughing through maize plantations; with silos strategically mounted on the farms to store the harvested grain. Here, agriculture is highly mechanised. While most of the farms are owned by white farmers, our entourage headed to Mr Simon Tefu's farm. This black farmer traded his civil engineering career a decade ago for an overall and gumboots. Mr Tefu's farm is in Gauteng Province, which, although smaller than the other nine provinces in South Africa, is the fourth largest maize producer.

"My farm is 325 hectares in total and my arable land is 120 hectares. I grow maize and soybeans. I always do crop rotation because it is good for the soil. No one is planting non-GMO crops here," he says.

A serving of pap (ugali)  made from GMO maize in Randfontein, South Africa.


According to the South Africa Agricultural Research Council (ARC), 85 per cent of the maize grown in the country is genetically modified. The country produces 15 million metric tonnes of maize while it consumes 10 million metric tonnes. The surplus is usually exported.

Unlike in Kenya, farmers in South Africa do not have to wait for middlemen to dictate the selling price of the grain once it has been harvested since the pricing is regulated.

"Maize is a versatile food —  we eat it and animals feed on it too. We usually sell our crop according to the set standards. The price is the same across the board regardless of the buyer, and we always have a ready market,” says Mr Tefu at a time Southern Africa is experiencing drought due to the El Nino weather phenomenon. Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe have since declared the drought a national disaster. 

South Africa, too, is in the grip of this drought. Still, despite the unfavourable conditions, we find many farmers harvesting maize. Continuous research and development have seen the country develop genetically modified varieties that are not only resistant to the stalk borer, herbicides and the fall armyworm; but are also adapted to drought. An example of such a variety is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa, now known as TELA variety.

Only 13 per cent of South Africa's surface area is arable. Thus, the adoption of farming technologies such as genetically modified organisms was out of necessity some 27 years ago in its quest to have sufficient food reserves for its population of nearly 60 million people. "South Africa has become food-secure because our farmers adopted technologies much earlier than the rest of Africa. We have poor soils, poor rainfall and we are the 39th driest country in the world, but because we use agricultural technologies, we are able to produce enough for the country and surplus as well," says Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze, the principal researcher at the South Africa Agricultural Research Council (ARC). 

However, despite growing GMO crops, Mr Tefu says farmers like him are not immune to the extremes of climate change, the current drought notwithstanding.

"Previously, the rain season would begin in February. But now everything has changed. You don't know exactly when you are going to plant and when you are going to harvest," says Mr Tefu. 

Dr Mashingaidze notes that the regulation of GMOs on farms is essential.

A screen grab showing the number of African countries that have biosafety laws and have commercialised GMO crops. Countries in grey have no biosafety laws.


Every farmer is required to dedicate five per cent of the planted crop as a refuge—a buffer zone that acts as a natural control measure to prevent insects and pests in the plantation from developing resistance to the Bt infused in the genetically modified crops. Refuge comprises non-GMO maize planted within 400m of the biotech maize crop. This is because in the non-Bt crop, you expect the stalk borer and fall armyworm to attack. GMO genes make the maize resistant. The insects that try to attack the GMO maize will then mate with the insects in the refuge crop. The resultant offspring will cause no damage to the genetically modified crop," adds Dr Mashingaidze

Bt refers to Bacillus Thuringiensis, naturally occurring bacteria in soils that are incorporated into the gene of the maize seed to make it a genetically modified organism. It is also referred to as a biopesticide that has a low toxic impact on humans when eaten. However, it is effective against insects like the stalk borer larvae and the fall armyworm.

Mr Tefu suggest that African countries should find a way to develop local GMO seed varieties that are currently being sold by multinational companies.

"African farmers and researchers should come together and we make our own seed. We are still depending on seed from overseas. Multinational seed companies may decide to change the seeds we are using. Unfortunately, we will follow them because we want money," he explains.

The visit to Mr Tefu's farm formed a core part of the Biosafety Regulators and Policy Makers Retreat, in that once the delegates saw the crop on the farm, they would dispel some of their own misconceptions about GMO technology.

Mr Tefu prepared lunch for his guests, which was served with pap or ugali made from the GMO maize harvested from his farm. We all had to taste the food from this technology. I had reservations, but seeing everyone eager to sample it, I also made a serving. The pap tasted like ugali.

For every new variety developed and approved for commercialisation after the confined field trials, extension officers and researchers visit the farmers during field days to disseminate information and provide agronomy support.

"It is important that farmers get to know and understand the meaning of GMO technologies. The benefits, the possible risks and how to handle the GMO crops so that in the end they make informed decisions not based on fear," says Dr Mashingaidze.

The Agricultural Research Council says GMO technology has helped farmers reduce on farm production costs that would have been spent on buying pesticides to spray the crops at different stages.

"GMO experiments are expensive to produce a crop; there are vigorous tests on safety and efficacy before the seed gets to the farmers. There are quite a lot of production constraints that our farmers face, but through the use of biotechnology, they do not have to spend a lot of money trying to resolve all of those production challenges. They get biotech products that provide them with the protection they need and the yields that they want," says Dr Lebogang Madibanya, a plant breeding researcher at ARC. 

Nigeria and Ghana recently commercialised varieties of GMO maize and cowpeas after successful confined field trials. In Nigeria, Bt cotton and Bt cowpea are already in the hands of farmers and plans are underway to facilitate the distribution of Bt maize seeds to farmers. 

"Nigerian farmers are not meeting the demands of the food and feed industry. There is a need to boost the production of maize. That's when the Bt Maize project came on board," says Hauwa Ibrahim, an official with the National Biosafety Management agency in Nigeria. 

Rwanda is the latest African country to enact a biosafety law, opening up the potential for the country to explore GMOs in agriculture. Kigali signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2007, but the Biosafety guidelines were drawn in 2020, setting the stage for the Biosafety laws passed in February 2024.

Only 79 per cent of Rwanda's population is food-secure, and the country hopes that adopting biotechnology in agriculture will see at least 95 per cent of the country's nearly 14 million people be food-secure.

"There are ongoing field trials targeting the cassava brown streak disease using RNAi (DNA) technology of the virus to make the cassava immune to this disease," says Dr Omar Mukama from the Rwanda Food and Drug Authority. 

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international treaty governing the movements of living modified organisms, also known as genetically modified organisms, resulting from modern biotechnology from one country to another. This international law is the foundation of all biosafety regulations on the continent.

Once a country becomes a signatory to this protocol, it can also participate in GMO research even without laws. An estimated 170 countries are signatories to this protocol. Having the legal framework for biosafety is one aspect. Still, the commercialisation of GMOs is the goal of in-country research and field trials.

In the first retreat of Biosafety Regulators and Policymakers also held in South Africa in 2023, 11 African countries with Biosafety regulations met to take stock of the progress in rolling out genetic engineering in agriculture. This has been a tough sell for a continent that spends 35 billion US dollars annually in food imports, according to the World Bank.

"When you look at Africa, its challenges and how the outside world is framing itself on biotechnology, we are actually behind. This technology that we are promoting (genetic engineering) has attracted propaganda and myths, which shouldn't be there," says Vitumbiko Chinoko, the programme manager of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB Africa).

The slow adoption of agricultural technologies such as GMOs in Africa is partly due to the government's lack of funding for biotechnology.

"Despite the thousands of Biotechnology graduates we keep churning out every year, we haven't been able to develop an infrastructure that allows them to practise and contribute meaningfully to our economies. My goal at OFAB Africa is to invest in science and technology and embrace these professionals in our systems," adds Mr Chinoko. 

There are also concerns over the cost of GMO seeds and whether these seeds can be saved by farmers. 

"GMO seeds can be replanted; however, in this expanse of planting, we want farmers to grow high-quality hybrid GMO seeds that are resistant to pests so that they can benefit from the yield advantage that comes with planting hybrid seeds," says Dr Paul Chege from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agric-biotech Applications in Africa. 

 Biotechnology scientists are also defending the environmental impact of these crops on the ecosystem where they have been planted.

"GMO seeds help in the conservation of biodiversity. You can see insects in the GM plantations. These seeds only work against the targeted insects, which are the maize stalk borer and the fall armyworms, adds Dr Chege.

 The African Agricultural Technology Foundation has negotiated for farmers in Africa to buy GMO seeds royalty-free - this means the seeds retail at the same price the farmers would access non-GMO seeds.