South Africa’s smallholder farmer journey growing GM maize

By: Verenardo Meeme

Sixty-four-year-old Motlatsi Musi, from South Western Townships (SOWETO), has been farming since he was 12 in a venture that has helped him feed and school his four sons.

His farming journey was triggered by his experience working as a permanent casual in some of South Africa’s commercial farms.

‘‘My mother encouraged me and my siblings to work with commercial farmers in the outskirts of our town where we ended up working as permanent casuals,” Musi narrated. “This triggered my interest in farming.’’

“I was driving tractors at the age of twelve,” he continued. “This I would do when not in school. However, this was later on disrupted by the ‘students uprising liberation’ war in 1976, which affected my education.”

But despite the grueling fighting experience, Musi enjoyed the fruits of the liberation struggle as the new Republic of South Africa gave him land to share with his peers.

In 2005 he planted his first genetically modified, insect-protected seed, Bt maize, after seeing the strong performance of the seed and determining there was a market demand for the product. In 2006, he planted a maize variety that was featured the “stacked” genetic traits of insect protection and herbicide tolerance. With the ability to control weeds and insect pests, Musi explained he was able to increase his production.

Kenyan scientists have planted GM (genetically modified) insect-resistant maize in open fields in 6 counties. The sites are located in the KALRO centres of Alupe, Embu, Kakamega, Kandara, Kibos and Mwea. If the varieties meet KEPHIS standards, Kenya could join South Africa in growing the GM insect-resistant maize.

“Because of the quality of GM maize, a processing company approached me to supply them with corn,” Musi said. He also sells to street vendors, who buy during the green maize stage, and a popcorn company that purchases the dried product.

“My family and I are amongst the first to enjoy GM maize direct from my fields during the green maize stage and when it matures, it is our staple food, with not even a single health incidence which could be attributed to GM consumption,” Musi said.

To practice good crop stewardship, he plants a refuge of non-GM maize that stalk borers can feed on to prevent them from developing resistance to the Bt trait. Although the availability of seeds is a challenge for smallholder farmers like Musi, the South African government is making sure that smallholder farmers are not left behind, Musi explained.

‘‘Every year we do get subsidized seeds and fertilizers from that office, irrespective of what cultivars farmers need, whether GM or conventional,’’ Musi said.

According to Dr. Hennie Groenewald, executive manager of Biosafety South Africa, farmers in the country have been planting GM maize since 1997. First, they grew insect-protected Bt maize. Like Musi, many later advanced to growing varieties with the stacked genetic traits of herbicide-tolerance and insect-resistance that could control weeds and insects at the same time.

“We are moving away from using one Bt gene of insect resistance, and now farmers are embracing the stacked genes,” he said.

“So far, South Africa grows three GM crops that are genetically modified: cotton, soybean and maize,” Groenewald said. “Most of the maize that is planted in South Africa, about 85-95 percent, depending on the season, is GM maize.”

Insect and herbicide traits are referred to as input traits because they have a direct value to farmers, he narrated. “You don’t have to spray for insects because Bt has an inbuilt mechanism to deal with insects, while in the case of herbicide tolerance, it changes farmers’ agronomical practices, making it much cheaper. You can spray without damaging the herbicide-tolerant maize cultivar,” Groenewald explained.

“So what we do is conservation agriculture, or minimum tillage,” he continued. “You don’t have to work your land too much.”

Insect-resistant traits benefit both smallholder and large-scale farmers,” he said. “If you plant it, your crops won’t be affected by persistent pests like stem borer and to some extent, fall armyworm.”

Groenewald said there is very little difference in the cost between GM and conventional hybrid seeds.

GM maize has helped South Africa to improve both its export market and its own food security, as up to 95 percent of the maize consumed locally is GM. The farmers who farm GM maize eat it, as do their children, he said.

“If GM was dangerous, South Africans would have the burden of diseases, which is not the case,” he said, noting that the technology is managed through regulation. “You don’t do experiments with people. That is why we have a regulatory process.”

South Africa started growing GM maize in 1996, then cotton in 1997 and soybean in 2001. Adoption was a gradual process, but the yield and economic results of that decision to move ahead with biotechnology don’t lie, Groenewald observed.

Groenewald said that South African farmers can access improved crop varieties, including pest-resistant Bt maize, soybean and cotton, which they, in turn, grow mainly large scale. The technology has facilitated even the smallholder farmer’s dream of planting for export—not just for home consumption—and has empowered a number of them to embrace mechanized farming, leading to a doubling of the nation’s agricultural exports over the years.

And the country’s tech developers are still in their labs, creating the next generation of GM and hybrid crops. Groenewald said several new varieties, including sugarcane, are in trial phases.

Scientists drove the biotech process in South Africa and were able to communicate the value of the technology effectively, Groenewald said.

‘‘In Kenya, the National Performance Trials (NPTs) are trials to test new plant varieties for perfomemnce, including agronomic potential and adaptability in the target region, compared to varieties currently on the market, James Karanja, the Kenya TELA maize project investigator, says’ They are a requirement by the Seed and Plant Varieties Act for any varieties that is to be released for cultivation/marketing in Kenya to ensure only improved but high-yielding varieties that are superior to commercial ones are introduced into the market,’’ Karanja said

‘‘We receive guests from all over the world who come to see our GMO maize,” Musi said. “For instance, in November 2018 we received a delegation of Kenyan farmers, policymakers and government officials on a Bt maize fact-finding mission. I hope they will allow their farmers to grow the variety.”

Verenardo Meeme is a science journalist and contributor for the UK-based Science and Development Network