Maize crop. Picture: REUTERS
Maize crop. Picture: REUTERS

SA maize exporters will be the biggest beneficiaries of a decision by the government of Zimbabwe to lift a ban on the importation or growing of genetically modified (GM) maize.

The move is set to boost the agriculture sector which the SA government has identified as one of the sectors that will help push growth and address the unemployment crisis.

Bloomberg reported last week that Zimbabwe, which is in the midst of an economic collapse, quietly lifted a ban on imports of genetically modified corn for the first time in 12 years as the country moves to tackle its worst famine.

Aside from SA, genetically modified corn is shunned across Sub-Saharan Africa amid concerns about how it might affect the health of the population.

According to the Agriculture Business Chamber (Agbiz), an organisation that represents commercial farmers and agribusiness, SA had about 1.2m tons of maize for export markets in 2019.

However, the country produces about 80% of its maize from GM seeds. This means that SA’s capacity to supply the Zimbabwean market was limited under its stringent GM policy. This is evident from SA’s maize exports data: the country exported 900,585 tons of maize from May 2019 to January 2020, but Zimbabwe imported only a 9% share in this total volume, Wandile Sihlobo, head of agribusiness research at Agbiz, said in a market update on Monday.  

“With international humanitarian organisations such as the World Food Programme assisting Zimbabwe to avert the current food shortage crisis, we believe that the lifting of the GM maize import ban will accelerate maize import activity into Zimbabwe in the coming months,” Sihlobo said.

“The maize might originate from SA and other leading maize exporting countries such as the US, Brazil, Mexico and Russia, among others, who have in the past exported maize to Zimbabwe.” 

The challenge for countries aside from SA and Mexico is that they are not big producers of white maize, a preferred staple food across Southern Africa.

“Hence, we believe the recent policy change will benefit maize exporters from SA and Mexico in the near term,” Sihlobo said.

“Moreover, Zimbabwe’s maize needs might not end in May 2020, which would have been a harvesting period. The country’s 2019/20 maize production season started on a bad footing because of delayed rainfall. The plantings were delayed and so far the area planted and the expected size of the maize harvest in the 2019/20 production season remains unclear.” 

In the long run, however, the Zimbabwean authorities should consider legalising the growing of GM maize in order for domestic farmers to produce higher yields such as SA, Brazil, US and other GM growing countries, he said.

“The ultimate beneficiaries would be consumers as an increase in maize production would lead to lower prices. Moreover, in seasons of unfavourable weather conditions, GM crops wouldn’t be as badly affected as the conventional seeds that are currently grown in Zimbabwe,” Sihlobo said. /With Bloomberg

phakathib@businesslive.co.za