"This new technology is what Africa needs to overcome famine and food shortages," says Richard Sithole [KWAZULU-NATAL FARMERS MAKE GOOD FROM GM CORN, April 15, 2003, Crop Biotech Update]

Back in May 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 to help lobby UK politicians and others.

Among those who met the farmers was Dan Taylor whose background includes working with small farmers in South Africa. Here he reports on the experience.

The second item also deals with the PR use of African farmers. It comes from Aaron deGrassi's report, "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence"
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 rice had been grown in the area for centuries. Today, rice continues to be grown by local farmers, but on neither of the two aforementioned sites.

So I was very surprised on the day to meet a farmer, a Mr Sithole, with whom I had worked in the early 1980s; a man who was at that time growing traditional maize with a varying degree of success and, through the use of a higher yielding variety of maize, on my advice, had been quite successful in increasing his yield. In fact, when I next visited him a decade later, he was no longer ploughing with oxen but had purchased a tractor.

I asked Mr Sithole what he was doing here in the UK and he mentioned a conference he was attending. I asked him if he now was growing cotton, but he said he was here because he was growing Monsanto's maize. I then asked him why he was doing this and he replied that he was getting a better yield, and did not have to use a pesticide to control maize stalk borer, a real problem throughout Africa. 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.

We had to stop at that point since the meeting was about to start. And so the propaganda started. We were told of the poverty of people in KwaZulu, the food insecurity, the distances to water, the poor infrastructure and difficulties in transportation. This came from a head teacher of a school and a cotton grower who represents black cotton growers in KwaZulu-Natal, neither of whom would suffer from the described constraints. The token woman farmer attendee, in reply to a question on the lack of farmers' choice due to poor information, retorted that if genetically modified crops were dangerous, then the government would not allow them to plant them - her naivety supported the contention.

Farmers were asked about more natural farming processes such as the use of Napier Fodder as an intercrop to provide an alternative site for the stalk borer moth to lay her eggs. However, farmers knew nothing about this.

But the issue is quite complex. My research on comparing hybrid and traditional crops in the early 1990s had revealed that traditional maize,  in a good season within the same agoecological zone, yielded slightly less than hybrids but would have been more profitable. In the following year, following very poor rainfall, traditional maize outperformed hybrid maize. I make this point because local farmers are doing quite well from their own seed selected over the years, many of whom either use either no inorganic fertiliser, or mix organic and inorganic fertiliser to optimise the use of an expensive and relatively scarce resource. The assertion that Bt Maize (or genetically modified crops in generally) is necessary for food security in South Africa (a maize exporter), or can solve Africa's food problems, cannot be taken seriously. (In fact, on a separate occasion, another local farmer talking about Bt Maize stated that it was like a hybrid from the early 1980s, which had now been surpassed.) But the point here is that poor farmers generally replant their own seed and, clearly on May 14th, we were not listening to the voices of the poor.

There is another issue to address. Given the small landholdings of the average black smallholder farmer in KwaZulu-Natal (approximately one hectare), farmers require a high value crop which generates a high return per unit area. Maize and cotton, however, are low value crops. In the case of cotton, farmers have no choice about where they can sell their cotton under the oligopoly that persists. With the global price of cotton in decline, a high investment in farming inputs is unlikely to prove a rational decision under normal market conditions.

To return to the meeting: I could not stay long and could not say goodbye to Mr Sithole, a reasonable but not exceptional farmer, who had sat through the entire meeting not understanding a word. But then Mr Sithole's presence, like much good propaganda, was in the symbolism of his presence, and as for me, I never did find out whether he was speaking for Monsanto, or for himself.

Dan Taylor is Director of Find Your Feet a British NGO working on rural livelihoods in South Asia and southern Africa. He has studied agriculture and worked as an agriculturist in South Africa before completing a PhD in Anthropology in the UK. Find Your Feet supports programmes in South Asia and southern Africa. In South Africa FYF supports work in KwaZulu-Natal, including Eastern Maputaland
Finding African "Representatives"
from  Aaron deGrassi's report, "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence"

To bolster its claims about the benefits of biotech crops, Monsanto has funded T.J. Buthelezi, a clean-shaven, middle-aged black farmer from Makhathini, to act as an African representative. He has told of his positive experiences with Bt cotton (in terms suspiciously similar to Monsanto press releases) at conferences and events around the world. In October 2001, Buthelezi met US Congress members and attended a Summit by the US Corporate Council on Africa. Several months later, Monsanto paid for him to have lunch with US Trade Secretary Robert Zoellick at the company's office near Pretoria. In August of last year, Buthelezi and Monsanto organized pro-biotech booths, interviews and rallies at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Buthelezi's name and face now commonly appear on the internet and briefings for policy makers. In May 2003, Buthelezi was by Zoellick's side when the Trade Secretary formally announced a US WTO case against EU restrictions on GM imports. A month later, the Administrator of USAID, Andrew Natsios, described Buthelezi before a Congressional panel on plant biotechnology in Africa.

However, Buthelezi's experience may be unique. The Council for Biotechnology Information calls him a "small farmer," and others describe his life as "hand-to-mouth existence." Administrator Natsios described him as a "small farmer struggling just at the subsistence level." However, independent reporters have revealed that, with two wives and more than 66 acres, he is one of the largest farmers in Makhathini and chairs the area's farmers' federation encompassing 48 farmers' associations.

For Monsanto, Buthelezi and his stories are part of the firm's declared strategy of "gaining global acceptance of biotechnology." Just before President Bush's May 2003 speech claiming that Europe's import restrictions exacerbate African hunger, Monsanto flew four black South African GM crop farmers to London, where they spoke at a private conference hosted by the Commonwealth Business Council, before heading on to Denmark and Germany.

Like Buthelezi, these "representative farmers" read statements carefully scripted by Monsanto and own dozens of acres of land. Several actually spend most of their time working at their day jobs as school administrators. Other pro-biotech campaigners have caught on: CropGen, for instance, celebrates another South African farmer, Mbongeni Nxumalo.

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. In an area where most farmers cultivate just a few hectares, and only half the population can read, Monsanto's "representative" farmers are school administrators and agricultural college graduates, owning dozens of hectares of land. Monsanto has been criticized for using these farmers as a part of a deliberate attempt to distort public debate on biotechnology. Critics have coined the nickname "Bt Buthelezi," to illustrate this farmer's unconditional support to Bt cotton: during a trip to Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, Buthelezi was quoted as saying, "I wouldn't care if it were from the devil himself."