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Biotechnology and plant breeding


The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as: “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”.

These technologies are applied in crops, forestry, livestock and aquaculture, and in food processing.

They are used for many different purposes, such as the genetic improvement of plants and animals to increase their yields or efficiency; characterisation and conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture; plant and animal disease diagnosis; vaccine development; and production of fermented foods.

Source: (adapted)

Biotechnology in agriculture-related sectors

The publication, Biotechnologies for Agricultural Development, which can be downloaded at, discusses the following points in detail. The notes below are taken from that publication.


Biotechnology in crops

Biotechnologies used for crops include tissue culture based techniques (such as micropropagation), mutagenesis (the use of agents like chemicals or radiation to modify DNA), interspecific or intergeneric hybridisation, genetic modification, marker-assisted selection (MAS), disease diagnostics and bioprotection, and biofertilisation.


It is important to underline that biotechnology can assist and expand, but not substitute, traditional plant breeding programmes. The presence of skilled personnel and adequate facilities for the identification of appropriate parents and segregating materials, as well as the selection of improved lines for their stabilisation and agronomic assessment, are essential. Even countries that decide to rely on research results obtained abroad, for instance in neighbouring countries with similar ecological conditions, need capacities for the evaluation, adaptation and adoption of improved lines developed elsewhere. Investments in biotechnology infrastructures and human capacities cannot therefore be made at the expense of conventional breeding or agronomic research and strong breeding programmes must remain at the core of crop improvement.


Source: Biotechnologies for Agricultural Development, p 28

Biotechnology in livestock

Artificial insemination (AI), Embryo Transfer (ET) and use of molecular markers is the focus. A wide range of biotechnologies are available and have already been used in developing countries in the main animal science disciplines, i.e. animal reproduction, genetics and breeding; animal nutrition and production; and animal health.


In animal reproduction, genetics and breeding, artificial insemination (AI) has perhaps been the most widely applied animal biotechnology, particularly in combination with cryopreservation, allowing significant genetic improvement for productivity as well as the global dissemination of selected male germplasm. Complementary technologies such as monitoring reproductive hormones, oestrus synchronization and semen sexing can improve the efficiency of AI. Embryo transfer provides the same opportunities for females, albeit on a much smaller scale and at a much greater price. Molecular DNA markers can also be used for genetic improvement through marker-assisted selection (MAS) as well as to characterise and conserve animal genetic resources. [p 123]

Biotechnologies for Agricultural Development identifies and looks at the following:

  • Artificial insemination
  • Sperm sexing
  • Progesterone monitoring
  • Oestrus synchronization
  • Embryo transfer
  • Embryo sexing
  • In vitro fertilization (IVF)
  • Cryopreservation
  • Cloning
  • Recombinant DNA technology
  • Molecular markers

Products from biotechnological processes are added to animal feeds e.g. nutrients, enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics. Biotechnology also advances measures to benefit e.g. sterile insect technique (SIT) to counter insects like tsetse fly which cause livestock disease.


Biotechnology in forestry

The focus is on micropropagation. Micropropagation includes somatic embryogenesis (SE), a tissue culture technique. Other biotechnologies include molecular markers and quantitative trait locus (QTL) analyses, whole genome sequencing and functional genomics. The more sophisticated group of biotechnologies includes backward and reverse genomics approaches, whole-genome sequencing, low-cost vegetative propagation and genetic modification of forest trees. Biofertilisers and biopesticides also play a part. [p79]


Biotechnology in aquaculture

The four main areas where biotechnologies have been used in aquaculture and fisheries include genetic improvement and control of reproduction; biosecurity and disease control; environmental management and bioremediation; and biodiversity conservation and fisheries management.


Biotechnology in food processing

Biotechnology makes use of microbial inoculants to enhance properties such as the taste, aroma, shelf-life, texture and nutritional value of foods through fermentation which is also widely applied to produce microbial cultures, enzymes, flavours, fragrances, food additives and a range of other high value-added products.

International business environment



Centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) operate genebanks containing more than 650 000 samples of staple crops and related wild species. Those materials include traditional varieties developed through many generations of selection by farmers, as well as wild species, crop breeding lines and improved varieties. See  Some of these are listed below.

Centre and websiteGenebank
Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) www.africarice.orgRice
International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) – https://ciat.cgiar.orgBeans, cassava, forages
Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) – www.cifor.orgForestry
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) www.cimmyt.orgMaize, rye, triticale, wheat
International Potato Centre (CIP) https://cipotato.orgAndean roots and tubers, potato, sweetpotato
International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) www.icarda.orgBarley, chickpea, faba bean, forage, lentil, wheat
World Agroforestry Centre www.worldagroforestry.orgForestry
International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) www.icrisat.orgChickpea, groundnut, pearl millet and other millets, pigeonpea, sorghum
International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – www.iita.orgBambara groundnut, cassava, cowpea, soybean, yam
International Livestock Research Institute www.ilri.orgForages
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) http://irri.orgRice


  • Find global statistics at, website of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications.
  • Read about the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at
  • Information about the Nagoya Protocol is available at The latter “provides a transparent legal framework for … the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources”.
  • To read about the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement to regulate the transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms, go to
  • Find the USDA Agricultural Biotechnology reports on different countries, including the one on South Africa (2022, November).
  • Find the article by Wandile Sihlobo (Agbiz) under “Websites & publications” (last heading) which argues that institutional limitations are a greater impediment to the acceptance of biotech crops in Africa than a belief that they pose health problems.

Local business environment

GMO maize, soybean and cotton are approved and well established in commercial production in South Africa. The annual report of the South African National Seed Organisation (SANSOR) includes a Gentically Modified Seed chapter. This captures the developments and sales relevant to this sector. Find it at

GMO – a need for rapid testing

GMO testing is a legislative requirement in the grain industry. Requirements of the Cartagena Protocol make it essential to test grain for GMO presence.

Two common methods are used for testing of GMO:

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR): Molecular DNA test which detects certain DNA sequences in ground grain samples. This method is performed in a laboratory and requires trained personnel. The method takes several hours to complete and cost per analysis is high.
  • Immunoassay: This method makes us of specific antibodies to detect specific proteins expressed by the gene involved in the GMO technology. It is usually in the form of a flow lateral flow strip, and can be performed at the grain facility. Minimal training is required. This is a rapid test, completed in 5 minutes and cost per analysis is low.

Studies have shown that the lateral flow strip shows excellent is ideal for screening throughout the supply chain, from the field to the silo and every step in between, and all this while maintaining a relatively accurate result.

While polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is considered as the “gold standard” for certifying non-GMO maize for export; It is not always feasible to perform PCR at every stage of the supply chain because it of time and cost constraints.

During importation and exportation, grain needs to be tested at the harbours and borders to prevent GMO grain from entering a non-GMO area. Testing after arrival at a grain processors’ facility is important to pick up any contamination that could have occurred during loading and transportation.

In most cases this neglected, since the PCR techniques are not simple to perform and requires time which may not be available.

Most industry, farmers, and users requiring rapid results are moving toward Lateral flow devices. Results are available immediately and time is not wasted by waiting for laboratory results which can take days. The lateral flow devices help the grain move faster through the supply chain.

The greatest need of any industry is time, and Lateral Flow devices offer exactly this to the user. It is a growing trend, and the move toward Rapid GMO testing has enabled decisions on storage and transportation of product to be made quickly and accurately.

Source: Stargate Scientific. Visit them at 

National strategy and government contact

Education, innovation and training are covered in chapter 9 of the National Development Plan (NDP). Of interest to this article, plant cultivars is listed as one area in which SA research has been good.

In South Africa, plant breeders’ rights (PBR) are protected under the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act, 1976 (Act No.15 of 1976). Also of relevance are the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Act No.15 of 1997) and Plant Improvement Act, 1976 (Act No. 53 of 1976). An amendment of the latter is currently before parliament. Find copies of these acts at Of relevance to livestock is the Animal Improvement Act, 1998 (Act 62 of 1998).


Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD)
The Directorate Genetic Resources administers the Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) Act, Act No. 15 of 1976 as amended in 1996. The objective of this Act is to provide for a system through which intellectual property rights (plant breeders’ rights) relating to varieties of certain kinds of plants may be granted and registered.

Find details of the Directorate: Genetic Resources; Registrar: Plant Breeder Rights Act; Registrar for the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997; and The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) at

Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)

  • Agriculture is one of three sectors targeted by the DSI’s Bio-Economy Strategy. Together with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) it has projects involving wheat, cassava, sweet stem sorghum, table grapes, indigenous flower bulbs, and more. Read about the TIA at Download a copy of the Bio-Economy Strategy from the DSI website or at
  • The DSI’s agency, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), runs a technology awareness campaign called the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB). Visit and
  • Biosafety SA

Department of  Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment
This Directorate: Biodiversity Risk Management was formed to co-ordinate and support work in implementing the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety.

  • South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is legally mandated to monitor the impacts of GMOs in our environment. Visit

The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic) considers trade and industrial development issues. See

Department of Health (DOH)
The DoH, which has a Biotec unit, has responsibility for labelling and related legislation. According to the Consumer Protection Act, food containing more than 5% of a GM ingredient needs to be labelled.

Further reference:

  • Find the Parliamentary Monitoring Group’s record of the Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development meeting “International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources” (2023, October 17) at

Role players


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 Representative Bodies
 Training, Consulting & Research Service Providers
 Community, NGO and NPO Service Providers

Further reference:


NGOs and industry bodies

  • The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa is “an industry body representing over 12 000 member companies in the retail, wholesale, manufacturing within the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry”. It is involved in negotiations around the GM labelling.

 Training and research

  • The PUB website contains a list of training providers and institutions in this area, along with possible careers in genetics and biotechnology. Visit Another place to find tertiary institutions is on the Southern Africa Plant Breeders’ Association website –
  • The ARC horticultural and field crop research campuses do research, breeding new cultivars producing seed for cultivars developed in breeding projects. Find their details on the “Research and development” page.
  • The AgriSETA Learner Guide Primary Agriculture “Explain the propagation of plants”, the Assessment Guide “Propagate plants”, and links to South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)-accredited qualifications like “Manipulate plants” and “Demonstrate an understanding of plant propagation” can be found at
  • Private Companies conduct their own research.

Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed earlier on this page.

Some articles

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