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2-Plants: Bt-cotton in developing countries - myths and emotions

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TITLE:  GM Cotton Gives More for Less for S. Africa Farmers
SOURCE: Reuters, by Toby Reynolds
DATE:   May 6, 2003

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   "It is normally argued that Bt technology would save costs mainly
   through decreased use of pesticides. The clear cost advantage of
   applying less pesticide is wiped out when the higher cost of Bt seed
   and the technology fee are taken into account."
                                  Johann Kirsten and Marnus Gouse
                                        ISB News Report, Oct 2002

As already revealed in the much-quoted study from Qaim/Zilberman on Bt-
cotton in India, the yield increase in Bt-cotton systems is based on the
superior quality of the parent variety of Bt-cotton compared to the
traditionally used cotton varieties (+80%). The contribution of GE and
the Bt-gene to higher yields is almost neglectable (+7%). The same is
true in the case of the Makatini farmers. One can speculate that the
introduction of modern cotton varieties in Makatini in combination with
effective IPM systems, that propably lead to a comparable reduction in
pesticide costs as Bt-cotton, might have given the South African farmers
a higher economic benefit than Bt-cotton. But IPM as a public technology
combined with increasing the agroecological knowledge of farmers and
decreasing their depency on corporate services is usually promoted by
governmental projects and public money - an approach that does not fit
into South Africa's neoliberal policy. So the farmers are left with no
real choice: either continue the sickening overuse of pesticide or go for
Bt-cotton, both options securing corporate income and influence.

  "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."
                Yousouf Ismael, Richard Bennett, and Stephen Morse
                                    Crop Biotech Brief 1 (5), 2001

  "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, [...] Buthelezi had become a cotton farmer. [...]
   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. [...] '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.' "
                            Virginia Baldwin Gilbert and Thomas Lee
                                            St. Louis Post-Dispatch
                                                  November 26, 2001

GM Cotton Gives More for Less for S. Africa Farmers

HLOKOHLOKO, South Africa (Reuters) - Genetically modified crops have
advocates and detractors, but for South African cotton farmer T.J.
Buthelezi, the technology is a godsend.

Sheltering from the sun in the shade of a tree which his Hlokohloko
cotton farmers association uses as a meeting place, Buthelezi describes
how the use of insect-resistant Bt cotton has made his life easier and
far more profitable.

"This thing has changed my life. I used to have problems with money, but
since I started using the Bt cotton, I have got money," he said. "You get
more yield, and you have done less work."

South Africa is a relatively small producer of cotton, but its farmers
represent a broader group of developing-country growers whose large and
small-scale activities account for about 70 percent of world production.

Africa currently manages about eight percent of world production, while
India, China and Pakistan together account for almost half.

Champions of the technology say it is these countries, and specifically
their smaller-scale, poorer growers, who will benefit most from GM cotton.

Buthelezi's cotton plants, like those used by nearly all the Hlokohloko
cotton farmers, have been artificially modified to contain a strand of
genetic material from a naturally-occurring soil micro organism, Bacillus

That Bt gene encodes a pesticide poisonous to the cotton Bollworm, a pest
that Buthelezi says farmers would normally need to contain by spraying
their crops every week.

"In Hlokohloko maybe 90 percent of the farmers use Bt cotton," he said.

Most farmers in the area, a remote, dusty plain some 450 miles east of
Johannesburg, plant maize and pumpkins to help feed their families, but
grow cotton to earn cash.


This year the days have been hot and the rains thin, and the cotton crop
has not fared well, but Buthelezi says the transgenic plants he is using
will still produce better yields than traditional varieties.

"With this cotton, no matter what the conditions, once it germinates you
get cotton," he said.

"This is my fifth year farming Bt cotton...I used to get six to eight
bales of cotton per hectare. I get 15 to 17 bales per hectare with Bt in
a good year.

"Currently the yield is around three to five bales because of the
drought, but if it was not Bt it would be nothing."

Yield is only part of the story, according to a study by agricultural
economics researchers at Pretoria University, which looked at production
on homestead operations and larger farms.

Small farmers, mostly from the Makhathini flats area where Buthelezi says
there are some 5,000 small-scale growers, produced only around five
percent of the country's 2000/2001 cotton crop of 157,515 200 kg bales.

The rest of the crop came from about 300 large-scale commercial farmers.

Authors Johann Kirsten and Marnus Gouse said in their paper that about 80
percent of all South Africa's cotton farmers were using GM seed, which
resulted in higher yields. More importantly, their study found, it
reduced worry, workload, and spending on pesticides.


Not everyone thinks Bt cotton is such a great idea.

Many anti-GM campaigners say farmers who become dependent on the
technology could be trapped if the companies which own the patent on the
seed increase their prices.

They also say cultivation of transgenic plant species could contaminate
natural varieties and perhaps even harm human health.

In particular, GM opponents say farmers in drought-prone areas like
Makhathini risk a lot more if they plant expensive GM seed. If the crop
fails they are left with a much greater debt.

"They market it in Africa as a solution to poverty, but I don't think
that it can do that," said researcher Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of
campaign group BioWatch South Africa.

"The farmers are very happy because they don't have to spray so
much...The problem is that that won't last, because the insects will
eventually develop resistance."

The majority of scientific evidence identifies genetic modification as a
tool, which is not harmful in itself, but which could be dangerous in
certain applications.

Sharply differing national stances on the acceptability of GM crops
raises a more pragmatic concern over their use.

A developing trade row between pro-GM U.S. politicians and their more
skeptical European counterparts has worried some farmers that genetically
modified products may be excluded from export markets. Many of South
Africa's neighbors have banned Genetically Modified Organisms altogether.

Buthelezi says he has no worries about the technology, and is happy that
the companies who have pioneered the use of GM crops make a profit from
it, as long as he benefits too.