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HomeFood and Farming ScienceLessons from Africa’s largest producer of GMO crops

Lessons from Africa’s largest producer of GMO crops

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) was formed in response to the South African government’s approval of GMOs in agriculture in 1998 and the subsequent first approvals of commercial GM crops in the country. ACB has been a vocal critic of GM crops and their expansion both in South Africa and across the continent. In an interview with Sabrina Masinjila, the ACB builds its argument on why GM crops are not the answer to Africa’s food insecurity.

What is the political and economic history of the introduction of genetically modified foods in South Africa?

South Africa is the ninth largest producer of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in the world and by far, the largest in Africa. It also became the first country in Africa to allow the commercialisation of a food crop, GM maize, and today still remains the only country in the continent to do so. Currently, the South African maize sector is completely dominated by GM maize, accounting for over 80% of white maize planted in the country.

In 2016, the total area under GM crops cultivation was 2.66 million hectares with 2.16 million hectares covered by GM corn/maize, 494,000 hectares by soybean, and 9,000 hectares by cotton, according to the 2016 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications’ (ISAAA) report on the global status of commercialised biotech/GM crops.

Commercial cultivation of GM crops in South Africa began in 1997 when GM varieties of Monsanto’s insect resistant (IR) cotton known as “Bollgard,” and its IR maize, MON 810, were approved for growing. Since then, there have been 70 events1 approved for planting. These include five Argentine canola events, 10 for cotton, 42 for maize, one rice event and 12 soybean events. In 2001, a first GM soybean variety genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant (HT) was also cleared for growing. There have also been numerous developments on ‘stacks2’ which have been trialled and approved for both growing and importation for use as commodities over the years.

The South African context is very dissimilar to the rest of Africa. This is a country with a well established commercial farming sector, with experience of using hybrid seeds – and the chemical inputs they require – and with no mass peasant farmer base, making it easier for the introduction of GM. This is not the case in the rest of the continent where, for example, women grow 80% of staple crops. Nevertheless, at the moment, Africa’s hundreds of millions of peasant farmers represent an enormous potential market to biotechnology, seed and agrochemical companies.

The ISAAA estimates that economic gains from biotech crops for South Africa for the period of 1998 to 2015 were US $2.1 billion and US $237 million for 2015 alone. In 2011, the same ISAAA claimed that Bt cotton, a variety of GM modified cotton, had “made a significant contribution to the income of 15 million small resource-poor farmers in 2011.” However, there is overwhelming evidence contrary to this as we see in the case of the Makhatini Flats in KwaZulu Natal and the cultivation of Bt cotton there.

What are the potential gains – or losses – for these ‘hundreds of millions of peasant farmers’ when it comes to the adoption of GM crop cultivation and what have been the experiences of black smallholder farmers in South Africa?

Bt cotton represented the first systematic attempt at introducing GM crops to small-scale farmers in South Africa in the Makhatini Flats, a poverty-stricken, remote rural district just south of the border with Mozambique. This was done through a targeted campaign by Monsanto to increase adoption among smallholder cotton farmers. Historically, the smallholder farmers of Makhatini were growing cotton due to a range of economic, political and social forces that resulted in chronic indebtedness. These farmers also operated in a closed value chain, where one parastatal cotton company managed all aspects of production including credit supply, seed production and distribution, extension support, transport and ginning. Together with the luring of the Makhatini farmers into adopting Bt cotton, the government and a range of agribusiness actors, including Monsanto, provided free production packages, including Bt cottonseed that was subsidised with public funds.

By the 1999/2000 growing season, just two years after its introduction, Bt adoption rates had spiralled from 7% to 90%, prompting a flurry of academic and popular articles heralding the success of the technology. The chairman of the local farmers’ association was flown to 13 different countries to tell policy-makers and farmers, first hand, of the benefits Bt cotton had brought his community. However, the initial success for the farmers in the Makhatini Flats did not last. In 2003, the local credit institution collapsed under the weight of unpaid debt of approximately R22 million (approximately US $2 million at that time). This was due to farmers deciding to sell their cotton to a new company in a bid to avoid paying back their loans. Without the certainty of using cotton as collateral for loans, credit became unavailable and cotton production declined. Farmers were destitute, with social relations in tatters due to unpaid debts. Within 10 years of its introduction, most growers had abandoned Bt cotton altogether. Reduced cotton production led to the closure of the Makhatini gin in 2007.

