Transgenic Bt maize: farmers perceptions, refuge compliance and reports of stem borer resistance in South Africa

10 July 2014

Based on surface area, South Africa is currently ranked the eighth in planting genetically modified (GM) crops in the world. Bt maize (MON810) has been grown to control lepidopterous stem borers in South Africa since its first release during 1998. The first report of resistance of the African maize stem borer, Busseola fusca (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) and poor compliance to refuge requirements that could have contributed to resistance development prompted this study which was done in the main maize production area of South Africa. Objectives were to evaluate farmer’s perceptions of the regulatory aspects guiding the planting of Bt maize and refugia and how it was applied between 1998 and 2010. This study involved 105 commercial farmers covering 87 778 ha of maize throughout the main maize production region on the Highveld of South Africa. A questionnaire survey was conducted and addressed signing of technical agreements upon purchasing GM seed, refuge compliance, pest management practices, perceived benefits and risks relating to Bt maize. Compliance with refugia requirements was low especially during the initial 5–7 years after release. An alarmingly high number of farmers applied insecticides as preventative sprays on Bt maize and refugia irrespective of stem borer infestation levels. A large proportion of farmers reported significant borer infestation levels on Bt maize and between 5% and 93% farmers in all districts applied insecticides to Bt maize to limit borer damage, indicating that the occurrence of resistance is more wide-spread in the country than previously thought. This study shows irresponsible management of GM crop technology by farmers, chemical and seed companies. Concerns and perceptions of farmers in South Africa seem to differ from those in Europe. South African farmers perceived little, if any, negative impact on non-target organisms and remain positive about the technology in spite of resistance development. Other studies indicated that European farmers were concerned about these aspects. A shared concern, however, was consumer acceptance of GM maize and marketability on the export market.