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March 19, 2012

Activist group disputes claimed GM crop benefits for South Africa

South Africa is the continent's leading cultivator of gene-modified crops, but not everyone thinks that is a good thing.

In a statement, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) said it, "vehemently disputes that GM crops have benefited farmers and consumers in South Africa."

The ACB cites figures showing that the price of maize meal, South Africa's staple food and made from the country's main GM crop, have gone up by 83% between 2008 and 2012, belying the claim that GM crops will make food more affordable to consumers.

The ACB also says farmers have not benefited from the adoption of GM maize in the way the technology's promoters would have the public believe.

"The prices they receive for maize are seriously eroded by what they pay for expensive GM seeds and other
inputs. The cost of seed currently eats up 13% of a farmer's production costs - yet in 2005 this figure was only at 5%," according to the ACB.  

"It is no coincidence that over this period, the GM seed’s market share increased from 20% to a whopping 77%. Since 2008, the average price for GM maize seed increased by 30%, and further increases are likely, as expensive new 'stacked' GM crops make their way to the market" said Mariam Mayet, the ACB's director.

Mayet concludes that the main beneficiaries of South Africa's adoption and growing use of GM technology in its farming "remain the multinational biotechnology companies themselves."

She goes on to claim, "Monsanto controls around 50% of the maize seed market in South Africa,
and its maize seed revenues from last season easily topped R1 billion. Furthermore, nearly every GM seed sold in SA contains Monsanto’s patent protected traits, meaning it collects a license fee from virtually every
GM maize seed transaction in the country.”

These license fees are one of the factors of GM seed adoption that opponents most often cite as being potentially disastrous for poor farmers in Africa if they lose their 'seed sovereignty' to companies like Monsanto. As a result GM proponents are now careful to assure that various GM seeds under development for use in Africa will be provided to farmers at no fee beyond the cost of the seed. But there are obviously many ways the industry could recover these costs from farmers, as it seems extremely unlikely that their fees philanthropy could be long term.

The ACB makes a point of hammering on the food insecurity of a significant portion of South Africa's population due to the escalating cost of food, but it is not clear what the exact linkage of those price rises to GM seeds is. In the bitter propaganda battle that characterizes the pro and anti-GM debate, it would not be surprising if proponents were to claim that GM crops have prevented even higher food price rises than South Africans have recently experienced.

Nevertheless, this serves as a useful reminder that the uptake of biotechnology that is considered as progress by some , is in other ways considered regression by others.   

African Agriculture

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