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May 26, 2010

Farmers in South Africa protest against GM maize

by Bobby Jordan

A small patch of genetically modified mielies has sparked protests near the Western Cape town of Lutzville and police were called in on May 23 to protect the precious crop.

About 60 residents sang and handed out pamphlets outside an experimental farm at which the Agricultural Research Council is growing 5ha of drought-resistant, genetically modified maize. The protest coincided with an inspection of the genetically modified crop.

The maize seed was supplied by multinational biotech company Monsanto, which has applied for licences to grow several genetically modified crops in South Africa, despite opposition by activists. Similar test sowings of genetically modified crops have taken place in other arid parts of the country. Though Monsanto says its new maize will produce better yields for the drought-afflicted continent, critics say there might have long-term side-effects and that non-genetically modified agriculture might be contaminated.

The protest was the first at which a rural community has added its voice to the debate. Residents' concerns were mainly about land.

Lutzville community leader Davine Witbooi said: "We are small farmers around here and when we applied for land we couldn't get any - the municipality gave us only a small piece of commonage. But they could have given that land to us so that we could expand our farming. We were not made aware about what [genetically modified crops] are," Witbooi said. She said scientists were still ignoring them: "They didn't want to communicate with us, or explain anything to us."

The department of agriculture confirmed that Monsanto had applied for permission to continue field trials of its maize at seven sites across the country, including in Western Cape, Northern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and North West. The department said: " These [genetically modified] crops are therefore still in the experimental phase and are not commercially available."

Details of the maize experiments were published by Monsanto earlier this year. The company said "any remaining plant material will be destroyed in compliance with regulatory conditions" and any "volunteer plants" that germinate after that will be destroyed.

The week before the protest, Monsanto spokesman Andrew Bennett said early results show that the modified maize could "produce the same kind of yield with less water," which would help drought-stricken Africa.

But African Centre for Biosafety founder and director Mariam Mayet said the protest showed what farmers really felt about genetically modified organisms.


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