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March 03, 2009

South African farmers pick genetically modified seeds

by Despite growing concerns against the use of genetic modification for food production, the technology is gaining popularity among emerging black farmers in South Africa.

Concerned environmental groups have condemned the technology, citing irreversible damage to the environment and the health of consumers.

Sowetan recently spoke to two farmers in Gauteng who use a genetically-modified seed with a built-in pesticide seed called Bt maize.

Remi Akanbi, information and projects manager at AfricaBio, a nongovernmental organisation that supplies the seed, said the Bt maize seed is mixed with a pesticide that targeted stalk borers. Akanbi said the seed contains a naturally occurring soil bacteria called Bacillus thurengensis. Bt kills stalk borers – pests that feed off mielie crops.

AfricaBio estimates that infestations of stalk borers can reduce mielie yields by between 10 and 45percent.

Akanbi said stalk borer infestations reduce the quality of mielies, resulting in tons being wasted during harvest. She said stalk borer invasions also cause fungal infections that are harmful to humans if consumed.

She denied claims that Bt is harmful to humans and animals. “It kills only targeted stem borers and is not harmful to humans and other insects.”

Akanbi said most processed mielie and soya products in South Africa are genetically modified.

Ella Baloyi of Devland, Soweto, started using genetically modified mielie seeds on a 0,4ha patch three years ago. The 60-year-old mother of two said she was eager to use the seed after being informed of its pest-resistant qualities.

Baloyi, chairperson of Ntwanano, a community project with 20 members, grows both Bt maize and non-Bt mielies as well as spinach and sweet potatoes.

She said the GM seed produces more mielies than the conventional seed. She harvested two tons of mielies in 2006, compared to an “insignificant” yield before. She is confident that the mielies are safe to eat.

“People said that after a few years, the maize would make me sick. I eat Bt maize and anyone can see I am strong ,” she said.

Ntwanano owns a mill and ground the mielies into mielie- meal, which is donated to various charities and hospices in the Soweto area.

Motlatsi Musi, 52, of Olifantsvlei, south of Johannesburg, started using GM technology in 2003, after more than 30 years as a farmer. Musi said a “higher yield was guaranteed” when using Bt maize. He cited a 34percent increase in 2005.

He said though the Bt seed costs about R300 more than conventional seed, its benefits exceed the cost.

EXTRA INFO

  • Manufacturers by law are not forced to label products as being genetically modified unless they contain animal or human genes and have to be cooked differently.

  • As a result, many may have unknowingly consumed genetically modified food .

  • Research by the University of Free State indicates that nearly 75percent of mealie and soya products sold locally have genetically modified organisms.

  • Soya is often used as a meat substitute for vegetarians and appears in some food labels as soya flour, hydrolysed vegetable protein, soy protein isolate, protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein, hydrogenated vegetable oil, plant sterols or the emulsifier lecithin.

  • The Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation is investigating the production of water-efficient maize for areas that are prone to drought.

  • The Sowetan

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