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The Dry End Of The Stick

Harsh dry weather punishes Africa’s farmers. Are genetically modified crops the answer?

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It has been a tough seven years in Barbourfields, a suburb of Bulawayo in Matabeleland North in Zimbabwe, where drought has driven people within an inch of their lives. Here children wake up to a spoonful of sugar and hot water.

This is life at the sharp end of the global food shortage and it is hungry and painful. Their only comfort is that it was even worse seven years ago.

“There was no food at all. Most food products were imported from Botswana and South Africa. We didn’t even have corn. When I saw a queue, I would just join, even though I didn’t know what it was for. It was the norm. There were queues everywhere,” says Xoli Dube.

In tough economic times, Zimbabweans queued for everything from food to fuel.

“It was like an everyday job for us. I remember a day I even fainted while queuing. I remember my neighbors used to eat pap with water and sugar. Many people couldn’t even afford to buy beans.”

Most of what the people had farmed was destroyed by the scorching sun in one of the worst droughts in history, in an economy that was already struggling.

Seven year later, many parts of Africa face the same fate. Drought cuts yields making farming a risky business.

According to Grain SA agricultural economist, Wandile Sihlobo, the drought in South Africa has led to a 27% decrease in a summer crops production basket, from 16.5 million tons in 2014 to 11.9 million tons in 2015. Crops that are staple food for most Africans, such as maize, decreased by 30%, from 14.3 million tons in 2014 to 9.9 million tons in 2015.

It means Africa spends at least $25 billion on food imports every year.

In South Africa, the 2015/16 total maize imports in November stood at 536,687 tons, which is 70% of the grain the country used. South Africa’s forecasted imports for this season is 770,000 tons. South Africa contributes a minimum of 630,000 tons annually to the Southern African region.

Hunger knows no friend but a provider. Monsanto, a sustainable agriculture company that delivers products to support farmers, wants to be that provider.

Located in Benoni, a mining town east of Johannesburg, in South Africa, Monsanto says it has created a product to mitigate the effects of drought – Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA); genetically modified (GM) drought-tolerant and insect pest-protected maize varieties. Maize is the staple for 300 million Africans.

“Drought is a very complex issue and there’s no single solution to address it,” says Mark Edge, Director of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Partnerships at Monsanto.

For nine years, WEMA has been testing and developing conventional and GM maize hybrids in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. It aims to boost productivity by 20 to 30%, in a project worth $85 million.

“Our first introduction of conventional white maize hybrids, which is sold under the brand name DroughtTEGO, started in 2013 in Kenya and has shown promising harvest results… To date, we have more than 40 unique conventional hybrids approved for commercial release across the five countries,” says Edge.

On its website, Monsanto shares a story of Bertha Otor, a resourceful Kenyan farmer who was one of the first to plant DroughtTEGO.

A year later, Otor says she is continuing to see positive results and has increased the area with maize on her farm. She began farming in 1994.

“There was no rain, there was nothing to eat and I was having a baby. I decided to work with my hands and not wait for my husband to bring food for us. The weather always keeps changing. If you plant your maize and the rains are not there, [crops] will get spoiled and you lose everything,” she says.

Otor says her yields have increased and the maize is bigger since she began using the WEMA seeds.

However, the Director at the African Centre for Biodiversity, Mariam Mayet, says the safety of the drought tolerant gene has not yet been proven.

The safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been an issue of controversy over the years. GM developers and some scientists claim there is a scientific consensus on GMO safety. Mayet says this is due to the lack of enough scientific evidence published to date, which prevents conclusive claims on safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs.

“They are scale-neutral and can benefit smallholder farmers as much or more than commercial farmers. They are only one of many valuable technologies and tools in agriculture,” Edge replies.

Mayet argues there have been negative consequences for human health and environment in many communities due to use of chemicals in agriculture.

She says Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize and cotton have been supplied to smallholder farmers through government-sponsored interventions for free, or at subsidized rates, and farmers have not been able to experience the real costs of the seed.

“Bt maize is currently sold at about double the price of popular non-GM hybrids and five times that of the price of open pollinated varieties,” she says.

Some studies, however, argue that even though Bt maize is expensive, farmers will benefit over a period of years compared to hybrid conventional maize.

“But the resistance of the stem borer has been revealed to be highly variable between seasons, and thus during years and at sites that experience low insect pressure, the economic benefit of planting Bt maize can be negative. It will be hard for smallholder farmers who don’t have resources to counter the impact of these losses in years if the cost of Bt maize seed fails to pay off,” says Mayet.

She says GM crops also have health concerns.

“GM crops heavily use agro-chemicals such as glyphosate, most commonly known as Roundup. This year, the International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC), which falls under the World Health Organisation (WHO), has classified glyphosate as a ‘probable human carcinogen’.”

Proponents of GMOs claim that the use of the GM seeds reduces the need for pesticides. However, according to Mayet, case studies show that the use of pesticides and herbicides has increased with use of GM seeds, especially in cases where there is pest and weed resistance.

“This has a huge effect on biodiversity with run-off chemicals from agricultural farms which contaminate water sources,” she says.

Her solution to end world hunger?

“Focus on agroecology by government should be key to ensure that smallholder farmers are at the centre of food production and promote food sovereignty,” she says.

Will improved yields and greater paydays come with GM technology or traditional seeds? The choice is yours.

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