SA government’s promotion of genetically modified agriculture undermines farming and food security in South Africa and Africa – December 29, 2011


Mariam Mayet* critically discusses the SA govenment’s role in the promotion of genetically modified agriculture that will undermine farming in South Africa and Africa and contribute of food insecurity.

First introduced commercially in South Africa in 1998, genetically modified (GM) seeds are used extensively in agriculture. In just over 10 years, 75% percent of South Africa’s maize has been converted to genetic modification. A staggering 96%% of the area planted to cotton is comprised of GM varieties and about 90% of soya beans are GM. Genetic modification is an imported technology and licensed for use in South Africa. A handful of multinational agro-chemical/seed corporations like Monsanto control the GM seed market. Monsanto has the lion’s share of the patents on GM traits and has secured access to the South African market through an extensive and well-oiled agribusiness dealer network.

Profits are secured through the extraction of exorbitant technology fees from farmers. The farmers who use Monsanto’s GM seed sign away the right to save or exchange seed and absolve Monsanto from liability for seed contamination. Monsanto has taken legal action against farmers for patent infringement in the US.

Support for GM

The South African government, through the Department of Agriculture, has granted voluminous permits for the import of GM seed, field trials and commercial releases. The government unashamedly supports GM technology as a key growth area for the economy. The government is therefore not concerned that farmers who use GM seed are locked into an industrial agricultural system dependent on ready-made packages of industrial inputs – a process that de-skills farmers. Monsanto is currently conducting field trials in South Africa of four varieties of abiotic stress maize and is set to provide patented germ-plasm and transgenes to the highest bidder.

Green Revolution

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Warren Buffet Foundation, the Yara Foundation and the Soros Foundation have committed over $300 million (R2.2 billion) to the New Green Revolution in Africa. This is an agriculture system underpinned by the single-minded objective of increasing crop yields.

The term was coined by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1968, to describe breakthroughs in the development of seeds responding well to inorganic fertilisers and agro-chemicals. This model was introduced in South East Asia and India, heralding a historic shift in global farming away from local production for local consumption to arge-scale production of mono-crops for the global market. The African Green Revolution defines rural poverty in terms of insufficient productivity, and has a tendency to view food shortages as a shortcoming of food supply rather than a holistic understanding of why people go hungry. The African Union – heads of state – supports this ideology, and it is propagated through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates and Howard G Buffet foundations are pouring into Africa for GM drought-tolerance research and development. GM drought tolerance is being offered to African countries as a panacea in the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and in combating climate change. This will usher in massive field trials across Africa, finally pushing open hitherto closed doors to GM-based agriculture. The philanthropic money pouring into Africa is laying the groundwork for the industrialisation of African agriculture and the creation of markets for agribusiness. This is paving the way for the emergence of a new rural private sector, agro-processors and exporters who contract small farmers to produce crops for them. In addition, USAID undermines the sovereignty of African governments by unduly influencing biosafety laws. Soon, national biosafety spaces will acquiesce to the expanding needs of Monsanto, Syngenta and their ilk.

Small farming sustainable

With the exception of South Africa, small-scale African agriculture is dominant in Africa. Farmers practice smallholder diversified farming systems that provide most of the food consumed, and a substantial cash crops. At least seven distinct farming systems exist in Africa. Crop diversity is central and many farmers practice intercropping – a variety of intermingled crops in the same field – as a way of safeguarding their production from shocks such as drought and maintaining the fertility and productivity of the soil.

Based on their vast experience, intercropping approaches enable them to spread risk in the event of crop failure, contribute to a more varied and balanced diet and maximise land use. This practice encourages seed saving, where a portion of the harvested crop is set aside for the next year’s planting. Seed saving is a critical resource that enables the poor to carry on farming. Over the years these seeds have gradually adapted to the specific microclimate and unique varieties have organically developed to withstand the environmental and pest pressures exerted on them.

Devastating impositions

The imposition of a technology to what are inherently social, political, historical and economic crises within African agriculture will transform rural economies, social relationships, agrarian policies and the rural development trajectory. Agricultural production in Africa will increasingly be dominated by transnational seed, GM, agro-chemical and agribusiness. This will accelerate the destruction of traditional agricultural systems and facilitate the shift towards an externally oriented, input-based agricultural system, an ecological disaster. This includes genetic contamination by GM crops, loss of agricultural genetic diversity and the degradation and pollution of soils and water. It is anticipated that the health of Africans will deteriorate as they consume more chemically infused and risky GM and Green Revolution food.

The widespread food riots that occurred last year were precipitated by a growing dissatisfaction and frustration among the world’s poor about the “collateral” damage they incurred by the globalising forces of capital. A brutally frank appraisal is urgently required to dismantle the “structural meltdown” brought about by policies such as the Green Revolution, which transformed food that is sacred into a global commodity for speculation and bargaining.

Critical Report ignored

A report published last year by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development has been largely ignored by global policy makers. Commissioned by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Bank, and compiled by over 400 experts over four years, the report suggests that food security, food sovereignty and sound environmental practices for current and future generations are inextricably linked to the adoption and enhancement of ecological agricultural systems, based on local knowledge. Far from promoting GM technology, the report highlights the scientific uncertainties and socio-economic impacts with the technology. While many countries have signed on to the report, South Africa has refused.

South Africa is a poor steward of Africa’s biodiversity.

It has granted close to 1 600 GM permits since 2003, yet its regulatory, biosafety and administrative capacities lag far behind. It has also failed to meet national and international obligations demanding transparency in decision-making, public participation and public access to information.


Frustrated by the government’s intransigence to meet its obligations, the African Centre for Biodiversity lodged a complaint with the Compliance Committee established under the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, for its breach of international law. The government must throw its weight behind agricultural systems that support local production for local consumption, based on ecologically sound environmental practices and local knowledge.

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