How South African resource-poor farmers use biotech crops to improve

CONTRARY TO ARGUMENTS by GM deniers, smallholder farmers – who make important contributions to food production in South Africa – are increasingly turning to growing of GM crops, especially maize and cotton, to boost yields and incomes. Below are farmers impact stories in their own words.

Mrs Sophie Mabhena: Br Maize has improved my yields and reduced my workload

Sophie in her Bt Maize farm in Pretoria

Sophie in her Bt Maize farm in Pretoria

Just over 40km, north of Pretoria in an area known as Masopane is Onverwaght Farm, situated on a slope that overlooks open vast carpets of green maize fields.  Here 35-year old Sophie Mabhena is living her farming dream. Mabhena grew up on this farm whose produce paid for her schooling and the upkeep of her family.  As a maize farmer, pest and weed control are key if Mabhena is to get better maize yields enabling her to fetch more money when she sells her maize to the millers down the road.  Mabhena grows stacked maize which has insect resistance and herbicide tolerance (Bt-HT maize). This means the seed is resistance to pests such as the maize stalk borer and can withstand chemicals used to control weeds.

Depending on the severity of the infestation, the stalk borer damage may reduce yields by 20 to 80 percent. Further damage to the cobs will create conditions for fungal infection of the maize. This in turn produces fungal toxins (mycotoxins) that can cause serious health problems when people eat the contaminated crop.  “The stack maize is ideal for me because it has reduced my costs in terms of pesticides and the labour but the major benefit has been the good yields and income from growing this improved variety of maize,” says Mabhena.

Although currently farming a small fraction of the family farm, Mabhena believes that GM maize is an insurance against pests and weeds. She has never had a second thought to plant conventional varieties. In future Mabhena wants to increase the hectarage under GM maize so that she can sell more grain to millers. Her wish is to expand the farming venture which currently includes a  75 herd of cattle, sheep, goats and chicken. She has also started a small patch of vegetables that have shown potential for the market. “I have found benefits in using the stacked GM seed in terms of yields and in five years I want to increase my acreage to 100 hectares and become a top farmer,” Mabhena says.

Asked how she then balances home chores, the responsibilities of motherhood and running a farm, Mabhena says farming comes first and everything else second. “I am totally 100 percent passionate about farming because this is my dream and I know that I am contributing to the food security in South Africa.”

 Mrs Sarah Buda: With GM seeds i can now increase my acreage

Mrs Buda: looking to expand using GM seed

Mrs Buda: looking to expand using GM seed

Mrs.  Buda is growing two hectares under Bt maize since learning about the technology in 2008. She and her husband became maize farmers by accident, she says.

“I have always grown vegetables but when I attended a presentation organised by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on the opportunities offered by Bt maize, I was interested and I do not regret that I took up the offer to grow Bt maize,” Buda says.

Buda who formerly rented out her land because she was unable to develop it, is setting her sights on using 140 hectares of the arable land in her 222 hectare-Varkfontein farm, outside Pretoria.  “But since I did training on farming Bt maize, I am more ambitious about commercial farming because I am tired of being an emerging farmer. I want more income to develop my farm and prove my worth as a farmer,” says Buda. “While I rely on rain fed maize, I have sunk boreholes to irrigate my vegetables; I will explore irrigating my maize too.”

During the first year, Buda planted GM maize, she realised a good crop. A field day was held at her farm during which she explained to other farmers the benefits of planting the Bt maize.  “For me Bt maize has been an advantage over conventional maize because there has been no stalk borer in my field and there has been no need to use pesticides,” says Buda, lamenting that, “People have complained about GM maize and  worry about the impact on health, but we have cooked and eaten GM maize and nothing happened. Many people have also eaten the flour from GM maize.”

The future plan is to have the entire farm under Bt maize says Buda who is also interested in growing GM soya beans. “I am encouraging other farmers to adopt this technology as we have realised good profits in growing it because farming is a business. We need money, what do you do with a crop that does not give you good returns.” Using Round Up ready GM seed has also helped Buda deal with the challenges of weeds but is exploring what technologies are there for her to also control the weeds in her vegetable plot. Maize is South Africa’s most important crop, with white maize forming the staple in the country. Maize, mostly grown by commercial farmers, contributes 48 percent to the gross value of field crops and smallholder farmers are upping their hectarage under maize.

Mr Motlatsi Musi: I now have better health since adopting GM crops

Mr Musi: The sky is the limit with GM crops

Mr Musi: The sky is the limit with GM crops

In Fun Valley area near Johannesburg, Mr Motlatsi Musi, another Bt maize farmer, biotechnology in agriculture could not have come at a better time than now. “When I experienced Bt maize  for the first time in 2005 , I got married to it because when I compared it with the 43 years I have spent in conventional agriculture, I realized that my practices like the use of pesticides used to affect me,” says Musi who farms in the Fun Valley, Olifantsvlei, outside Johannesburg. “Then I did not have the tools but I love the Bt seed technology because it came with a tool. The GM maize has given me 34 percent better yields than my conventional maize.”

Musi said the difference for him was that planting a hectare on conventional maize and a hectare on GM maize, he would spray more on the former and none at all on the Bt maize.  “Depending on how I calibrate my planter in my case I get 7 tonnes of maize per hectare and put 55 000 plants. As farmers we need to make money even though at times the market price for our produce is never guaranteed.” “My future plan is to keep my silos full and the country’s silos full not only with Bt maize but a range of grains.” says Musi. “I want to continue producing more maize but if I can get seed because availability of seed is a problem.”Musi, who also into pig and livestock farming, sells his Bt grain to commercial farmers. He has been able to put his son through university and has invested in better equipment for his farm through the proceeds of his Bt maize.

Socio-Economist speaks on adoption trends GM crops

Researcher at the University of Pretoria, Dr. Marnus Gouse, who has published extensively on, the adoption and use of Bt cotton and GM maize by smallholder farmers , says South Africa was the first country in the world to produce a GM subsistence crop, Bt maize.

Mr Gouse: This technology is changing farmers lives

Mr Gouse: This technology is changing farmers lives

Dr. Gouse, who has conducted an eight year study of smallholder farmers planting Bt and HT maize in two areas in KwaZulu Natal says while small holder adoption of GM maize is limited by supply and demand side factors, farmers  who have planted it have generally benefitted..

“In the wet seasons when farmers have noticed borers on the convention maize,  Bt has done better and we have seen an average yield increase of around 12 percent,” says Dr. Gouse calling for a holistic approach for maximum benefit from biotechnology. Farmers need to have access to seed and fertilizer, extension services, land and markets. “We have asked farmers if Bt or HT has enabled them to produce more maize and they said yes,”

Dr. Gouse says. “Farmers will produce what the consumers want. In Africa and in South Africa, we have a lot of consumers who struggle to pay for food and that is the problem.  We need to produce as much as we can with the resources available and biotechnology helps us to do that but it is not the only technology.”

-Stories courtesy of AfricaBio, a key OFAB partner in South Africa


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