/ 29 January 2009

Seeds of the future

In a year of spiralling food prices, riots over supplies in West and Central Africa and looming famine elsewhere, there were no shortages of reminders in 2008 about how perilous the state of food provision is across much of the continent. Never far behind these reminders were column inches and sound bites on the role of genetically modified (GM) crops in helping Africa feed itself.

A recently concluded initiative tried to ensure this debate reaches a group of people who lack information about GM crops, even though their livelihoods stand to be profoundly affected by the course of biotechnology: small-scale farmers.

Organised by Biowatch, a non-governmental group based in Cape Town, the seven-month programme has held three workshops to inform farmers about the implications of cultivating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and to equip them for lobbying policymakers.

These events, which took place between June and December in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces, attracted about 60 farmers and a handful of officials.

Funding for the initiative was provided by the Southern Africa Trust.

South Africa allows farmers to grow GM cotton, maize and soy altered to resist insects, tolerate herbicides or both. It is the only state in Africa with commercial production of GMOs, notes Biowatch.

For supporters of GM technology, these crops offer farmers a revolutionary way of tackling problems that undermine agricultural productivity: pests and weeds today, dry conditions tomorrow, if current research delivers the goods.

Supporters also say GMOs yield benefits such as reduced pesticide use with crops that are resistant to insects — and point to the possible gains from modifying organisms to make them more nutritious.

Golden rice, a GM variety yet to be made available to the public, has been engineered to enable consumers to increase their intake of vitamin A.

For critics, however, tampering with the genes of plants is an endeavour that risks having unexpected and possibly negative effects along the rest of the genetic sequence, for consumers’ health and for the environment: often cited are fears of the so-called ”super weeds” that could emerge if interbreeding of plants enables the spread of genes that allow for herbicide tolerance.

”I’m not saying we should do away with GMOs,” says Lawrence Mkhaliphi, Biowatch’s KwaZulu-Natal outreach facilitator, who helped oversee two of the workshops.

”But we need to be aware of the risk factors. We shouldn’t compromise our farming or food.”

The ability to make informed choices about the cultivation of GM crops is of even greater importance when viewed against South African legislation on GMOs, which enables farmers to be held liable for damages resulting from these organisms. This is a problem for all agriculturalists, but especially for small-scale farmers with little capital.

The Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Act, signed into law last year, fails to address this situation, says Biowatch. Regulations for the 2007 Bill that may remedy matters are being discussed; but to date, says outgoing Biowatch director Leslie Liddell, ”There has been no public participation on the development of the regulations.”

These issues were among topics dealt with in the workshops, with the importance of saving seeds to preserve the biodiversity that is key to helping farmers meet constantly evolving threats from diseases and the like.

South Africa’s strategy on biofuels also came under discussion. Biowatch reports fears among small-scale farmers that they will find themselves forced off their properties in a scramble to put more land under cultivation for agrofuels.

For workshop participant Jabulani Tembe, the debates were useful in offering alternatives to production based on GM crops and the use of chemicals, notably organic farming practices.

”I have already started providing training to farmers and organised community groups” concerning these practices, says Tembe.

Nonsezeko Mazeka is also trying to put the workshop knowledge into practice in the Eastern Cape municipality of Mbizana. With daughter Nobuntu translating, she recounts that she convened a meeting with a local official in September to ”look at the information that has been given…and see what to do in terms of changing the attitude that the municipality and the Department of Agriculture have towards organic farming”.

Should Mazeka’s efforts succeed, it will be a welcome change from a situation where, says Biowatch, small-scale farmers have been sidelined in discussions about GMO policies.

As case studies prepared for the workshops indicate, these debates tend to take place in urban areas, excluding farmers almost as a matter of course. Inadequate education campaigns about the issues at stake further undermine farmers’ ability to make their voices heard.

Day-to-day interactions with agriculture officials may do little to improve matters.

”My understanding has been there’s no capacity to engage,” says Munyaradzi Saruchera, the main facilitator of the workshops.

”I met two senior agronomists in the Eastern Cape at the provincial department of agriculture in East London. They didn’t know what a GMO is.”

At the time of going to press, comment from the National Department of Agriculture was unclear as to whether the officials that assist small-scale farmers are properly briefed on GMOs.

But for Mkhaliphi, past traditions are what hold the real seeds of the future. ”I think in our government the officials are looking for a new, ‘civilised’ way of doing things and not actually looking at what kept society there for a long time without their intervention,” he says.

”What the government officials should be doing is to listen to the grassroots.”