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South Africa faces drought and rising food prices - can GMOs save it?

South Africa

The beginning of the drought in South Africa's Wustendorf.

If anyone thought GM crops could be a solution to the problem of climate change and food security in Africa, think again.

A new report by the non-profit African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) shows how excessive reliance on genetically modified (GM) maize in South Africa has been inadequate to provide nutritional security, and will not be adequate in the future.

The report titled Transitioning out of GM maize: Towards nutrition security, climate adaptation, agro-ecology and social justice makes an urgent call to address the root causes of environmental degradation and hunger and malnutrition in South Africa – such as persistent poverty, inequality and unemployment – rather than relying on GM crops.

According to Mariam Mayet, Director of the ACB, 'South Africa is at a crossroads: either it must abandon Monsanto’s GM maize including its bogus drought-tolerant GM maize seed or face an economic, social and ecological crisis.'

Instead of trying to genetically modify maize to fit into changing conditions, we need to rather embrace a diversity of crops

El Niño has caused the worst drought in its recorded history in South Africa, with 2015 being the lowest national annual rainfall recorded in South Africa since 1904. The severity of the drought was especially felt in key summer crop production regions, with eight provinces being declared as disaster areas.

The current (2015-16) maize crop is the smallest harvested since the 2006-07 production season (7.125 million tonnes), necessitating unprecedented imports: 5 million tonnes of maize between May 2016 and April 2017. Low yields pose a huge financial risk for commercial maize farmers with debt levels reaching record highs, while skyrocketing food prices impact poor and impoverished consumers who have battled an almost 40 per cent year on year increase.

In 1998, the South African government approved the commercial release of GM maize, earning South Africa the dubious honour of becoming (and remaining) the only country in the world that has allowed the commercial growing of a transgenic staple food. The rationale was that the technology is vital for food security in the face of an ever-growing population and to reduce pesticide use. However, almost two decades later about 46 per cent of South African households go hungry every day. An estimated one in five children in South Africa are stunted, and over 50 per cent of South African women are overweight and obese.

The country is wracked by a 'double burden', where there is both severe undernutrition and overweight, due to the reliance on cheap, over-processed, single food diets.

The traditional indicators of success – hectares grown, yields achieved and profits made, have proven to be wholly inadequate parameters of a successful agricultural model.

In February 2016, the South African government approved the commercial release ofMonsanto’s GM drought-tolerant maize, despite it not being up to the task of providing a solution to the complex physiology, in the misguided belief that applying more of the same will bring different results.

RELATED: The people vs Monsanto (and other GM giants). Is the tide turning against GM?

Since the adoption of GM maize almost 20 years ago we have seen increasing corporate consolidation in our staple food value chain that has undermined small producers and related business leading to a deeply inequitable system while maize prices have steadily risen beyond the reach of the poor. If the merger between Bayer and Monsanto should go through, greater consolidation in an already highly concentrated seed and agro chemicals market mean less choice for farmers and consumers, less competition always means greater control by cartels to control the price of GM maize seed and the price of agro chemicals.

The alternative is to embark on a path focusing on the entire food system, which recognises the need to maintain ecological, economic and social justice and to apply completely new and holistic solutions. For example, with the advent of climate change, maize is fast becoming a completely inappropriate crop with changing agroecological zones except in parts of the Eastern Cape where extensive GM maize plantations will severely threaten biodiversity, and limited potential to expand irrigation as scare water resources dwindle.

'South Africa is at a crossroads: either it must abandon Monsanto’s GM maize, including its bogus drought-tolerant GM maize seed, or face an economic, social and ecological crisis' – Mariam Mayet

Instead of trying to genetically modify maize to fit into changing conditions, we need to rather embrace a diversity of crops – particularly indigenous African summer grain crops such as sorghum and millet and support the emergence of new markets for these.

Fresh and holistic solutions such as these emerge naturally when applying an 'agro-ecological' approach to our food systems. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter has explained, agro-ecological solutions seek to improve the sustainability of agro-ecosystems by reinforcing natural processes, and simultaneously increasing farm productivity and food security, improving incomes and rural livelihoods, and reversing trends in species loss and genetic erosion.

Agro-ecology supports building drought-resistant agro-ecosystems, rather than focusing on the tolerance of individual plants. There are three equally important pillars to agroecology: environment, agriculture and social justice. All three boxes need to be checked as we shape food production systems that will sustain us through the shocks of climate change.

It is time to re-imagine a food system that supports both producers and consumers, instead of one that creates and perpetuates risk and vulnerability, where only the strongest and most competitively advantaged survive.

We need to shift away from simply increasing production through high-yielding, high-calorie staple crops, towards improving food quality and nutritional content; and to address the structural and systemic issues that create persistent poverty, inequality and unemployment – the root causes of hunger and malnutrition in South Africa.

You can find a copy of the full report on ACB's website.

Haidee Swanby is Research and Outreach Officer and Linzi Lewis; is a Researcher at the African Centre for Biodiversity.

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