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[CAIRO] Egypt has approved the cultivation and commercialisation of a Bt maize variety, marking the first legal introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops into the country.
A report last month (16 April) from the US Department of Agriculture, noted that the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture had "approved decisions made by the National Biosafety Committee and Seed Registration Committee to allow for commercialisation of a genetically modified Bt corn variety".
The endorsement was based on a series of field trials conducted between 2002 and 2007 for the variety MON 810, produced by biotechnology company Monsanto. Bt crops produce a toxin that guards against pests.
The variety to be distributed, Ajeeb-YG, is a cross between MON 810 and an Egyptian maize variety with resistance to three corn borer pests, developed by Monsanto scientists in South Africa — currently the only African country planting GM crops commercially.
Cairo-based company Fine Seeds International is partnering with Monsanto to distribute the variety in Egypt.
Ahmad Yaseen, an agricultural engineer at Fine Seeds, says the seeds will be available this month to farmers in ten Egyptian governorates.
Yaseen said the seeds will initially be imported from South Africa, but "starting from next year, Ajeeb-YG will be produced in Egypt".
Amr Farouk Abdelkhalik, an Egyptian biotechnologist and regional coordinator of the Agricultural Biotechnology Network in Africa, says the new variety "points to the potential agronomic and environmental benefits of Bt maize in Egyptian cropping systems and accordingly the reduction of the massive use of pesticides".
"We should develop our own GM plants using our genes and technology to protect small-scale farmers," he added.
Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a plant biotechnologist at the National Research Centre in Cairo, expressed concerns about the long-term effects of the crop.
He says research on the issues surrounding GM crops "must be conducted in Egypt, and an in-depth assessment must be carried out to examine the impact of GM plants on small-scale farmers".
Egypt currently has no official biosafety legislation, though a regulatory framework exists. Hisham El-Shishtawy from the National Biosafety Committee secretariat told SciDev.Net that the existing framework follows the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and encompasses ministerial decrees regulating the registration of GM seeds.