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Is GM farming feasible?

GM cotton dominates the seed market (FAO)

A debate on whether South African small-scale cotton farmers should opt for genetically modified (GM) seeds continues with the release of a study on the subject.

Environmental action group Biowatch argued that GM technology was not cost-effective for the small-scale farmer, weighed down by debt, and a raw deal for exporting to western markets.

However, the findings in one of the first academic studies to map the growth of GM farming in South Africa have pronounced it a success. The study, comprising two papers, was prepared by researchers in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Pretoria.

One of the papers, "The Adoption and Impact of Agricultural Biotechnology Innovation in South Africa", by Johann Kirsten and Marnus Grouse, outlines the pattern of GM farming in the country.

The other, "BT Cotton in South Africa: Adoption and the Impact on Farm Incomes amongst Small-scale and Large-scale Farmers", by Marnus Gouse, Johann Kirsten and L Jenkins, studies the effect of GM policies on the production of cotton.

South Africa is the only African country that has adopted GM crops for commercial production. Besides GM cotton, genetically altered maize, soya and oilseed rape are grown.

International bio-safety protocol requires that bio-safety legislation be in place before GM crops can be planted in any country, and only South Africa and Zimbabwe qualify in the continent.

The cotton study by the University of Pretoria researchers claims that the percentage small-scale farmers growing GM cotton rose from seven percent in 1997/1998 to around 90 percent in the 2001/2002 season.

The authors of the paper report that of the 43 large-scale farmers interviewed, 39 percent indicated that the most important benefit of GM cotton was the saving on pesticides, with the second reason identified as the "peace of mind" about bollworms, a generic name for the various kinds of moth caterpillars that destroy cotton bolls.

The findings noted: "When asked to indicate all the benefits of insect-resistant cotton, 77 percent of farmers indicated 'peace of mind', and 72 percent indicated 'better crop and risk management' as a benefit."

Koot Louw of Cotton South Africa, an association of the key players in the cotton industry, confirmed the popularity of the GM variety of the crop, with 70 percent of the country's cotton production coming from genetically altered seeds.

Biowatch's Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss pointed out that bollworms were not the only pests which attacked cotton. "Reduced pesticides expenses promised by the GM crop also proves attractive to farmers," she explained. "But little do they realise that they still have to spray pesticides to keep other pests away."

Louw said most small-scale farmers did not bother spraying pesticides at all. "Once they have planted the GM cotton crop, which is resistant to bollworms, they just let the crop be." The saving on pesticides was "quite huge."

But Biowatch said it could still cost the farmer up to R500 [US $69] per hectare to spray pesticides.

According to the research paper, "when asked about the disadvantages of GM cotton, the prominent answer was 'the cost of seed and the technology fee'", which is the cost of the patent.

Louw said the GM seed was still cost-effective for the small-scale farmer, as demonstrated by the fact that 3,000 subsistence farmers and some of the 1,000 commercial cotton farmers in South Africa opted for planting GM seeds.

Pschorn-Strauss said small-scale farmers, who were already caught in a debt cycle as a result of recent recurrent droughts, paid exorbitant amounts in technology fees for the GM seeds. Most of the small-scale farmers were not well-educated and were allegedly misled by the seed companies.

Danie Olivier, the manager of Deltapine, a GM seed supplier, said small-scale farmers on irrigated land had to pay a technology fee of R750 [US $104] on a 25 kg bag of ballgard seed (resistant to bollworm), plus R350 [US $49] for the seed. The technology fee had been reduced to R350 per 25kg for dry-land small-scale farmers.

"We are not forcing the farmers to buy GM seed - it is their choice. We sell ordinary seed too," said Olivier. Ordinary seed costs half the price of the GM variety, around R400 a 25 kg bag.

However small-scale farmers account for only 10 percent of the country's annual cotton production, which was 17,000 tonnes of cotton lint for the 2002/2003 season.

Louw conceded that cotton production for export was not commercially viable. "We cannot compete with the subsidised crop produced in the advanced countries, which is why most farmers prefer to grow maize - which is a cash crop in South Africa," he said.

South Africa, therefore, only managed to produce about 50 percent, "in a good year", of its annual requirement of 70,000 tonnes of cotton lint. The rest is imported from Zimbabwe and Zambia.

However, according to Louw, if it were not for the GM cotton seed, even fewer farmers would be growing the crop.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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