Can the poor help GM crops? Important new study (8/10/2006)

Below are details and extracts from an important new paper on the growing of Bt cotton in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa.

GM crop cultivation in Makhathini has been projected as a showcase for why GM crops will benefit the poor, but this study is just the latest in a whole series of recent studies to raise serious questions about Bt cotton adoption and its various impacts, and in particular about GM cotton as a technology that's particularly suited to the needs of poor farmers.

For more on these other studies: listen to a GM Watch podcast on your computer (eg with QuickTime) via indymedia: http://biotech.indymedia.org/or/2006/08/5288.shtml

or on your computer or MP3 player via iTunes http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewPodcast?id=158600210

The whole podcast transcript - complete with references for the research, which includes another recently published study looking at Makhathini - is available at: http://www.lobbywatch.org/p1temp.asp?pid=86&page=1


Can the Poor Help GM Crops?

Technology, Representation & Cotton in the Makhathini Flats, South Africa Harald Witt, Rajeev Patel & Matthew Schnurr Review of African Political Economy - Vol. 33, No. 109 (Sept. 2006): 497-513

ISSN 0305-6244 Print/1740-1720
DOI: 10.1080/03056240601000945


The adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) cotton in South Africa's Makhathini Flats in 1998 was heralded as a case in which agricultural biotechnology could benefit smallholder farmers, and a model for the rest of the continent to follow. Using historical, political economic and ethnographic data, we find the initial enthusiasm around GM technology to be misguided. We argue that Makhathini's structured institutional framework privileges adopters of GM technologies through access to credit and markets. The adoption of GM cotton is symptomatic not of farmers' endorsement of GM technology, but a sign of the profound lack of choice facing them in the region.

Recent literature in development journals has taken a robust and optimistic view regarding the potential of Genetically Modified (GM) crops to regenerate the agricultural sector in the global South... One of the most widely cited success stories has drawn on the experiences of small-scale farmers cultivating GM cotton in the Makhathini Flats in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

The stakes in the assessment are of concern elsewhere on the continent. Cotton farmers in West Africa have, for example, found it difficult to compete with cotton produced in the United States, because of the high levels of government subsidy enjoyed by cotton producers there. In response, the US has chosen not to reduce its subsidies, but offered GM cotton technology to farmers in West Africa, despite the fact that producers there are second in productivity only to Australia (Greenberg, 2004). In the promotion of GM cotton as suitable for African farmers in toto, the success story of Makhathini plays a key role. Yet precisely because the local circumstances are stripped away from any assessment of GM cotton's suitability, farmers' choice of GM seed can be represented and misrepresented as an endorsement of the technology, and by extension, an invitation to apply it elsewhere.

This study examines the adoption of GM cotton in the Makhathini Flats area, contextualising the laudatory findings of some researchers (see, e.g. Thirtle et al. 2003), and placing Makhathini's cotton monoculture in a longer history of imperial export agriculture, technology and policy. We draw on thirty in-depth interviews with the leaders of cotton-growing associations, interviews with local government officials, growers and processors, suppliers of inputs, together with debt data from regional and national creditors, data from the cotton industry, the findings from three workshops involving a total of 80 farmers from the area, as well as survey data covering 50 residents.

We begin with a brief history of cotton farming in KwaZulu-Natal, observing the development of a cotton monoculture destined for export, which GM technology extends. We then outline the limited choices facing cotton farmers, from a macro-economic, institutional and micro-local perspective. We suggest that, in the light of current evidence, the considerable favourable attention accorded the Makhathini cotton farmers is indicative not of the appropriateness of the technology, but a symptom of a development policy and lifescience industry which is keen for the technology to succeed. We argue that the adoption of GM cotton in the Makhathini area is symptomatic not of an endorsement of GM technology, nor a step on the road to regenerating the agricultural sector, but rather a sign of the profound lack of choice facing farmers in the region. Following Ferguson (1990), we conclude that the technology represents an anti-politics machine offering a technological solution to a series of political problems around differentiated access to markets, and access to state resources including credit, agricultural extension services.


The development of cotton in Makhathini suggests that the success story of GM cotton has been ascribed a prematurely happy ending.

...the MCC has recently relaunched its website, hosting a 2005 news article from the 'life-sciences' industry-funded Council for Biotechnology Information (Company, 2005; Council for Biotechnology Information, n.d.) in which T.J. Buthelezi claims: 'Normally, at the end of the year, I would ask my wife how we are going to pay our bills,' he says. 'Now I ask her, how are we gonna spend this money?' Our interviews with Buthelezi, as well as with other leading cotton farmers, contradict this rather favourable scenario.

We have shown that farmers on the Makhathini Flats adopt Bt cotton not because they consider themselves to be innovative adopters of biotechnology, but because agrarian choices are severely limited. The principal intervention in the bringing of GM cotton to the region has been the facilitation of access to cotton markets for local farmers. Absent from the area has been any serious and consistent engagement by gover

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