To date, there is minimal cotton production while the total number of adopters during the same period was below 5%. Makhatini showcases the inappropriateness of a development regime that seeks to introduce technological solutions to deeply rooted, systemic socio-economic problems.

The failure of Makhathini has not discouraged further attempts at the dissemination of GM seeds to peasant farmers. The Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in the country, has been subject to numerous developmental policies including attempts to spread the use of GM crops. The Massive Food Programme (MFP), initiated in 2002, forms part of the Eastern Cape’s Provincial Growth and Development Plan (PGDP) and has been designed to facilitate “a seamless trajectory from subsistence to commercial production.” Research carried out in the Amathole district of the Eastern Cape in 2010 has revealed the severe shortcomings of this kind of approach. The manner in which the projects were prescribed took away virtually all production decisions from farmers.

The Uvimbo bank purchased seeds and agro-chemicals directly from suppliers, while many farmers were unaware that they had been given GM cotton, maize and soybean seeds to grow. The growing of mono-cash-crops, particularly in the case of Bt cotton, did little to aid household security and in many cases, at harvest time the farmers’ lack of bargaining power severely curtailed their incomes.

Issues around credit, debt and unequal power relations are not exclusive to GM crops but rather are the symptoms of much wider systemic problems. However, it does highlight the shortcomings inherent in trying to address these issues through a technological lens. Moreover, the concentration of commercial markets and political influence that needs to be overcome are the very conditions that the multi-national seed and agrochemical companies benefit enormously from; the ‘solutions’ they are proposing, such as GM seeds, are the result of an ideology whose very existence is dependent upon the perpetuation of the status quo.

South Africa is the only country in the world where its main staple crop, maize, is primarily GMO, with about 70-80% of the maize consumed in the country being genetically modified. Considering that one of the key selling points of GM foods is that they will completely alleviate perennial problems of hunger and food insecurity in Africa by increasing yields, what has been South Africa’s experience in this regard?

Despite longer than a decade of GM maize use in the country, food insecurity is rife, with over 46% of South African households experiencing hunger. South Africa also experiences the double burden where a major proportion of society suffers from malnutrition in the forms of both undernutrition and obesity. One in five children in South Africa are stunted and over 50% of South African women are overweight and obese.

The assumption is that hunger is caused by a lack of food availability, and therefore the solution is to produce more food, hence the focus on high-yielding crop varieties. Higher-yielding crops, as part of a larger industrialised agricultural system, have not automatically translated into improved diet quality, which is the root of South African malnutrition. The problem of food security does not lie with food production but with unemployment and inequality. There needs to be a shift away from focusing on high-yielding crops with high-calorie content, to a diverse range of foods that are accessible, affordable, produced in ecologically sustainable ways and that are culturally appropriate. This requires a holistic approach to food systems, one that also looks at ways to increase diet quality and considers the impact of a product’s life-cycle on nutrition and the role that well-resourced marketing campaigns and food environments play in defining consumer choice and behaviour.

What about the argument that embracing genetically engineered crops will result in farmers using fewer herbicides and pesticides, therefore contributing to more eco-friendly farming practices? Has this been South Africa’s experience?

On the contrary, the introduction of GM crops has only resulted in increased use of herbicides and pesticides, with a good example being glyphosate. Glyphosate is the commonly used herbicide in South Africa in crop production and it has become synonymous with GM crops. Over a period of seven years between 2005 to 2012, the overall use of glyphosate increased from 12 million litres to 20 million litres while from 2007 to 2011, glyphosate imports increased by 177%.

South African commercial farmers embraced herbicide tolerant (HT) crops with the first HT cotton variety commercially released in 2000 followed by HT varieties of soybean and maize in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Currently, HT maize accounts for 61.7% (1.33 million hectares) of all GM maize planted in South Africa. At the moment, South Africa is also facing the commercialisation of GM herbicide-tolerant crops to replace the failing glyphosate tolerant varieties that are succumbing to weed resistance, such as 2, 4-D, and dicamba.

