SATrends Issue 88
March 2008
1. COMESA Countries and GM Crops

The production of genetically modified (GM) crops has increased 67-fold between 1996 and 2007. Around 55 million farmers in 23 countries now grow GM crops, such as maize, cotton, canola, soybean, squash, poplar, petunia, sweet pepper, carnation, alfalfa, tomato, Irish potatoes, papaya and grape on 690 million hectares (1.7 billion acres) (ISAAA 2007). However, Africa, the only continent where per capita food production is declining, has yet to significantly benefit from this technology as only South Africa is commercially growing GM crops in the continent.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) commissioned a study between 2004 and 2006 to assess the potential benefits and risks of adopting GMOs in Africa. The study looked at case studies of six countries - Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia - for the two crops of maize and cotton to assess the positives and negatives of adopting GM crops.

The study had to make certain assumptions in order to predict the scenarios in each country. For example, in order to project the net income gains for farmers if they switched to GM crops in the six countries, the study assumed that the areas currently planted to open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) for maize and improved varieties and hybrids for cotton would be the first to make the switch. Results showed that the net income for farmers would vary from US$ 2.5 to 7.5 million for maize and US$ 0.05 to 9.5 million for cotton per country (Table 1). These are very conservative estimates

In terms of assessing export risk arising from the European market banning GM or GM tainted crops, the study found that Egypt was the only country to face significant declines in export (4%). The other countries would likely face minor losses of no more than 1% (Table 2). Regional policy harmonization is critical as it is possible that the benefits of within region trade would offset any potential losses from export.

Table1 Table 1. Probable annual net farm income gains 5-10 years after the commercialization of Bt maize and Bt cotton (US$ million)


Table2 Table 2. Export losses if all European importers shunned 'possible GM' or 'GM tainted' products (US$ million)

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2. The growing popularity of HHB 67 Improved

The year 2005 saw the first official release of "HHB 67 Improved", a product of marker-assisted selection for downy mildew resistance in pearl millet. This product was identified for state release in the Indian state of Haryana in January and was subsequently identified in July (too late for multiplication that year) at the national level for cultivation in the arid zone of northwestern India, where extra-early maturing pearl millet hybrid "HHB 67" had been cultivated on circa 500,000 ha annually.

HHB 67 Improved was the first product of marker-assisted selection to be approved by the Indian government for commercial cultivation in this country. The new hybrid was bred by backcrossing additional downy mildew resistance into the seed parents (using conventional greenhouse seedling screening procedures and resistance donor ICML 22, which took 9 years) and the pollinator parent (using RFLP-based marker-assisted selection and resistance donor ICMP 451-P6, which took 3 years) of popular pearl millet hybrid HHB 67, identifying BC4F3 families homozygous for resistance, and then performing line tester experiments to identify agronomically superior hybrid combinations similar to HHB 67 but having improved downy mildew resistance. The superior combinations were then widely tested in state and national trials to identify the specific hybrid combination that has ultimately been released for cultivation as a replacement for HHB 67.

HHB 67 HHB 67 Improved is being rapidly adopted by farmers and the seed industry.

Large quantities of Breeder Seed of the HHB 67 Improved parental lines were distributed in 2005 and 2006 to public and private seed agencies following approval of the hybrid's release. Due to regulatory delays in the release process, much of this Breeder Seed was used directly for Certified Seed production of the new hybrid itself rather than multiplication of Foundation Seed of the parental lines that is normally then used for producing Certified Seed of the hybrid. However, this ensured that Certified Seed was available to sow >30,000 ha during the 2006 rainy season, and >60,000 ha in the 2007 rainy season.

Good performance of the new hybrid, combined with increased downy mildew disease incidence on the original hybrid during the 2007 rainy season, stimulated a very large demand for seed. This has demonstrated the power of marker-assisted selection to extend the economically useful lifespan of farmer-preferred cultivars, such as HHB 67, which represent unusual combinations that are difficult to replace by conventional breeding methods. With additional marker-assisted backcrossing to incorporate additional downy mildew resistance into its parental lines, we should be able to keep downy mildew resistant hybrids from the HHB 67 background available to farmers until such time as conventional (and integrated conventional + marker-assisted) breeding programs have developed pearl millet hybrids that better meet farmer and market needs.

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