Professor Jennifer Thomson

Emeritus Professor
Research | Books


Professor Jennifer A. Thomson



Jennifer Thomson's main work, together with Suhail Rafudeeen and Jill Farrant, is to develop transgenic maize tolerant to drought and other abiotic stresses. The source of their genes is the 'resurrection plant' Xerophyta viscosa, an extremophile that can tolerate up to 95% dehydration.

The 'resurrection plant' Xerophyta viscosa

She also works, together with Prof. Ed Rybicki and Dr Dionne Shepherd, on the development of maize resistant to the African endemic geminivirus, Maize streak virus.

She helped draft South Africa 's National Biotechnology Strategy and was appointed by the Minister of Science and Technology to the National Advisory Council on Innovation. She is the co-founder of SA WISE (SA Women in Science and Engineering) .

Internationally she is on the board of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. She is a frequently invited speaker at conferences, including the World Economic Forum. During 2004 she won the coveted L'Oréal/Unesco award for women in science. The award, which is worth US$100 000(about R650 000), was given for her research into the resistance shown by transgenic plants to viral infections, drought and other risks.

The fact that Jennifer has been given the L'Oréal/Unesco award shows that many top scientists abroad share the view that problems arising from genetic modification can be scientifically contained.

Professor Thomson in the media: Fair Lady (November 2013); Tatler (October 2013)

XVSAP1 transgenic Arabidopsis, after heat treatment

XVSAP1 transgenic tobacco showing resistance to water stress.

MSV-Resistance Trials
GMOs: Facts and Fictions
  Fiction Fact
Environmental impacts GM crops create superweeds
  • The use of herbicides for decades has not resulted in superweeds.
  • Herbicide resistant crops are just another way herbicides can be used.
  • Herbicide rotation has been used for decades to prevent build-up of resistance
GM crops will destroy biodiversity
  • GM crops are much easier to breed into different crop varieties as they only have one or a few linked genes added. Thus GM crops can increase crop biodiversity.
  • Fewer insecticides are used leading to increased insect biodiversity.
Food safety GM foods are unsafe to eat
  • No food in the history of humankind has ever been subjected to such rigorous safety tests as foods derived from GM crops.
  • 2004: Food and Agricultural Organization “no deleterious effects from consumption of foods derived from GM crops discovered anywhere in the world”.
  • 2010: EU Commission Directorate for Research “no new risks to human health or the environment from any GMO crops commercialized so far”.
Market issues GM crops are just a ploy of the multinationals to make more money
  • Farmers are savvy people. They will not buy seeds if they don’t give them a profit. No-one is forcing farmers to buy seed from any given company.
  • In India 30 companies have the Bt gene in their varieties.
Farmers who plant GM crops have to buy seed every year
  • Since the advent of hybrid crops/seeds in the mid-1990s farmers who have chosen to plant such hybrids have had to buy seed every year. That was long before GM crops were even dreamt of.
  • Farmers can choose not to buy hybrid seed but plant open-pollinated varieties, or land races. These have lower yields but farmer can plant their own seed. These choices are readily available from seed companies.
GM crops cannot help to feed the poor
  • They could if they were allowed to be introduced. The developed world has imposed such strict regulations, which have to be followed by the developing world, that existing GM crops as well as new ones in the pipeline with improved nutritional content, and resistance to drought and disease, are extremely difficult and expensive to introduce.
GM crops won’t put more money into the pockets of small holder farmers
  • Currently in 29 countries where GM crops are allowed, approximately 90% are planted by small holder farmers. Ask them why they buy GM seeds.
  • In 2009 87% of the national Indian cotton crop was planted by small holder farmers using GM seed.
  • In China the equivalent figure was 68%.
  • Small holder farmers are the quintessential organic farmers as they cannot afford herbicides and insecticides. GM crops means that they can improve their yield with seed alone, although addition of fertilizers will help.
Genes can flow from GM crops and ‘pollute’ other crops
  • Gene flow takes place between all crops, GM or non-GM. Conventional hybrid crops can just as readily ‘pollute’ local varieties.
Genes for Africa: genetically modified crops in the developing world GM crops: the impact
and potential
Food for Africa: the life and work of a scientist in GM crops

Genes for Africa

In Genes for Africa , Jennifer Thomson separates fact from fiction and explains why and how GM crops can help combat poverty, starvation and disease in the developing world, in a safe and responsible way. 

In the first part of the book the author explains the technology and looks at the differences and similarities between genetic modification, conventional plant breeding and natural processes such as cross pollination and mutations. Subsequent chapters are devoted to controversial issues such as food safety (for GM crops and organically grown food), patents, labelling, regulations, and controls, and there is a question-and-answer section where the author, addresses, oft-repeated concerns and fears. The book ends with a focus on Africa and possible future developments in GM technology.

