Amidst the clamor that surrounds Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) globally, a small but significant triumph panned out in South Africa last month. The country’s Agriculture Minister, Thoko Didiza, upheld the decision by the Executive Council to reject American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation, Monsanto’s request for the commercial cultivation of its allegedly drought-tolerant MON87460 x MON89034 x NK603 maize seed. The agro-giant further claimed the genetically modified variety to be resistant to insects.
However, the official report rejecting the GM maize seeds stated that the “kernel count per row and kernel count per year showed that there were no statistically significant differences between the MON87460 x MON89034 x NK603 maize and conventional maize in water limited conditions”. Further, the yield benefits propounded by Monsanto were “inconsistent” while the insect resistant data presented was “insufficient as it was collected from only one trial site for two planting seasons”.
The landmark decision — based on the maize seed’s inability to match Monsanto’s claims — followed an appeal lodged by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), a research and advocacy organisation that has been raising concerns over Monsanto’s GM maize project for the last 10 years. Central to this petition was the “triple-stacked” drought-tolerant gene.
“The data exposes the twisting and manipulation of science by Monsanto to promote sales of their ineffective, reductionist GM products for complex environmental, political and socio-economic challenges, such as climate change and poverty. The ACB has been exposing the lack of evidence of drought-tolerance since 2008, calling on Monsanto to prove the efficacy of this trait. But, as confirmed by the South African decision-making bodies, Monsanto completely failed to provide scientific data to substantiate their claims,” said Mariam Mayet, Director of ACB.
The decision has been hailed as a “great victory” for the protection of biodiversity, the environment and food sovereignty in South Africa. “It’s an exciting step in the right direction for these tireless activists in their quest to bring some sanity to our maize production. The ACB has been very active in fighting against GMOs and they should be congratulated for their efforts,” said Geoffrey Green, a farmer and Slow Food Community supporter in Gauteng, South Africa.
While many Slow Food members, and the South African public at large, applauded the decision, others accepted it with a pinch of salt. Their skepticism isn’t unfounded. “It is good news but it must be seen in context. SA has a lot of registered GM varieties and this win is for the only one out of the very many. It is a landmark case but only in that the traits did not work as they had been promised to, the variety did not stand up to being drought-tolerant. This does not speak further to other varieties with other “promises”, says Zayaan Kahn, former coordinator of Slow Food Youth Network, South Africa. He is now a part of the Chef’s Alliance.
South Africa was quick to embrace GMOs and is the only country in the world to permit the genetic modification of its staple crop. The “gene revolution” was driven by industry and began in the country in 1979 under the now defunct South African Committee on Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE). SAGENE continued to function as a regulatory body until the GMO Act, principally drafted by its members, came into effect in December 1999. It is important to note here that several of SAGENE’s members shared close links with the biotechnology industry and were nominated into SAGENE by the South African Chamber of Business.
The first GM maize was planted a year before the GMO Act was passed. This was Monsanto’s insect resistant maize called MON810 or Yieldgard. By 2008, the South African government had granted close to 1200 permits for GM maize experimentation, cultivation as well as imports and exports.
This economic concentration forms the backbone of Slow Food’s critique of GM crops. As GMOs stretch their roots into global agricultural, economic and political systems, they deprive farmers of the right to practice subsistence agriculture by making them dependent on the market, thereby placing power in the hands of multinational companies.
In the case of maize in South Africa, milled products of the grain belong to a handful of market players. The patenting of GM crops allows them control over the entire food chain – from research and development to breeding, to the commercialization of seeds. As a result, a select few control the majority of the seed market and often produce herbicides and fertilizers that forces farmers, who previously relied on their own seeds to turn to these conglomerates every season. Like all commercial hybrids, second-generation GMOs produce poor results and pose health challenges for the soil, insects, the farmer and consumer.
The muscle that commercial heavyweights in the agri-industry deploy to propagate erroneous information about GMOs, which includes pegging GM products as a solution to world hunger and malnutrition, needs to continuously be questioned. GMOs, as studies have indicated, threaten biodiversity as they are linked to intensive monoculture systems, pollute the soil, denature the role of farmers and weaken local economies. This not only reduces the amount of nutrition and flavor on our plates but also leads to erosion of traditional knowledge and food security.
Dedicated action, as exhibited by the ACB, that stands up against multinational organizations and political outfits that are tampering with our food systems needs to be bolstered by your support. As a placard during a protest against Monsanto and GMOs in Cape Town succinctly put it, “Monsanto’s worst enemy is an informed public”.