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Biotech white corn increases to South Africans' food security

By Dennis Avery
web posted July 24, 2006

Who says biotech crops help only big farmers?

In South Africa, small farmers have gained important food security by shifting to genetically modified varieties of their staple food, white corn, because it resists the corn borers that abound in South Africa's sub-tropics. Biotech farmers have harvested more than a month's worth of additional food for their families.

A recent study found that the Bt corn yielded four times as much grain as the farmers' own saved seeds, and 21 to 62 percent more grain than an improved corn variety without the Bt. This was during a relatively dry year, when the yields were low enough to be critical for food security. The biotech corn also produced far more high-quality kernels.

In one relatively dry year, the South African farmers averaged 63 kg of corn per kg of their own saved corn seeds. They harvested 187 kg from each kg they planted of conventional improved corn seed, and a whopping 246 kg from each kg of biotech seed.

The Bt corn actually raises yields by a higher percentage during rain-abundant years, when the corn borers are more active. However, the yield gain is less critical to the farm family in the wetter, better-yielding years.

The additional yield is vitally important because a farm's food shortfall must be covered by corn meal purchased from millers at much higher prices than the farmer usually gets for surplus grain.

The farmers judged that only about 15 percent of their corn from saved seed produced "excellent" kernels, and got just 23 percent "excellent" kernels from the conventional improved seed. The biotech corn, however, yielded 70 percent "excellent" kernels. The biotech variety isn't particularly known for its tasty kernels, so it is likely that the farmers were heavily influenced by the lack of visible worm damage, or even the worms themselves, present in the corn meal.

Biotech corn contains a natural toxin engineered into its tissues -- "Bt" or Bacillus Thuringiensis -- which is dangerous to caterpillars but not to people. The Bt protects the corn from borers more effectively and safely than any sprayed insecticide. It is even one of the pesticides approved for organic farmers, and has been used safely for 50 years.

Since the biotech seed costs more than conventional seed corn, the farmer loses his additional investment in years when the borer pressure is light. However, South African farmers can't easily predict when the borers will be bad. The borers attack according to a complex relationship involving rainfall, rainfall timing, and the maturity dates of the corn. Dry growing seasons generally have lighter borer infestations, but a dry planting season may turn into a wet growing season.

South African farmers are now planting more than a million acres per year to biotech crops, mostly corn, cotton and soybeans. Bethuel Gumede, a small farmer who plants cotton with the Bt gene, says, "I get enough yield with this type of new cotton -- close to 30 to 40 bales on 3 hectares -- that I'm able to pay school fees for my kids and to save some of the money so I can plant the next season."

The higher yields from the biotech crops also mean it will take less farmland to feed and clothe Africa's expanding human population in the years ahead -- an important factor in protecting Africa's unique wildlife.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write ghim at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.


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