‘Sacred’ seeds under threat

Two decades since South Africa’s first genetically modified crops were planted, 90% of the country’s maize and soya harvest is derived from GM seeds. But there are growing concerns about the future…

“My seeds were given to me by my gogo (grandmother), who got them from her gogo, who got them from her gogo, and so on, all the way back in time … So our seeds are sacred.

We inherited them at no cost from our ancestors, but now it seems the government is pushing small farmers to buy seeds from GM companies, ” laments Thombithini Ndwandwe, an organic farmer and mother of five from KwaZulu-Natal.

We have a wide variety of seeds that were specially adapted to our local conditions over generations. They are very nutritious and we can store them for a long time without them losing their viability.

Ndwandwe is head of the Zimele Rural Women’s Empowerment Organisation, a cooperative venture of 30 small-scale farmers in the Mtubatuba area, which supplies fresh produce to local supermarkets.

“I won’t plant these GM seeds. They are no good for us, and they cost about R185 for a 5kg bag of mealie seeds,” she says.

“We already have about six different mielie seeds of our own – white ones, yellow ones, reddish ones, black ones and also some with spots. So why should I pay to buy new seeds or chemicals every year when I have free seeds from my ancestors?“

Petros Makhanya, a small-scale farmer from the Ingwavuma region close to the Mozambique border, is also not impressed by the prevalence of GM seeds. He says: “We have a wide variety of seeds that were specially adapted to our local conditions over generations. They are very nutritious and we can store them for a long time without them losing their viability.”

Ndwandwe and Makhanya were two of the small-scale farmers who travelled to Durban recently for a seminar to discuss genetic modification, food sovereignty, and emerging evidence pointing to the genetic contamination of some local maize seed varieties by transgenic GM crops.

Contaminated

During the seminar, Vanessa Black, the advocacy, research and policy coordinator for environmental justice watchdog Biowatch, said that recent tests on traditional seed samples collected in KwaZulu-Natal showed evidence that some seeds in the Pongola area had been contaminated by GM seeds.

According to its website, Biowatch works with smallholder farmers and other relevant organisations to “ensure that people have control over their food and agricultural processes within a biodiverse, agroecological and sustainable system”. Black said that initial evidence of GM contamination is disturbing, however, more rigorous tests were needed.

Quite apart from the need to protect the genetic integrity and variety of traditional seed stocks, new laws to protect seed technologies could impinge on the rights of small-scale farmers to save and share seeds.

Black told the seminar that since GM seeds were first commercialised in South Africa in 1997, nearly 90% of maize and soya crops, and 100% of cotton crops were now transgenic.

At a global level, more than 180 million hectares of GM crops were under cultivation, mostly in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India.

New trials were also under way to develop GM sorghum, sugar cane, bananas, cassava and bioethanol plants, according to Black.

While seed giants such as Monsanto also hope to commercialise drought-resistant crops, the current GM crops in South were restricted to two genetic modifications – insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Through the insertion of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) soil bacteria, the new insect-resistant GM maize plants exude toxins that kill stalk borer caterpillars. While this was advantageous for maize farmers, these modified crops could potentially poison other non-target insects such as butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects, said Black.

The second type of GM crops grown commercially in South Africa are engineered to tolerate herbicides, meaning that the modified crops survive when sprayed with a certain pesticide, but all surrounding “weeds” are poisoned.

This raised concern that neighbouring pest species would develop resistance to the pesticide and lead to new strains of “superweeds”, which would require highly concentrated pesticides to kill them.

Monsanto and other transgenic seed companies, however, deny that GM technology will lead to the land being drenched in more pesticides. They argue that due to the crops being engineered to destroy insect pests, less pesticide is needed.

Croplife, a lobby group funded by major agrochemical corporations, claims that the introduction of GM crops in 26 nations across the world has led to an 8% reduction in pesticide spraying since 1996. The claim is based on a study by PG Economics, an agricultural advisory group sponsored by Monsanto.

But a separate study conducted by US-based watchdog Food and Water Watch rubbishes this claim. Using data from the US departments of agriculture and environment, the study suggests that the use of pesticides in the US increased by at least 28% between 2001 and 2010.

According to the study, the use of glyphosate, the pesticide most commonly used on GM crops, increased tenfold in the US from 1996 to 2010. Worryingly, there had also been a sharp increase in so-called superweeds that had developed resistance to glyphosate. The chemical compound of glyphosate has also recently been classified as a probable cause of cancer in humans.

The PG Economics report also acknowledges that the increased use of glyphosate on farm fields has contributed to the development of weed resistance, with at least 36 weeds now recognised as exhibiting resistance to glyphosate worldwide.

Dr Angelika Hilbeck, a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, said at the seminar in Durban that the GM industry promised that biotechnology would assist in abolishing hunger and malnutrition through higher crop yields or by developing more nutritious and drought-resistant crops.

“Claims of consensus on the safety of GM organisms are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature.”

She added: “Chemical corporations have become seed corporations. They produce the chemicals and the seeds are just another component to generate profits. We are also seeing more and more smallholder farmers being evicted from the land as agriculture becomes more industrialised while the GM companies try to get these genes into anything green.

“How does it solve world hunger to develop an apple that doesn’t turn brown after two days of sitting on a supermarket shelf?” she asked, referring to a new strain of apples called Arctic Apples.

In 2013, several articles emerged in the media that suggested a “consensus” had been reached on the question as to the safety of GM foods. An article published by the Pacific Standard quoted Michael White, an assistant professor of genetics at the Washington School of Medicine in St Louis, as saying: “The scientific debate about GM foods is over: They’re safe.”

But Hilbeck and more than 300 other researchers beg to differ. In a joint statement, the researchers said they do not assert that GM foods are unsafe or safe.

The statement reads: “Claims of consensus on the safety of GM organisms are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature.  Rigorous assessment of GM organism safety has been hampered by the lack of funding independent of proprietary interests. Research for the public good has been further constrained by property rights issues, and by denial of access to research material for researchers unwilling to sign contractual agreements with the developers, which confer unacceptable control over publication to the proprietary interests.”

In 2004, the British Medical Association concluded that safety concerns could not be dismissed on the basis of current information. The association said in a statement: “A great deal of research, of varying quality, has been conducted since 1999 in the arena of the genetic modification of food. However, many unanswered questions remain, particularly with regard to the potential long-term impact of GM foods on human health and on the environment.

The few robust studies that have looked for health effects have been short-term and specific. There is a lack of evidence-based research with regard to medium- and long-term effects on health and the environment.  It is clear from the public debate that this remains a matter of great public concern.”

The following year, the World Health Organisation recognised that GM foods could contribute to enhancing human health and development. But the report also stressed the need for continued safety assessments on GM seeds before they are marketed to prevent risks to human health and the environment.

Hilbeck and her colleagues also believe the expansion of the GM industry into the human and animal food chains should not be limited to a narrow scientific debate and that these decisions must involve broader society, including small-scale farmers who are increasingly marginalised by the global acceleration of industrialised agriculture.

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