The small-scale cotton farmers of the Makhatini Flats in KwaZulu-Natal are being used as examples by both seed giant Monsanto and green organisations to present arguments for and against genetically modified (GM) crops. The debate surrounding GM crops came under the spotlight again when amendments to South Africa's genetically modified organisms act were up for public comment.
United Nations news agency IRIN reports that one non-profit organisation that receives funding from Monsanto says, "Agricultural biotechnology, along with other farming strategies, offers a powerful tool to help farmers in developing countries improve productivity and enhance health and socio-economic well-being."
However, another group, Biowatch, says that the Makhathini farmers are now worse off since planting GM cotton. The cost of the seed and other inputs means that the Makhathini cotton growers owe the Land Bank R20 million, as poor rains and low prices have not allowed them to make up initial investments.
"They stopped planting cotton, they have high debts and now they are borrowing money from family and friends, reducing the availability of resources for other needs." However, some of the farmers say that the world price of cotton is what is causing the financial problems, more than the GM cotton itself. Europe and America heavily subsidise their cotton farmers, lowering the price of cotton on the world market. The farmers are currently being assisted by government, with the KZN department of agriculture distributing free GM cotton, fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides to the farmers in the area.
However, many of the farmers still complain that they cannot grow crops other than cotton due to the weather and soil conditions, and would like to see irrigation brought into the area. It is estimated that in South Africa up to 80 percent of all cotton planted in GM cotton, mostly Bt cotton that has a gene inserted to combat bollworm. South Africa's cotton seed market is controlled by US-based Delta Pine, which has an agreement with Monsanto to sell its GM seeds.
Monsanto has a 45 percent share in the country's maize seed market and most of the market in wheat seed. About six to 20 percent of maize plantings and 22-30 percent of soya plantings in South Africa are now genetically modified. Fears that Monsanto will gain a monopoly on the seed market and push seed prices up are more of a fear to many farmers than that of the possible perils of consuming GM foods.