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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,
DATE:   November 26, 2001

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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 ...


Hartmut Meyer


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 

Becoming toxin-resistant

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 
their prices."

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 
to happen."


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