June 26, 2005

Claims by Biowatch that genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton has failed and impoverished cotton farmers on the Makhathini Flats in KwaZulu-Natal, who owe the Land Bank R18 million (R12 million according to the bank), causing farmers to stop planting cotton (Sunday Business Report, May 29) have been rejected as false and misleading by 27 chairpersons of cotton farming associations on the Makhathini Flats, representing 1 680 smallholders.

Biowatch's report says: "Bt cotton has not proved to be sustainable in terms of reducing pesticide use nor in terms of improving income for farmers. It is clear that Bt cotton and many other GM crops will fail the majority of farmers throughout Africa. It has failed in India."

At a meeting on June 6 on the Makhathini Flats, 27 chairpersons rejected Biowatch's claims as flawed and challenged Biowatch to meet them face to face to substantiate their alleged factsâ or apologise to the world for the insult caused to these farmers.

Claims in the survey by Biowatch are completely false and not scientifically proven by peers. The survey definitely does not tally with the comprehensive scientific study carried out by the University of Reading in the UK in conjunction with the University of Pretoria in 1998/99 and in 2001/02.

The report was published in Nature Biotechnology (volume 22 pages 379 to 380) in 2004.

According to the report, 2 223 individual farmers' records were analysed. Personal interviews were carried out with 100 farmers together with in-depth case studies of 32 farmers. Bt cotton farmers achieved consistently higher yields and revenue per hectare than non-Bt cotton farmers.

Yields for Bt cotton were 40 percent higher than non-Bt cotton. Bt farmers also paid 42 percent less for chemicals to spray for insects, the report said.

Bt cotton has not failed farmers on the Makhathini Flats. Trials done by the Agricultural Research Council on the Makhathini over the past five years produced on average 2 886 kilograms per hectare for Bt cotton compared with 2 537kg per hectare for non-Bt. That is the average yield of farmers, a gain of 349kg per hectare. At R3 per kilogram, that means an extra R1 047 profit per hectare planted.

Farmers agree with the statement made by Biowatch that "the area under cotton in South Africa fell 80 percent due to the lowest cotton price in 30 years, the strong rand, severe flooding and prolonged drought on the Makhathini Flats, and lack of credit, which resulted in substantial losses to farmers, leading to drastically reduced cotton plantings".

These are the reasons Makhathini's cotton production has dropped and why some farmers are heavily in debt. Biowatch itself has given the answer. It is not the GM technology.

Biowatch does not understand the economics of farming. Why pick on Makhathini? The whole agricultural sector is in debt. Commercial farmers in South Africa owe the banks more than R30 billion, up from R29 billion three years ago. One bank has this year withdrawn R500 million credit to commercial farmers because the maize price has bottomed out.

The Goodhouse Agricultural Paprika Corporation in the Northern Cape, involving 55 emergent farmers, has just gone bust, owing the Land Bank R49.43 million. Paprika is not a GM product.

It is clear that picking on the Makhathini Flats, where farmers are in the same economic straits as all agriculture in South Africa, and blaming it on the GM technology is nothing more than a mean and deliberate attempt to discredit the GM technology.

Farmers, however, believe that this technology is the greatest blessing to agriculture. All the farmers at the meeting agreed they would plant nothing else but Bt cotton this coming season. More than 600 farmers paid cash for their Bt seed the past season.

Furthermore, Makhathini farmers are urging the government to approve the new BG/RR stacked variety of cotton that is bollworm resistant and herbicide tolerant.

Farmers on the Makhathini have been planting Bt cotton every year for the past six years. A 5kg bag of seed, sufficient to plant 1ha, costs R220, VAT and technology fee included. This includes the refuge seed that all farmers plant. The extra yield more than compensates for the technology cost. Farmers buy Bt cotton out of their own free choice.

More than 90 percent of Makhathini farmers plant Bt cotton.

With Bt cotton, farmers only spray two to three times a season for insects compared with eight to 10 times for non-Bt, saving an extra R400 a season.

The KwaZulu-Natal provincial government has just given the Makhathini farmers a grant of R3.2 million to cover input costs for the coming season. This will be renewed next year. There is a good cotton crop in the fields being harvested now for the 2004/05 season.

Cotton is the ideal cash crop for small-scale farmers. It has been proved all over the world. The biggest expansion is in India, which introduced Bt cotton two years ago. The area under Bt cotton grew from 100 000ha in 2003 to 500 000ha last year. The yields increased by 30 percent.

In 2004, China increased Bt cotton planting for the seventh consecutive year to 3.7 million hectares. When Biowatch says Bt cotton is not for small-scale farmers, we must look at India and China for results.

Phenias Gumede
KZN Cotton Growers' Association
TJ Buthelezi
Umbongwa Cotton Farmers'
(an umbrella organisation for 37 smallholder farmer associations in Makhathini)

Gaile Moosmann

Project Manager
Parliamentary Monitoring Group
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