With cotton, Monsanto’s Bt technology was developed initially for the US market, where the Bollworm is a major cotton pest. In South Africa, production is also affected by the Jassid, a small winged leafhopper that breeds on the underside of the leaf. During the 1920s, a concerted effort was made to breed cotton strains resistant to the Jassid. Reports in 2012 emerged from northern Zululand that the Jassid was making a comeback, forcing farmers to increase their spraying of organophosphates by as much as 25%. On the other hand, 2, 4-D and glyphosate have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.’ However, with glyphosate, the controversy surrounding its safety has resulted in its label as carcinogenic being withdrawn through lobbying by the biotech industry.

The additional use of 2, 4-D and dicamba are truly going to increase the chemical burden on foods, water, land and health at a time when evidence backs the urgent need to move towards sustainable food systems to protect food supplies and the health of our people and planet in an era of unpredictable climate change. There have been recent changes to regulations on Maximum Residue Levels (MRL) in 2017 by the South African government, but these did not include glufosinate-tolerant maize even though this has been cultivated in the country for years. This shows a lack of monitoring on the part of the South African government and is indicative of an increase in the use of herbicides and pesticides in the country, contrary to what the biotech industry claims.

There is a growing wave pushing for the introduction of GM crops across Africa, while the power and influence of multi-national agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and international philanthropic organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is actively growing and shifting the dynamics of Africa’s food and agriculture systems. The ACB has termed the influence of these organisations as a key feature of the systemic neoliberal and neo-colonial capture of Africa’s food systems. Is the Right to Food in Africa being privatised and commodified and how can this be resisted?

Yes, there is an increasing privatisation of food systems in Africa. Since the introduction of GMOs, the seed industry has rapidly consolidated with just four companies controlling almost 60% of the seed market. For certain crops, the market is even more concentrated. Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and Dow own 80% of the corn and 70% of the soybean market. This consolidation of the market has extended to these companies merging in order to expand their footprint in the seed and agrochemical market. Furthermore, there are three mega-mergers taking place globally in the seed and agrochemical sector globally–Bayer and Monsanto, Dow-Dupont and ChemChina-Syngenta.

In South Africa, the Bayer-Monsanto merger was approved in May 2017, by the Competition Commission of South Africa (CCSA). This would produce a monopoly in the supply of GM cottonseed in South Africa where 90% of the seed used is genetically modified. The Bayer-Monsanto company now controls the future of the agro-food system while controlling vast information on seed, soil and weather. Concentration and consolidation of the market entrench the future direction of the farming system creating a dependency of farmers and marginalising more sustainable models of agriculture, such as agro-ecology, which is increasingly being called for by organisations representing African smallholder farmers. Furthermore, it decreases innovation as an orientation of research in the agricultural sector is privatised leading to further entrenchment of intellectual property rights, including plant breeders rights. The merger is also likely to cause the increased price of inputs which will have a knock-on effect on the price of food.

In the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, the private seed industry has made gains in recent years, with the usual players of companies such as Monsanto and other groups of large multi-national companies from Europe and Asia (mainly focused on horticulture), national seed companies and newly emerging local companies supported by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). For millions of smallholder farmers on the continent, impacts are bound to be felt.

Farmers are expected to become more commercially oriented to cover the rising costs of inputs that will occur. Of concern are the resource-poor farmers and those living in remote or ecologically harsh environments not suited to constantly producing for markets. The majority of farmers will also not have the means to engage in seed selection or production, should onerous certification laws being proposed become the norm throughout the continent. As private seed companies on the continent continue to grow and consolidate they are likely to focus on a narrower range of commercially lucrative crops when most people agree that seed systems in Africa will require more, not less, diversity going forward.

Sabrina Masinjila is a Research and Advocacy Officer at the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Tanzania. She has a BA in Environmental Studies from Kenyatta University and has been working in the NGO sector for seven years. Her work in ACB revolves around research, campaigning, networking and advocacy around biosafety, seed and food sovereignty and farmers’ rights. On biosafety, Sabrina monitors GMO activities in Africa with a particular focus on Eastern and Southern Africa and continuously following the GMO permitting systems especially in South Africa.

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