Food Security Debate: The GM Lobby Hits Back

Despite intense opposition a growing industry

Our recent story on GM crops evoked the biggest response to date. This week we’ve asked the Chief Executive of AfriBio – funded by South African and foreign organisations – to respond. AfricaBio lobbies for GM crops in Africa and beyond.This contribution does not reflect the views of The Journalist and has been shortened.

Plant biotechnology is playing a significant role in helping small-scale farmers improve their incomes and quality of life. In 2013, of the 18 million farmers worldwide growing 175 million hectares of biotech crops, 90 percent were small holder farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Biotechnology, while not the complete answer to food insecurity at the household level in South Africa, can help to ensure that nobody goes to bed on an empty stomach.

Smallholder farmers – who make an important contribution to food production in South Africa – increasingly need better farming methods to increase their yields. In return, the farmers can ensure higher incomes to better cater for the needs of their families. Some have found the answer in growing GM maize.

Our farmers consider the main benefits of GM maize to be peace of mind, consistent increased yields, better grain quality and excellent weed control.

Bubbi Aphane with her GM maize crop.

Bubbi Aphane with her GM maize crop.

Bubbi Aphane of Cullinan, Gauteng farms with her son, Solofelang “Solo”, an agricultural student at the Tshwane University of Technology. She says:

“I am very impressed with my maize. It looks very good and I expect a yield of more than four tons per hectare. I think this is the way for smallholder farmers to go. No problems from stalk borer or weed infestations. The fact that a herbicide can be sprayed over the crop without killing the crop but destroying the weeds, means a big saving on labour cost. We are planning to plant 10 hectares next year.”

Dr Mamabolo Raphesu

Dr Mamabolo Raphesu

Dr Mamabolo Raphesu is a former lecturer at the Limpopo University who gave up his academic career for full-time farming. He has 120 ha of GM maize and started farming five years ago.

“It keeps my maize free from stalk borer infestation and weeds are easily managed. GM maize is a jump starter for smallholder farmers who want to achieve food security and a better living,” says Raphesu. His average yield over the years has been three to four tons per hectare.

“The problem is that at the moment I don’t have the equipment for expansion. A major problem is that I do not have title deeds on the land and no financial institution is willing to advance me any capital for expansion. This is a serious problem facing all smallholder farmers and until this is rectified we are not going to develop.”

Dr Raphesu is a past president of AFASA (African Farmers’ Association of South Africa) for the Gauteng Province.

Farmer Tepsy Ntseoane.

Farmer Tepsy Ntseoane.

Tepsy Ntseoane, a former teacher and business consultant to various institutions, is the president of African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (AFASA) for the Gauteng province. She farms on 539 ha with cattle, maize, vegetables and pigs. She obtained the land from the government through the Land Reform Strategy. Her GM maize yield the past season, suffering severe drought spells, was 5.37 tons per hectare. In 2011 AfricaBio introduced her to GM maize.

“My yield was 7 tons per hectare compared to two to three tons per hectare with conventional maize. I am so impressed with having no stalk borer damage and no weed problems that I plan to increase my plantings to 100 ha. GM maize, from my own experience, is certainly the answer to food security, hunger and poverty alleviation for smallholder farmers,” says Ms Ntseoane.

Motlatsi Musi

Motlatsi Musi

Motlatsi Musi who has addressed several European institutions on the benefits of GM crops, including the European parliament in Brussels, was introduced to GM maize in 2004.

“My yield on dry land increased by 34%… From the increased income I gradually extended my planting from 7 ha to the current 20 ha. My average yield over the past nine years, during some critical drought periods and floods, has been 5.5 to 7 tons per hectare. During the 2012/13 season I planted GM white maize and my yield was 5.5 tons per hectare. From surplus maize which I harvested, I donated six bags of mealie meal to an old age home and an orphanage in Soweto,” says Musi.

In 2008 he was invited by the Brazilian Council for Biotechnology Information (CIB) to address the Rural Coopaval Show held in Parana State on the benefits of GM crops he has experienced.

2013 was the 18th year of successful commercialisation of GM crops. Globally, a record 18 million farmers grew GM crops and over 90% or more than 16.5 million were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. In South Africa, about 2.9 million ha of GM maize, soybean and cotton were grown in 2013.

The economic gains from GM crops for South Africa for the period 1998-2013 was estimated at US$1.15 billion (R 12.4-billion) and US$ 218.5 million for 2012 (R 2.36-billion).

I would like to emphasise that all officially approved GM crops do not represent any greater health threat to consumers than their conventional counterparts. In South Africa, genetically modified (GM) crops are the most extensively tested food crops available. They are more stringently tested than any other food in history, and are tightly regulated both before they reach the marketplace and once they are on sale.

Biotech crops have been grown and consumed for more than 18 years and people around the world have consumed billions of meals containing biotech derived foods or ingredients.

AfricaBio, is a biotechnology stakeholder association established in 1999, and works with stakeholders along the value chain to ensure, safe and responsible adoption of biotechnology in South Africa and the region.

Editor’s Note: After a complaint from AfricaBio we have removed a note from the NGO watchdog Lobby Watch. The organisation has claimed that the Lobby Watch information we posted was out of date. We have asked AfricaBio to update it, mainly to supply a list of their main funders for the past year or so. Dr Obokoh responded that they were supported by a range of organisations and this included the South African as well as foreign governments. She declined to provide further details saying: “We are a members based organisation and our programmes are also funded through government grants.”