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A New Chance for Genetically Engineered Crops

German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner has welcomed the possibility of looser restrictions on genetically engineered crops as an "overdue modernization" of EU policy. She is right – and it is not only Europe that needs to rethink its approach.

PRETORIA – The European Union is reviewing its rules on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with an eye to loosening restrictions on genetically engineered (GE) crops. It is a welcome move, and African countries should consider emulating it.

There are fewer controversial topics in global agriculture. Many worry that GE crops have adverse environmental and health effects, and that they risk undermining food sovereignty, as the handful of corporations making the seeds can gain undue power over global agricultural output – and the farmers who produce it. It is because of these fears that the EU and most African countries currently restrict the cultivation of GE crops.

And yet, many countries – including Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Uruguay, Paraguay, and my country, South Africa – have embraced GE crops. These countries generally subscribe to the view that gene editing in crops is safe, because it mostly just accelerates natural processes.

Moreover, advocates argue, gene editing may be the key to developing more resilient, sustainable crops. These claims are backed by significant evidence: countries that have embraced GE crops report lower insecticide use, more environmentally friendly tillage practices, and improved crop yields.

South Africa is a case in point. We began planting GE maize seeds widely in the 2001-02 season. Prior to that, average maize yields were around 2.4 tons per hectare; last season, that figure was 5.9 tons per hectare. As a result, South Africa managed to produce nearly 20% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s maize on only about 2.5 million hectares of land.

By contrast, Nigeria typically plants about 6.5 million hectares of maize, but accounts for only 15% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s output, according to data from the International Grains Council. Across the region, maize yields average less than two tons per hectare. And irrigation does not explain the discrepancy: only 10% of South Africa’s maize is irrigated; the rest of the crop is rainfed, like in the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

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For the EU, the benefits of GE crops are becoming impossible to ignore. As a recently published study by the European Commission puts it, “New Genomic Techniques products have the potential to contribute to sustainable agri-food systems in line with the objectives of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy.”

The Commission hopes that it can take advantage of GE crops’ potential to “contribute to sustainability,” while “addressing concerns” by, for example, preventing gene editing in agriculture from “undermining other aspects of sustainable food production,” such as organic agriculture. That will be a difficult path to walk. As the study shows, there is still significant resistance to GE crops among member states, and many are calling for a more intensive risk assessment.

Yet there is also significant support for change. German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner welcomed the possibility of an “overdue modernization” of the EU’s approach to GE crops, which are currently subject to the same rules as GMOs. France has previously expressed support for creating separate rules for GE crops.

If the EU does loosen its restrictions on GE crops, the effects will extend far beyond its borders. For one thing, larger European crop yields would put downward pressure on world grain prices by creating additional competition for major grain exporters, such as the US, Ukraine, Argentina, Russia, Brazil, Canada, and South Africa.

But that’s just the beginning. The EU’s decision could also inspire African countries that have not yet embraced GE crops to rethink their approach. Like the EU, African countries would need to “address concerns” related to GE-crop adoption. For example, they would need to ensure that smallholder farmers – who may not be able to afford to purchase GE seeds every season – are not left behind.

The obstacles are real, but tackling them will be well worth the effort. Amid rapid population growth and intensifying competition for land, water, and other resources, the case for taking advantage of proven technologies to produce more food more efficiently is stronger than ever.