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 zoom 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 WE2.109, WE2112 and WE2113. Tanzania follows in the footsteps of Kenya, which gave the green light for the introduction of WEMA drought...