Makatini Flats: the lie that GE crops are good for Africa (19/5/2003)

19 May 2003

Makatini Flats: the lie that GE crops are good for Africa

When Robert Zoellick launched America's GM trade war at a press conference last week, the US may have failed to persuade a single African country south of the Sahara to express support but Zoellick did have TJ Buthelezi, a GM cotton grower from Makatini Flats in South Africa, by his side as an emblem of what GM crops could do for the Global South.  

The Makatini Flats have repeatedly been promoted as an African success story for Genetically Modified crops. To that end Buthelezi has been flown around the world by Monsanto, and related biotech industry lobby groups, to tell his story. Washington, Brussels, Pretoria, St Louis, London, Johannesburg, and Philadelphia have all been on the itinerary of this small-scale farmer from KwaZulu Natal. And it's not just Buthelezi who is being used in the role of global GM ambassador. This week Monsanto's PR agency has brought a group of farmers from the Makatini Flats to London to meet officials and the media.

Given the reports of problems with GM cotton growing pouring out of the southern states of India though, just how reliable is the tale of success that Monsanto claims for the Makatini Flats? How much solid independent evidence is there that what has happened in the Flats is actually down to GM crops? How easy is it to generalise from the Makatini Flats to the wider world? And how might other approaches have fared under similar circumstances and with similar support?

In the run up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Glenn Ashton prepared the following short report on the Makatini Flats for the the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeAGE)*. It raises many important questions. It suggests the reported "successes", in reality, have very little to do with Monsanto's product and a great deal to do with increased human inputs (financial, educational and so on), not to mention wholesale intereference with the water management of the Flats, where an entire floodplain management regime has been altered, with major ecological implications, to suit the growing of the cotton.  

By way of contrast, beneath Glenn Ashton's report we include an excerpt from an article by Prof Jules Pretty showing the startling results that can sustainably be achieved by resource poor Southern farmers without any of the risks of genetically engineered crops.
Makatini Flats: the lie that GE crops are good for Africa

 The co-operative project between Monsanto, the Land Bank and the {South African] Department of Agriculture in promoting a model genetically engineered cotton growing project at the Makatini Flats on the Pongla River in Northern Kwa-Zulu has been cited as an African success story of Genetically Modified (GE) technology. But we have only heard half the story; here is the other half.

This project has been claimed to increase income to peasant cotton farmers with a simultaneous reduction in pesticides and chemicals. What has happened is far more profound and sinister.

Monsanto has aggressively moved into this area, together with a sweeping package of agricultural reform, promoting the use of their Bt insect resistant cotton that targets the cotton bollworm, a major pest. In order that farmers could purchase this seed, loans were leveraged from the Land Bank. In so doing, extension officers from both the Dept. of Agriculture and Monsanto have made massive changes in management and have greatly increased oversight and advice inputs.

According to a recent Monsanto study, the use of this GE cotton crop has increased yields and profits with a drop in chemical use. The independence of these tests is questionable as they were funded indirectly by Monsanto. However, it is worth noting that Monsanto also instituted an earlier study that was due to be released in the Convention of Parties (COP 5) on Biodiversity in Belgium in 1999. Because these studies were inconclusive Monsanto embargoed their release. However the later study did manage to demonstrate certain differences that favoured Monsanto and this study was not suppressed, as the first was. On this questionable premise this project has been deemed a success. It has been widely presented as an indication of the success of transgenic crops and their relevance to African conditions.

A reason for the embargo on the first study was it's inconclusivity due to a lack of base line data; in other words, the basic scientific foundation work was insufficient. Monsanto's second study worked within narrower definitions and excluded the need for pre-project base line studies. This second study is intrinsically flawed.

Prior to the release of these studies, promoters of the technology stated that they saw "lots more insects than usual". This completely anecdotal and subjective view has been promoted as factual but again cannot be reinforced by hard data, again because of the lack of baseline data.

The success of this project is also placed in question by a recent Chinese study on Bt cotton. This shows an increase in problem insects with a reduction in diversity. There are also strong indications that Bt cotton loses its effectiveness far more rapidly than previously realised. The Monsanto study avoids dealing with this concern.

Another central criticism of the Makatini Flats study is the fact that massive resources that were not previously available have been mobilised. Capital, insurance, chemicals and fertilisers, extension programmes from both commercial and state sources that were not previously present have all become available.

Capital was made available from the Land Bank, the national agricultural support bank, in order to purchase inputs. In order to access these capital inputs, farmers were for the first time introduced to commercial loan systems. Loans are tied to insurance that raises the cost of the loans and introduces these farmers into the formal market economy with both the risks and benefits. However the risks are largely borne by farmers whilst Monsanto achieves a risk free benefit.

The farmers are exposed to additional risk by moving from farming subsistence crops with a small cash crop component, to predominant cash crop production. If their cotton fails or prices fall, they will not be able to repay their loans and will also be left with less available food for the rest of the year. Whilst Monsanto is assured of its returns, farmers have no such guarantees, as we have seen all too often in other parts of the world like India, where farmers have become indebted to the agro-industrial system with tragic results.

The primary reason for the increase in yield and profitability is the increase in improved inputs, both physical and intellectual. The claim that GE crops have led to this miraculous increase in prosperity is based not only on flawed and subjective scientific data, but also completely ignores management improvements.

Another factor is the change of management to the entire floodplain because of cotton farming. The Makatini flats are a floodplain that has been used for subsistence farming for hundreds of years. In the 1970s the government built a dam on the Pongola River, altering the nature of the floodplain forever. In order to manage the floodplain, a controlled flood regime was instituted in order to mimic seasonal flooding. This was not only to appease the farmers on the floodplain but also to ensure that the environmental effects of the dam on the delicate seasonal downstream ecology would be minimised.

Cotton has a longer growing season than most of the regular subsistence crops that have been traditionally grown at Makatini.  In order to facilitate the change from subsistence to cotton farming, the flood plain management regime was changed. According to river ecologists this has already, and will continue, to have a negative effect on the environment below the dam. The Department of Water Affairs has been pressured by both commercial and political lobbies who are keen to see this project succeed. The political pressure emanates from the highest levels within government, which has unilaterally adopted GE crops as a policy decision without any consultation. Commercial interests and ideology have seriously undermined effective environmental management.

The introduction of cash crop farming with increased extension services must be welcomed for any previously disadvantaged farmers. However the claim that the improvement in their material wealth is due entirely to the introduction of GE cotton is a spurious lie.

There has been neither control nor baseline with which to compare this claim. It is deeply problematic to mobilise these extensive state resources in support of Monsanto or any other commercial venture. This amounts to little more than state subsidisation of commercial resources. These scarce resources should be used for projects that use tested, ecologically safe practices...

The acceptance of transgenic crops has been forced by both commercial and political pressure. We are moving toward dependence, not independence in both our agricultural and economic systems in a short-sighted experiment being run at public expense if we continue down the road of the Makatini model of development.
Sustainable highlights - an excerpt from 'Feeding the world?' Jules Pretty's examination of the myths and realities of sustainable farming's quiet revolution: http://ngin.tripod.com/article2.htm

   * some 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons/ha;

* some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras have used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to some 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms, which has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;

* more than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India farming in dryland conditions, and now using a range of water and soil management technologies, have tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tons/hectare;  

* some 200,000 farmers across Kenya who as part of various government and non-government soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programmes have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;

* 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico who have adopted fully organic production methods, and yet increased yields by half;

* a million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam who have shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides whilst still increasing their yields by about 10%.

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive