Science in Society Archive

GM Crops Irrelevant for Africa

Damning report concludes GM crops do not address the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa. Jonathan Matthews writes.

Careful analysis of the evidence from the biotech industry’s flagship projects in Africa shows that GM crops are irrelevant for Africa. The analysis comes in a damning report from Aaron deGrassi, a researcher in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The flagship projects analyzed include Monsanto’s GM cotton in the Makhitini Flats in South Africa, Syngenta Foundation’s GM maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto, the World Bank and USAID. All have been showcased by the industry as huge successes for small-scale African farmers.

Significantly, deGrassi shows that the benefits from GM crops are much lower than can be obtained "with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques" from just a tiny fraction of the investment in research.

The excitement over GM crops, the author shows, stems in reality from a PR strategy by the biotech industry trying to give itself the public legitimacy to help reduce "trade restrictions, biosaftey controls, and monopoly regulations."

DeGrassi’s analysis receives corroboration from a surprising quarter. An Associated Press article in June profiling Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer and Robert Horsch, its vice president of product and technology cooperation, notes that Horsch manages a Monsanto program designed to help farmers in developing nations improve their farming methods. Horsch is reported to have said his mission is twofold: "create goodwill and help open future markets."

DeGrassi’s carefully referenced report details the GM lobby’s extensive PR use of South African GM cotton farmers such as ‘Bt Buthelezi’

"Buthelezi was by Zoellick’s side when the Trade Secretary formally announced a US WTO case against EU restrictions on GM imports. A month later, the Administrator of USAID, Andrew Natsios, described Buthelezi before a Congressional panel on plant biotechnology in Africa....The Council for Biotechnology Information calls him a "small farmer", and others describe his life as "hand-to-mouth existence". Administrator
Natsios described him as a "small farmer struggling just at the subsistence level".

"However, independent reporters have revealed that, with two wives and more than 66 acres, he is one of the largest farmers in Makhathini and chairs the area’s farmers’ federation encompassing 48 farmers’ associations."

DeGrassi reports that for Monsanto, Buthelezi and his stories are part of the firm's declared strategy of "gaining global acceptance of biotechnology". Just before President Bush’s May 2003 speech claiming that Europe’s import restrictions exacerbate African hunger, Monsanto flew four black South African GM crop farmers to London, where they spoke at a private conference hosted by the Commonwealth Business Council, before heading on to Denmark and Germany. Like Buthelezi, these "representative farmers" read statements carefully scripted by Monsanto and own dozens of acres of land. Several actually spend most of their time working at their day jobs as school administrators.

Other pro-biotech campaigners have caught on: CropGen, an industry-funded group of academic scientists in the UK, for instance, celebrates another South African farmer, Mbongeni Nxumalo.

De Grassi states,

"These South African farmers - whom representatives of Monsanto and other businesses call "basically representative farmers" and "representatives of the African smallholding community" - are plucked from South Africa, wined and dined, and given scripted statements about the benefits of GM. In an area where most farmers cultivate just a few hectares, and only half the population can read, Monsanto's "representative" farmers are school administrators and agricultural college graduates, owning dozens of hectares of land. Monsanto has been criticized for using these farmers as a part of a deliberate attempt to distort public debate on biotechnology. Critics have coined the nickname "Bt Buthelezi", to illustrate this farmer's unconditional support to Bt cotton: during a trip to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Buthelezi was quoted as saying, "I wouldn't care if it were from the devil himself.""

Meanwhile, conventional crop breeding methods, which cost much less and produce better results, have failed to attract attention from both African governments and biotech companies.

More alarming is the amount of money earmarked for these crop innovations, when cotton and sweet potato are not even major crops in Africa and thus will not in any way solve Africa’s poverty/hunger problems.

The report shows how the industry’s PR spin is often farcically inexact. Here’s just one example in relation to GM cotton in South Africa: "ISAAA implies that small farmers have been using the technology on a hundred thousand hectares. Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe – an industry coalition - suggests 5,000 ha of "smallholder cotton". The survey team suggests 3,000 ha.

"In addition to conflicting data on the area and numbers of farmers, the profits gained by switching to Bt cotton are unclear." DeGrassi writes. "CropGen says farmers gain $113 per hectare. Monsanto says farmers gain an extra $90. ISAAA argues that switching to Bt allows farmers make an extra $50 per hectare. University researchers calculate $35, whilst the survey team found farmers gained only $18 in the second year, but in the first year, "Bt cotton nonadopters were actually $1 per hectare better off". [emphasis added]"

Meanwhile, the very crop that has been reported to be giving small farmers an easier and more affluent life, turns out to have not only failed to solve Makhathini farmers’ existing problems with debt, but to have actually deepened and widened indebtedness. The expensive crop have helped to saddle them with debts of $1.2 million!

Despite that, CropGen claimed GM cotton has turned the area from one that wasn’t viable for agriculture into "a thriving agricultural community". Monsanto says, "The region has become an example to the world of how plant biotechnology can help the smallholder farmers of Africa". Not to be outdone, Steven Smith, Chairman of the UK’s Agricultural Biotechnology Council, has said of the project, that "small farmers are realizing huge economic benefits". A group of academics in South Africa have even claimed that projecting the results across the entire continent shows that "it could generate additional incomes of about six billion Rand, or US$600 million, for some of the world’s poorest farmers." ISAAA’s claims, according to deGrassi who details the various claims in his carefully referenced report, are apparently even more fantastical.

The report shows that GM cotton is, in truth, at best irrelevant to poverty in the area, and at worst is "lowering wages and job prospects for agricultural laborers, who are some of the most impoverished people in South Africa."

The other showcase project that deGrassi looks at in detail centers on GM sweet potatoes in Kenya. Again deGrassi demonstrates the total gap between the supposed ‘evidence’ and hyperbole – "Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine" - and the wholly unimpressive reality.

"The [GM] sweet potato project [which may increase production by as much as 18%] is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists (16 with PhDs) and an estimated $6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield gains of nearly 100%."

Yet it has been claimed that the virus in question "is a classic example of a problem that cannot be solved through conventional breeding," and that "the time and money spent actually developing GM varieties are less than for conventional varieties."

DeGrassi also notes: "Another surprising example of advocacy trumping facts is C.S. Prakash, the influential biotechnology advocate who has advised the US Trade Representative. Prakash has repeatedly cited sweet potatoes as a positive example of the benefits of GM for African countries, but has confessed to having no knowledge of the results of scientific trials in Kenya."

Prakash issued a press release ahead of the Sacramento ministerial meeting in June demanding that international leaders ignore the protesters and "let sound science determine the future of agricultural technologies in developing countries".

DeGrassi mercilessly exposes the kind of ‘sound science’ that has been used to lobby leaders around the world and to mislead the rest of us. Read deGrassi’s report. The truth is out!

Article first published 18/09/03


  1. Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence by Aaron diGrassi, published by Third World Network, Africa
    For the section on the biotech industry's PR use of Africa:

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