Glossaries, interest boxes, appendices with additional technical information, and a comprehensive list of web sites add value to this accessible informative volume.

"This is a gem of a book. It is clear and concise, it makes the complex seem simple without losing the essential truths, and, as far as I can tell, it is accurate, with no innuendo, no half-truth and no wild extrapolation."

- Gordon Conway, President of the Rockerfeller Foundation, USA, published in Nature, Jan 2003.

" We have reassurances from those with a financial stake in GM technology that all is well and allegations from the anti-GM lobby that these organisms present a clear danger to the environment and human health. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between these two positions, and the public deserves a more factual and reliable source of information on this issue."

- Michael Shelby, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences USA.

"True environmentalism recognises the need for development, for growing food and making livelihoods available to the poor, and aims to minimise the risks and danger that are entailed. You will find the real facts discussed here and placed before you in an enthusiastic but always scientifically controlled way."

-George Ellis, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, UCT.


This book has been published by UCT Press (© 2002) and is available by writing to the following address:

P.O. Box 24309
South Africa

ISBN 1 919 713573


GM Crops: The Impact and Potential

Genetically modified crops - are they monsters of nature or could they provide answers to some of our most pressing environmental concerns? Will they create superweeds, run amock and change life as we know it, or are these fears greatly exaggerrated?

Internationally respected microbiologist Jennifer Thomson takes us through the issues and concerns surrounding the development of genetically modified crops and their impacts on the environment. She explains how such crops are developed and assessed and discusses the likelihood of negative effects on biodiversity, pollen spread, and organic farming. GM crops may have tremendous potential for addressing some of the world's environmental problems and protecting the planet, particularly in developing countries - in fact we could face more harm if some of these technologies are not adopted.

"The author...has done an excellent job of addressing virtually all of the concerns of those who throw rocks at plants altered through modern genetic technology. Thomson provides lots of data and documentation to support her conclusions. Given the breath of this field and the speed at which it is moving, this book provides those of us working in particular aspects of the discipline with a good overview of areas we simply don’t have time to follow...The book is filled with interesting statistics and Dr. Thomson does a masterful job of debunking issues raised by the anti-GMO groups in a non-confrontational way. I highly recommend this book with no reservations. "

- L. Curtis Hannah, Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, University of Florida.

"Thomson's view through the magnifying glass is rewarding. Readers will find many aspects of GM crops identified and discussed in an open, balanced manner. Social, economic and safety concerns are addressed directly and clearly. It is rewarding to see a competent author put forward clear messages on a concise manner...The author puts the emphasis on the right topics at the right time and openly addresses the reasons for concern regarding GM crops in the developing world. To get all of this into a brief book is clearly a great accomplishment."

- Joel I. Cohen, published in Nature Biotechnology , July 2007.

This book has been published by CSIRO Publishing (© 2006) and is available by writing to the following address:

CSIRO Publishing
150 Oxford Street (PO Box 1139)
Collingwood VIC 3066

ISBN 978 0 64309 160 3
ISBN 0 643 09160 2

Also published as Seeds for the Future: The Impact of Genetically Modified Crops, by Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2007.

ISBN 978-0-8014-7368-5



Food for Africa: the life and work of a scientist in GM crops

Jennifer Thomson is one of the world's leading advisors on genetically modified crops. In Food for Africa, she traces, through anecdote and science, her career and the development of this area of research - from the dawn of genetic engineering in the USA in 1974, through the early stages of its testing in Europe and regulation in South Africa, to the latest developments in South Africa, where an updated Bioeconomy Strategy was approved in early 2013.

As a young scientist, she chose to study bacterial genetics, negotiating her way in a very male-dominated arena. It led to her path-breaking involvement in the development of GM research in South Africa - where approximately 80% of maize grown currently is genetically modified for insect and herbicide resistance - and the spread of this technology to other parts of Africa. Experiments conducted with smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozanbique now mean that insect-resistant cowpea, disease-resistant bananas, virus-resistant cassava, drought-tolerant maize and vitamin-enriched sorghum can be grown in Africa successfully.

This book describes a remarkable personal and sceintific evolution and looks to a future in which GM technology allows for the possibility of achieving food security throughout Africa by means of staple crops grown in difficult conditions by smallholder farmers.

"The work of Jennifer Thomson has been transformational in demonstrating the value of biotechnology to food security on a continent that suffers from droughts and adverse weather patterns."

- Dr Mamphela Ramphele

This book has been published by UCT Press (© 2013), an imprint of Juta & Co. Ltd, Claremont, South Africa

ISBN 978 1 92049 981 5
ePub 978 1 77582 049 9
WebPDF 978 1 77582 048 2