April 2013
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Journalists and scientists meet
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SAIAB at Scifest Africa
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It's a fact!

Journalists and scientists meet to discuss drought-tolerant maize

  Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for small-scale farmers who rely on rainfall to grow their crops.
  Dr Kingston Mashingaidze, Manager at the Agricultural Research Council, explains the maize varieties in the field trials.
  A visit to the confined field trials site provided insight into some of the challenges faced by scientists.
Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of small-scale farmers who rely on rainfall to grow their crops.

Maize, in particular, is susceptible to drought. As climate change is resulting in shorter and more variable seasons for crop production, there is an urgent need for crops that are more resilient and will sustain farming.

In February, biotechnologists, government representatives, stakeholder groups and journalists met at a Media Roundtable in Lutzville in the Western Cape to discuss the development and cultivation of drought-tolerant maize.

This highly successful meeting between role players in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public-private partnership that was formed specifically to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties for use by smallholder farmers, was organised by SAASTA's Public Understanding of Biotechnology programme (PUB)* and the Agricultural Research Council.

Genetic engineering

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is a plant, animal, bacterium or virus whose genetic makeup has been modified for a particular purpose. Nowadays GM (genetically modified) plants are being cultivated as crops and consumed by humans and animals worldwide. In 2012, statistics showed that 170.3 million hectares of GM crops were grown by 17.3 million farmers across the world. Ninety per cent of these are small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries.

Due to genetic engineering, new improved crop varieties can be produced in a shorter period than with conventional breeding methods. Crops can be modified to display valuable characteristics such as tolerance to drought and herbicides, resistance to disease and insects, as well as improved nutritional content.

The latest statistics for South Africa show that genetically modified maize is currently grown in about 72% of the cultivated land area of maize. GM maize in South Africa carries traits of herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, or both (stacked genes).

WEMA is employing two strategies in the development of new drought-tolerant maize varieties - conventional breeding techniques producing hybrids, as well as GM technology. In developing their GM variety, they have used a transgene (originating from a bacterium) donated by Monsanto. This will be royalty-free for small-scale farmers in South Africa if the GM maize becomes available on the market, meaning that small-scale farmers will not pay a fee for the GM technology and seed prices will be on par with other varieties.

In the experimental field trials that are currently conducted, WEMA is not only assessing the drought tolerance of the maize, but also that good yields are produced in favourable conditions.

Media Roundtable

The Media Roundtable provided a platform for fruitful discussions around GM regulations, processes and policy, as well as the safety of GM technology. A visit to the confined field trials site incorporated into the event provided insight into some of the challenges faced by scientists; and put into perspective the concerted effort required in developing a GM crop.

SAASTA's workshop involving journalists and scientists, which was held on the same day, assisted scientists engaged in this project to hone their skills in communication and media relations. Journalists also benefited by gaining direct access to the scientific knowledge and findings resulting from this project.

By Joanne Riley, Science Editor, SAASTA

* PUB is managed by SAASTA on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology.