Multinational seed and chemical companies looking to gain a new customer base in Africa are facing increasing resistance from both farmers and consumers. Nonetheless, they are making inroads by partnering with African institutions and governments that are eager to ‘modernize' their agricultural sectors. South Africa is of particular importance in this regard. The country has gone against the grain of general distrust of GMOs in Africa to become a gateway for the distribution of GM food aid; the commercialization and export of GM seeds; and experimentation with GM crops not approved elsewhere.[i]
But here too, they face mounting opposition. In July 2009, for instance, the South African government rejected the commercial release application for GM potatoes after the Executive Council, a government licensing body, concluded that the toxicology studies were "inadequate, scientifically poorly designed and fundamentally flawed." It was also reported that, in 2008/2009, 80% of Monsanto's GM maize in South Africa failed to produce a crop, leading critics to call for urgent investigation and a ban on all GM foods.
In 2002, the South African government, in partnership with U.S.-based biotech firm Monsanto, launched the so-called Massive Food Production Program (MFPP) in the country's Eastern Cape Province. The Eastern Cape is characterized by a dual economy in which the western half of the province (previously white South Africa under apartheid) is dominated by commercial agriculture while the eastern half consists of subsistence agriculture. After the advent of democracy in 1994, there was tremendous pressure to develop the rural economy here.
MFPP is a "flagship program" of the South African government designed to bring about agrarian transformation through a "green revolution."[ii]The program operates by granting subsidies (which are phased out over time) and credit to small farming communities to purchase fertilizers, pesticides and GM or hybrid seeds. Through MFPP, Monsanto has essentially been elevated to the status of a government "extension agency" responsible for educating and training farmers about GM seeds and technologies. Of course, as a private company, they are unlikely to share with farmers the potentially disastrous effects of planting their land with GM crops. Rather, they advise farmers to buy and use the recommended agrochemicals. They also instruct them to plant only GM maize, as a monoculture, instead of intercropping with beans or pumpkins as they have done for centuries to ensure their food security.
A white farmer interviewed by GRAIN, paid to mentor an MFPP community, acknowledged that the cost of the inputs was just too high for small farmers to afford on their own,without continuing to amass debt. He was quoted saying he was "tempted to tell farmers to just buy food with the money" as their losses would be less than growing the food themselves through MFPP.
South African farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the deception that GM seeds and technologies will bring development and pull them out of poverty, as their experiences have not born out these claims. In populations with low literacy levels, the farmers are given little or no information about the effects of planting GM seeds, until it is too late, that is. It is not surprising that western consumers who are largely literate and have access to information are wary of GM foods.
Tragically, even the government officials in charge of co-implementing the MFPP program are ignorant of GMOs. A number NGOs and Human Rights organization have taken on the responsibility of educating the farmers about the effects of planting GMOs.
The constitution of South Africa, hailed as one of the most progressive in the world, obligates the government to take steps to protect its citizens. As part of the Consumer Protection Act, the government is indeed drafting policies to regulate GMOs, but many NGOs say it is unclear who will implement and monitor these regulations.
What's more, the South African NGO Safeage reports that the U.S. seed company Pannar and the Swiss firm Syngenta are partnering with local businesses to introduce a program of their own called AfriCan, targeting the poor farmers inthe Eastern Cape who have yet to be reached. The project incorporates farmers into a contract-farming scheme linking them to credit, GM seeds and chemical inputs-much like MFPP. The pilot project, which hopes to be reproduced throughout Africa, was launched in March 2010 with 500 farmers (with .5 to 4 hectare plots) and will run for 18 months.[iii]
Despite claims that there have been no substantiated threats to human and animal health caused by GM crops, subsistence farmers who participated in the MFPP project testified to the contrary in a workshop held by the NGO Biowatch (SA). A farmer from the organization Siyazakha expressed her dismay of the quality of "mielies" (maize), a staple food, produced with"free" seeds from the project. She stated, "the mielies produced are making us sick; they break easily and are bad quality. When we give it to our chickens it affects them, we want to grow our own seed and protect them". Another small-scale farmer from Siyazakha, pointed out that using fertilizers destroys the soil after just a few years and food can no longer be grown on it. He stressed that they want use manure and produce crops using traditional farming methods.[iv]
The South African government has also followed the lead of the United States on consumer information, refusing to label food in the stores so that people can make informed choices about what they consume. During a recent debate with parliamentarians on the GMO issue, Michelle Pressend from Biowatch stated, "there is little transparency. We are in danger of multi-national concerns driving our food policy."
As they learn about the dangers of using GMOs, and share their negative experiences, poor farmers are organizing themselves to resist the assault on their seeds, farmland, farming traditions, health and autonomy. Via Campesina leads the campaign to educate farmers and to fight for farmers' rights. Despite the South African government's cooperation with Monsanto and other biotech companies, the agro-ecological agriculture movement is growing and farmers are rejecting GM seeds. Farmers are building their seed banks and alternative models are emerging and growing. Despite the government ignoring such initiatives, farmers are seeking out the information and using it to protect their rights and ensure their food sovereignty.