Benefits of plant biotechnology for smallholder farmers

Bringing the benefits of plant biotechnology to smallholder farmers

On a daily basis we are confronted with headlines signalling the urgency to address issues concerning the climate crisis, food shortages, our deteriorating environment, and declining natural resources. Within this context, agriculture will play a pivotal role due to the growing threat that these adverse environmental and climatic conditions have on our ability to safeguard our food supply to meet the demands of a burgeoning global population. Farmers worldwide, both commercial and smallholder, will more frequently have to overcome the challenges posed by extreme weather events, pests and disease outbreaks, the rising cost of inputs and declining resources. To sustain production efficiencies and yield gains, farmers will need all the help they can get. This includes having access to all possible solutions on offer in the farmer’s toolbox, including innovations such as biotech seed to help them produce our food in an efficient, affordable, and sustainable way.

In 1998, South Africa became the first African country to cultivate biotech crops beginning with IR cotton followed by maize and soybeans. The switch to biotech crops gave South African farmers a clear advantage, allowing them to access the best available seed technology at the time and receiving the benefits from widespread adoption of insect resistant (IR) and herbicide tolerant (HT) traits. Benefits have included improved yield outcomes due to better protection against pest damage, improved farmer income and livelihoods, supported the use of fewer resources and provided greater flexibility for management of weeds and pests. Available evidence indicates that despite the higher input costs of biotech seeds, it has not deterred smallholder farmers in some parts of South Africa from using the technology and also enjoying these benefits. However, disparities remain as there are still many smallholders that continue to miss the opportunities that biotech seed provides in terms of improving production efficiencies and promoting sustainable farming practices at reduced scale.

In 2016, Fall Armyworm (Spodoptera Frugiperda) invaded South Africa causing serious crop damage and losses for some farmers. Fortunately, pest damage was contained due quick actioning of emergency response plans providing farmers with the necessary guidance to respond swiftly and responsibly in terms of pest management options. In this instance, the outcomes were mostly better for farmers that had planted IR maize as opposed to those who had not, with smallholder maize farmers in Limpopo in particular being impacted. Thus, highlighting the knowledge gaps that exists and the need to bring greater awareness of available technology options to farmers, so that they are empowered to make informed decisions about what works best for the sustainability of their farming operations and the production of safe food.

In an effort to bridge these knowledge gaps, CropLife SA has embarked on a farmer advocacy and outreach campaign targeting smallholder farmers in selected regions of Limpopo to transfer knowledge and build awareness on responsible use of IR and HT seed technology. Implementation of the project will include the establishment of one hectare biotech maize demonstration trials on smallholder farming locations north of Polokwane and in Giyani and will serve as a platform for training and information days for smallholder farmers from the surrounding areas. Training topics will primarily focus on building an understanding of IR and HT seed technology, how these traits work in the field to provide protection against targeted pests, raise awareness on integrated pest management (IPM) through good agricultural practices and the responsible use of agrochemical solutions (including handling, transport, storage, use and container disposal).

After the arrival of the first October rains in Limpopo, planting at the two maize demonstration trial sites has already been completed. If all goes according to plan, farmer training and information days will kick off in early in 2023, so watch this space (https://croplife.co.za/). This farmer training initiative represents a collective team effort involving CropLife SA together with its service provider, Mega Biotech Solutions and collaborating partners, Corteva Agriscience and the Limpopo Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (LDARD). The project team is excited to get back into the field and engage our farmers on much needed knowledge about the safe and responsible use of all crop protection solutions available to them.

 

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