Taking a break from spraying his neat, one-hectare plot of young cotton plants with herbicide, Moses Mabika surveys the land that has been supporting his family for 45 years. He may not realise it, but he is standing at the epicenter of a heated debate about growing genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa.
The seed that sprouted Mabika's cotton plants was genetically modified to contain an insecticide that reduces the need to spray against bollworm, cotton's number one pest.
He will only have to spray his crop once or twice instead of six times in a season. The resulting savings in chemicals and labour, as well as higher yields, are supposed to more than compensate South African farmers like Mabika for the license fee they must pay to Monsanto, the US-based seed producer that holds the patent on Bollguard (Bt) cotton.
Mabika is among more than 2,000 smallholder farmers in this semi-arid area of northeastern KwaZulu-Natal province known as Makhathini Flats, who began growing GM cotton in 1999. South Africa is the only country on the continent with legislation in place that allows GM crops to be grown, and Makhathini Flats is one of the few areas in Africa where small-scale farmers are growing GM crops on a significant scale.
Given claims by the biotechnology industry that GM crops have a role to play in helping lift Africa's small-scale farmers out of poverty, both supporters and detractors of GM technology have followed the successes and failures of the Makhathini farmers with keen interest. Recent parliamentary hearings on amendments to South Africa's Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act have only intensified the scrutiny.
According to Monsanto and its supporters in the biotechnology industry, the vast majority of Makhathini farmers choose to plant Bt cotton over conventional seed varieties because they prefer it.
In a brochure documenting the uptake of Bt cotton in South Africa, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a non-profit group that receives financial support from Monsanto, lists the benefits Makhathini farmers derive from growing Bt cotton as proof that "agricultural biotechnology, along with other farming strategies, offers a powerful tool to help farmers in developing countries improve productivity and enhance health and socio-economic well-being".
The fact that Monsanto and the ISAAA have presented Makhathini Flats as a GM success story comes as no surprise to Mariam Mayet of the African Center for Biosafety.
"There's a lot at stake for Monsanto because if they can't get it right here, where it's commercially grown by small-scale farmers, they can't sell it to the rest of Africa," she commented.
Mayet's organisation, in cooperation with Friends of the Earth Nigeria, recently published a report stating that GM crops have not benefited consumers, farmers or the environment - only the biotechnology industry itself.
The report draws on a five-year study initiated by Biowatch South Africa, which claims that Bt cotton has aggravated rather than alleviated poverty in Makhathini Flats. According to one of the study's authors, Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss, the higher cost of Bt seed has meant a bigger financial risk for small farmers, which initially paid off as a result of good weather conditions and a high level of institutional support, but over a longer period has left them worse off.
"They stopped planting cotton, they have high debts and now they are borrowing money from family and friends, reducing the availability of resources for other needs," Pschorn-Strauss reported.
Mabika is less interested in the GM controversy than how much rain will fall on his plants this year, and whether the recent low price of cotton will have improved by the time he delivers his bales to the local ginnery in May.
Mabika has 10 family members to feed and cotton is their only source of income. A flood destroyed his crop in 2000 and drought took its toll in the next two years. Severe arthritis prevented him from being able to plant last year and only the sale of his entire herd of goats sustained his family.
Impact of Low Cotton Prices
Were it not for a new scheme sponsored by the provincial Department of Agriculture to distribute free packs of Bt cotton seed as well as fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides to farmers in the area, he could not have planted this year. Even with the free seed, the costs of renting a tractor to plough and prepare the soil and hiring labour to assist him meant he could only afford to cultivate one of his 44 hectares of land.
"It's not really the Bt cotton that's the problem," said Mabika's brother, Jeremiah, also a cotton farmer. "It's the price of cotton."
In recent years the world price of cotton has dropped to an all time low, largely due to the United States and the European Union heavily subsidising their cotton farmers. The years of poor weather conditions and low prices have left Makhathini's cotton growers in debt to the Land Bank to the tune of R20 million (US $3.2 million) and many have abandoned cotton altogether, although the Department of Agriculture's recent interventions have lured some back.
