2-Plants: Genetically altered cotton transforms farming in South Africa
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TITLE: Genetically altered cotton transforms farming in South Africa
SOURCE: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA, by Virginia Baldwin Gilbert and
Thomas Lee, sent by AgBioView, AgBioView@lb.bcentral.com
DATE: November 26, 2001
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
Dear GENET-news readers,
this Monsanto success story gained a lot of popularity. A recently internet-
posted short version of the below cited University of Reading study gives
following explaination of the adoption of Bt-cotton distributed by the
monopolist Vunisa Cotton:
"Vunisa Cotton is a private organisation supplying seed fertilizer,
pesticide, credit and information to farmers in the region as well as
buying their cotton. [...] The key factors affecting early adoption of Bt
cotton were thus the availability of credit, or other means of purchasing
inputs, such as non-farm income, and pressure from the Vunisa personnel."
And from a scientific point of view it is extremely interesting to know
which type of cotton varieties have been used as reference system. Not a
single of all those success stories give any information on this crucial
question. The notes of a public hearing on GMOs of the Environmental
Affairs and Tourism Portfolio Committee on October 30, 2001 in South
Africa, show that even a Bt-cotton farmer brought in by Monsanto, obviously
did not answer this question:
"Mr W. Green, the Biotechnology Regulator Manager for Montsanto, Sub-
Saharan Africa, introduced Mr C. Mailou of Monsanto who told the Committee
that they had brought a farmer to attest to the real benefits of GM crops.
[...] Ms Pschen-Strauss from Biowatch commented on the improved yields
spoken of by the farmers. She argued that, if a new variety had been
planted without gene alteration, it might have also produced a larger
yield, so they could not be certain it was only the GM factor that caused
the success. Mr Nxumalo replied that, at first, only a small portion of the
GM seed was used, but they then realised that they were losing on the
traditional crops, so they changed their focus to the GM crops."
Mr Nxumalo's answer implies that the yields of a latest cotton variety with
Bt gene was compared to a traditional cotton variety. No wonder that the
yields are higher. As quoted below the UK researchers thanked "Monsanto and
other agribusiness groups for providing information and 'for trusting us,
despite their well-founded fears that strangers asking questions about
(genetically modified) crops are most likely to be Luddites.' ". It appears
that those who ask the really important questions are classified as
Luddites, regardless whether they are nationals or strangers ...
Genetically altered cotton transforms farming in South Africa
Monsanto's seeds provide biotech industry's top argument that engineered
plants could bolster the economies of developing countries: "We can attend
to other things besides staying in the field. Our standard of living is
very much improved," the chairman of a farm cooperative says. T. J.
Buthelezi, a cotton farmer from South Africa, has become a spokesman in the
worldwide debate over the wisdom of developing genetically engineered
plants. He's one of 100 small landholders who participated in a study by
university agronomists and scientists that examined the use of insect-
resistant cotton in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Buthelezi planted Bt cotton developed by the Monsanto Co., based in Creve
Coeur, and sold by the Delta and Pine Land Co. "We are working very good
with the Monsanto people," said Buthelezi, the chairman of a 350-member
farm cooperative. "But even if they weren't good to us, Bt cotton has
proved to be the best thing to put money in our pockets. "I wouldn't care
if it were from the devil himself."
Monsanto paid Buthelezi's way to a recent conference in Philadelphia that
brought together African leaders and American business people. Buthelezi
represented farmers at the meeting. Then, after the conference, Monsanto
flew Buthelezi to St. Louis for the grand opening of the Donald Danforth
Plant Science Center, near the Monsanto campus, Nov. 2.
Why is one obscure farmer worth the plane fare from South Africa to America?
For one thing, Bt cotton offers one of the biotechnology industry's ace
arguments that genetically engineered plants could bolster the economies of
developing countries. Monsanto is eager for farmers like Buthelezi to speak
about the benefits of the product, said Shannon Troughton, a spokeswoman.
Bt cotton was engineered to contain a gene that kills bollworms. To cotton
farmers, that means spending less money and time on spraying crops with
pesticides. Cotton plants thrive in hot, dry areas where other cash crops
often don't fare so well. And cotton is a cash crop that's important to the
haves and the have-nots of the world.
Developing countries accounted for 76 percent of cotton-mill use in 1999
and 43 percent of end-use cotton consumption, according to statistics from
the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Industrial countries accounted
for 20 percent of cotton-mill use and 50 percent of end-use cotton
But environmental groups, led by Greenpeace, worry that Bt cotton could
pave the way for altering other crops. The organization opposes genetic
engineering, saying it threatens the agricultural diversity of plants
throughout the world. Genetically altered crops could harm species other
than the insects that feed on the plant, said Craig Culp, a Greenpeace
spokesman. "We don't believe there is enough testing that can be done to
determine the health effects and environmental impact of releasing these
(crops) into the ecosystem," he said. If something goes wrong, "There is no
remediation," he said. "There is no recall. You just don't stop production."
The opposition to such crops has become heated. Researchers in the South
African cotton study thanked Monsanto and other agribusiness groups for
providing information and "for trusting us, despite their well-founded
fears that strangers asking questions about (genetically modified) crops
are most likely to be Luddites."
