In May 2003 Monsanto's PR agency brought a group of GM farmers all the way from South Africa to the UK to speak at a private meeting of The Commonwealth Business Council, before heading on to Denmark and Germany. The farmers included Mr. Nhlela Phenious Gumede, Mr. Lazarous M. Sibiya, Ms. Thandiwe Andrettah Myeni, and Mr. Richard Sithole
Richard Sithiole is the chairman of the Hlabisa District Farmers' Union. His statements about his experience of growing GM maize have been publicised by AfricaBio, ISAAA and in the media. According to Sithole, 'Bt maize has changed our lives. The emergent farmers' struggle for survival will be greatly reduced in future. Now we can eradicate poverty and produce enough to feed our people.' On another occasion Sithole is reported to have said, 'This new technology is what Africa needs to overcome famine and food shortages.' (KWAZULU-NATAL FARMERS MAKE GOOD FROM GM CORN, April 15, 2003, Crop Biotech Update)
Yet Dan Taylor, whose background has involved working with small farmers in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal for the past twenty years, criticized Monsanto at The Commonwealth Business Council meeting for using these farmers as part of a deliberate attempt to distort public debate on GM crops.
Taylor met Richard Sithole, a farmer whom he had worked with and advised in the early 1980s, at the meeting. Taylor suggests that farmers like Sithole may not even understand the exact nature of the technology which they have been encouraged to use. 'When I asked him what Bt Maize was, his reply was very interesting. It was, he said, simply a new variety of maize. Mr Sithole does not speak English, and this conversation was conducted in my very rusty Zulu, but at this point it broke down for there is no literal translation of genetic modification in the Zulu language. Of the many native Zulu speakers with whom I have discussed this issue, none has satisfactorily come up with a means to describing genetic manipulation in the vernacular.
'In order to illustrate my point, I then said to Mr Sithole, having in the past accepted his hospitality, that I would be reluctant to eat maize in his house. He was very surprised and could not understand why, particularly since he knew of my efforts to assist him in the past.' (see Taylor's full report below)
Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies is also sceptical of the claims made by farmers like Richard Sithole. In his report, Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence, deGrassi writes, 'These South African farmers-whom representatives of Monsanto and other businesses call "basically representative farmers" and "representatives of the African smallholding community" - are plucked from South Africa, wined and dined, and given scripted statements about the benefits of GM.'
Amongst the various farmers identified as being used in this way, the most notable is TJ Buthelezi.
Dan Taylor's comments are reproduced in full, below.
Dan Taylor's report
It was with great interest that I received an invitation by The Commonwealth Business Council to attend, on May 14th, a discussion on 'Genetically Modified Cotton in Africa', particularly since it mentioned that four smallholder farmers would be participating in those discussions.
My interest is very simple: I am a South African trained agriculturist who has been involved in agriculture in KwaZulu-Natal for the past twenty years. Furthermore, the subject for my PhD dissertation was on the local knowledge and practice of low resource farmers in the province. My research had been conducted in two of the three areas from where the four farmers originated, and I have some experience in the third.
I was somewhat sceptical of the advance claims that I heard. Maputaland, an area contiguous with the southern most part of Mozambique, is renowned for its pristine and diverse environment and the range of its biological diversity. The Makhatini Flats - falling within it - where the experimentation on Bt cotton has been conducted is littered with failed development projects. Even its history over the past one hundred or so years is one of unmitigated disasters. Commencing in the late 19th century, the region was arbitrarily divided by the colonial authorities into Portuguese and British territories with no reference made to the people concerned. The almost total decimation of wildlife, up until the 1940s, took place in an attempt to rid the area of the tsetse fly. The Pongola Dam (originally envisaged for use by white farmers) remained a white elephant until the 1980s, when it was finally filled for the first time after a cyclone. It was an environmental and agricultural catastrophe impacting on the natural flooding regime, which affected the ecology of the area and the livelihoods of farmers dependent on a flood advance and retreat system of agricultural production. In time, managed water releases were an attempt to mimic the natural flooding regimes.
Under the apartheid regime, the area had been controlled by officials from Central Government (for example Department of Co-operation and Development with its agricultural advisers and nature conservation personnel), KwaZulu Government (with its Departments of Agriculture and Forestry and Natural Resources) and the Natal Provincial Administration (Natal Parks Board). The bureaucratic apparatus put in place to administer the area was a clear example of the application of state power designed to contain, rather than develop, a marginal rural population whose value lay in the labour they could provide for large white farms, mines and cities of South Africa.
Yet, the Makhatini Flats remains an underdeveloped area of tremendous agricultural potential constrained by political manoeuvring rather than developmental intent. It should then come as no surprise that rice, during the 1980s, was being cultivated on one site by officials of the Department of Co-operation and Development advised by Chinese advisers from Taiwan (one of South Africa's few friends at the time), and by officials of the KwaZulu Finance and Development Corporation (a parastatal linked to the KwaZulu Government) from the United States. Neither, however had any knowledge that local farmers grew rice, or that r