The Biowatch-initiated study contends that Bt cotton creates a dependency on outside institutions and does not provide a sustainable solution to the Makhathini farmers' problems; even Monsanto spokesperson Andrew Bennett concedes that without government support there would be fewer farmers planting it.
But Dave McAllister, who works with small-scale farmers on behalf of Makhathini Cotton, a local company, points out that farmers here have very limited options.
"Because of the dry, hot weather conditions and poor soil, cotton is the only crop they can grow," he explained.
"We want to grow other crops but we can't because there's no irrigation and no market for them," confirmed Jeremiah Mabika.
Concern Over Market Response
While several other countries in Africa are engaged in GMO research and development, South Africa has been growing GM crops for commercial use since the GMO legislation was passed in 1997. It is estimated that 75-80 percent of cotton plantings, 6-20 percent of maize plantings and 22-30 percent of soy plantings are now GM varieties, making South Africa the eighth largest producer in the world.
The GMO amendment bill was introduced mainly for the purpose of making some relatively minor technical changes to the original act. But the anti-GM lobby seized on last month's public hearings as an opportunity to pressure government for stricter regulations on what they view as a risky new technology allowing multinational companies to gain control over South Africa's food and agricultural production.
"The amendments are an opportunity to change what is a [permissive] law written for industry into a biosafety law," said Pschorn-Strauss. "There is, however, no indication that government will use this opportunity - there is just too much political pressure."
Biowatch invited several farmers from Makhathini Flats to make submissions to the hearings; Bhekokwakhe Manukuza was one of them. He explained that he had decided not to plant Bt cotton because a sample planting had failed, the initial costs were too high and he did not want to follow many of his fellow farmers into debt by borrowing from the Land Bank.
But most of the farmers IRIN spoke to said they chose to grow Bt cotton over conventional varieties and that they had fallen into debt for other reasons.
"It's a good seed, but the problem is drought," said Khanyisile Mlambo, who has been growing Bt cotton since 1999. Last year's poor rainfall and low cotton price meant she only made R1,000 ($160) from the two-and-a-half bales her two-hectare plot had yielded. Mlambo has yet to repay the R6,000 ($970) she borrowed from the Land Bank in 2001.
Problem Of A Seed Monopoly
In fact, conventional cottonseed varieties are becoming increasingly scarce. US-based seed company Delta Pine, which controls South Africa's entire cottonseed market, has an agreement with Monsanto to sell its technology. By buying two of South Africa's largest seed companies in 1999, Monsanto also controls a 45 percent share of the country's maize seed market and most of the market in wheat seed.
Even commercial farmers who sing the praises of GM crops have expressed concern that Monsanto's increasing share of South Africa's seed market could lead to an eventual monopoly, allowing the company to increase seed prices to a level that would be unaffordable to smaller farmers.
While the vast majority of Makhathini's farmers grow Bt cotton, many of them expressed unease about growing GM crops for consumption. "None of the farmers grow GM maize," Jeremiah Mabika noted. "I think it's because it's for them to eat, not to sell."
Similar concerns about the safety of consuming GM foods as well as the difficulty of exporting them to Europe's predominantly anti-GM market have so far kept modified crops out of much of the rest of Africa.
During Southern Africa's 2002 food shortages, the Zambian government rejected food aid from the United States because it was genetically modified and several other governments are keen to protect their farmers and agricultural sectors from becoming dependant on big foreign biotechnical companies.
Bennett insists that, given the chance, GM crops could help address hunger in Africa and make communities less dependant on food aid.
"There's a lot of food being produced in the world," he said. "The reason we have famine and hunger is because the infrastructure to deliver that food is not working. The benefit that biotech can bring is that you can deliver some real benefits in the vehicle of the seed - the farmer can produce food more productively where the communities actually are."
Currently, no seed has been successfully modified to withstand Africa's frequent droughts but, according to Bennett, they are in the pipeline.
"We would like other varieties of GM cotton," said Jeremiah Mabika, who is eager to get his hands on a recently licensed variety that includes Monsanto's trademark 'Round Up Ready' herbicide as well as the bollworm protection. More than the new seed variety, though, Mabika would like to have the option of growing a greater variety of crops.
"The only thing killing the small farmers is drought," he insisted. "If the government puts in irrigation, we can grow other things in addition to cotton."
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