Activists have raised concerns -- shared by agronomists -- that insects
will develop resistance to the toxin in Bt cotton. Insects that develop
resistance would pass on the traits to the next generation, creating a
super bug that would have overall resistance to the crop, Culp said. Then,
farmers would have to find a new pesticide or Bt product to defend their
Proponents argue that recommendations for planting a buffer zone of
conventional cotton around plots of genetically engineered plants will
reduce the risk of insect resistance. For example, in the United States,
the National Science Foundation recommends that farmers plant 5-acre buffer
zones for every 95 acres of Bt cotton.
Seven nations have approved Bt cotton for planting: the United States,
China, Mexico, Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Indonesia. India,
Brazil and Zimbabwe are considering approval of genetically modified
cotton. The farmers in these nations will listen to proponents like
Buthelezi. But they also will heed studies like the one in South Africa. It
warned that the "very clear gains at the farm level" could be lost "if seed
suppliers decide to appropriate a greater share of the benefit by raising
Rob Horsch, vice president of Product and Technology Cooperation for
Monsanto, said farmers can choose to buy conventional seed or seed that is
genetically enhanced. He said Monsanto has "an interdependent partnership
with farmers, where our success is linked to their success."
Benefiting from technology
The study from South Africa, done by researchers from the University of
Reading in Britain and the University of Pretoria in South Africa, was
presented in June 2000 to the Fifth International Conference on
Biotechnology, Science and Modern Agriculture in Ravello, Italy. It was
financed independently of the producers. The study compared fields planted
in conventional cotton with fields planted with Bt seed.
After analyzing yield, gross margins, the costs of seed and pesticides, the
amount of labor required to bring the crop to market and other efficiency
data, the study concluded, "The farmers who adopted the Bt cotton variety
benefited from the new technology according to all the measures used."
The second year of the trial, 1999, was a particularly wet year. Usually,
that would mean insects would be a bigger problem for cotton farmers. But,
the study found: "The yield gain of 40 percent and the lower chemical cost
easily offset the extra seed cost so that the gross margins are, on
average, 58 percent higher. This is a huge gain by any standards, and it
does seem that the Bt cotton survived the unfavorably wet growing season
far better than the non-Bt varieties."
Buthelezi said he increased his yield by 170 percent using Bt cotton. With
conventional seed, he had harvested five bales of cotton, or about 892
pounds of unginned cotton, an acre. But last growing season, his Bt cotton
fields produced 2,409 pounds an acre.
Plant, flower, harvest
To be sure, Buthelezi isn't a Third World subsistence farmer. In 1984, he
was a minister for an evangelical church in Johannesberg when the nation
erupted in violence over government-enforced discrimination against black
Africans and people of mixed race. Buthelezi fled the violence, returning
to his home in KwaZulu-Natal to build houses. Sometimes he received his pay
in cattle rather than cash. By 1994, South Africa had abolished separatist
policies. Nelson Mandela had been elected as the nation's first leader who
was democratically chosen by citizens of all races. And by then, Buthelezi
had become a cotton farmer.
The rural provinces of South Africa started encouraging cotton farming
about 20 years ago, Buthelezi said. "We had no factories, no way to work to
make money, except by going away from our children" to work in faraway
cities, he said. But when a gin was built near his home, Buthelezi said,
"That made it easy for us to sell our cotton." The land is parceled out by
a tribal chief. Farmers have many of the rights of ownership: They may work
the land as they choose, and it can't be taken from them or their
descendants. But they can't sell it or borrow money against it.
Buthelezi began small, with about 4 acres. Now, he farms nearly 30 acres.
He's one of the larger landholders in the KwaZulu-Natal province, he said.
Sindisiwe, one of his two wives, farms more than 7 acres. Large or small,
the cotton-farming operations in the region are based on hand labor,
Buthelezi said. To understand the implications, consider the process of
spraying the fields for insects.
Pesticides are expensive and require special storage and handling. That's
why the farmers typically wait until the insects appear before buy ing the
pesticide they need. The farmers don't own vehicles -- no family cars, no
pickups, not even tractors, Buthelezi said. They rent the tractors used for
plowing and planting. So, when they must buy insecticide, Buthelezi said,
farmers go by bus to a town about 30 miles away.
After returning home, the farmer puts the insecticide in a backpack with a
pump by his side and a nozzle that sprays out the back. Buthelezi estimates
that every time he sprays a few acres of cotton, he walks more than 12
miles back and forth between the rows. Like farmers everywhere, Buthelezi
and his fellow South African farmers are affected by available cash, water,
land and labor. The need to spray against insect pests drastically had
limited the amount of cotton they could plant, he said.
With conventional cotton, Buthelezi often sprayed for pests 10 times during
a growing season. By contrast, with Bt cotton, he sprays twice a year.
Monsanto scientists are working on a new Bollgard 2 variety of seed to
knock out other insects that are not susceptible to the original variety.
The new variety could eliminate spraying. "With Bt, you plant the cotton;
it flowers; you harvest," Buthelezi said.
Bt cotton has changed life dramatically for him, his wives and his 13
children, he said. "We can attend to other things besides staying in the
field," Buthelezi said. "Our standard of living is very much improved, when
we have money to send our children to school. "Now, after harvesting, we
sit down and budget and say, 'Let's go buy some things.' That didn't used
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