Demystifying GM maize through collective action on World Food Day

World Food Day Blog

In an effort to highlight the complex and concentrated South African agricultural and food system, with its unsustainable and deepening inequality, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and partner organisations initiated a “no GMO-maize campaign” earlier in 2018. This was followed up in August 2018, with a meeting of organisations that included Zingisa, Ntinga Ntaba ka Ndoda, Ilizwi Lamafama, Mxumbu Youth Cooperative, Calabash Trust and Khanyisa, in the misty Hogsback mountains in the Eastern Cape. The Hogsback meeting provided a space to bring us all together, in one dance, one voice, one direction; to revive our objectives, and remind us of how we can facilitate a transition to agroecology, and seed and food sovereignty.

At Hogsback, it was decided to host an ilima on World Food Day (16 October 2018) – a day of action dedicated to tackling global hunger – to continue and deepen these discussions and activities. The Mxumbu Youth Cooperative was nominated by the organisations in the area to host this event. They wanted to give impetus and support to the youth, and to inspire others to practice agroecology rather than to plant GM maize, and consider alternative options to supply good, quality food to local markets.

Ilima is a deeply embedded practice in the rural area formerly known as the Ciskei, where members of a community come together and support each other at times when households need to prepare the land, sow, harvest, cook, etc. For the World Food Day ilima, local community members came together not only to assist the Mxumbu Youth Cooperative, but to also share knowledge and experiences of the South African food system, particularly the pervasive nature of GMOs in South Africa, and to demystify myths around GM maize.

During the time leading up to the event, the Mxumbu Village was astir. A local mural artist from Dimbaza designed and painted a symbolic mural, which displayed the interconnections between humans and the earth, reflecting how we are integral to the health of the planet, and how we, too, thrive when the earth’s systems are healthy. This mural was painted on a community hall as a gift to the community, while members of the Mxumbu Youth Cooperative painted and fixed the hall.

Women from the village prepared for the event by brewing umqombothi, traditional beer made from fermented maize and sorghum, a practice that is commonly shared amongst most Nguni cultures in Southern Africa. Alongside the umqombothi,  traditional foods were prepared, which included umngqusho (a dish made from white maize and sugar beans), umvubo (sour milk and dry pap, also consisting of maize), umfino (wild spinach/cabbage mixed with mealie meal), and free-range chicken. Interestingly, most of these dishes were made with GM maize, since currently in the places where local people purchase maize, there are no alternatives. This, in itself, highlighted the importance of having the event and raising awareness about GM crops in South Africa, as maize is integral to the diets, and lives of people in South Africa.

When the day arrived, the flurry of activity, interest and energy was beyond our expectations. The community hall was filled to capacity, and the level of excitement was evident in every conversation. Even school kids arrived with notepads and exercise books, keen to grasp what was being shared.

The ilima commenced with song and prayer, led by MC Busisiwe Mgangxela Peters, an agroecological farmer who grows organic maize, various other crops, and poultry. As the room was being energised, the local chief came to the podium to give thanks and officially open the event.  He was followed by the Mxumbu Youth Cooperative who were overfilled with joy as they narrated their history and gave a vote of thanks to the community, as well as to civil society organisations (CSOs) present in the room who had contributed towards making this event possible. Ilizwa Lamafama then infused the event with a mystica that touched on the history of local seeds and importance of preserving them. The event was particularly powerful because it was almost entirely delivered by local farmers in their own language, isiXhosa.

Linzi Lewis, a researcher at the ACB, was called on stage by the MC, and a song was started to welcome her. Linzi, appreciative of this warm welcome, joined in with the dancing and rejoicing. Assisted by the MC’s translation, she then presented information on the food systems in South Africa, touching on laws such as the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and the Plant Improvement bills, farmer support programmes in South Africa, corporate control, as well as the lack of alternatives provided to South African consumers. She stressed that farmers themselves have access to diverse, quality, traditional seeds, and these need to be celebrated, and promoted. Linzi went on to display three animations in isiXhosa: the history of maize cultivation and consumption in South Africa [Imbali yokulinywa nokutyiwa kombona eMzantsi Afrika]; the current context of GMOs in South Africa [iziGMO EMzantsi Afrika]; and debunking myths about GMOs [Siveza ubuxoki obuthethwayo ngeeGMO]. More school children rushed into the hall, even blocking the entrance, to watch the animations and take down notes. The mood changed even further, and people became emotional when one of the animations showed the high percentage of GMOs contained in baby foods as well as maize, a staple food for most of those present.  

The animations played a very important role in making the information accessible, and conveyed an urgent message regarding the dangers of GMOs in South. Furthermore, they assisted in building up the energy in the room for the Q&A session that followed.

The first speaker in the Q&A session highlighted the importance of land: historically disadvantaged people need access to land in order to plant. In addition, this speaker emphasised that people within CSOs need to take the fight against GMOs very seriously, and they should also make information accessible to people at grassroots level by explaining and demystifying jargon, so that everyone can understand the issues. Lastly, the speaker touched on the importance of questioning the education provided to extension officers by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as well as the Department of Rural Development and other institutions that are mandated to train farmers. Because industrial agriculture has always been advocated, the curricula within these institutions does not include, discuss or promote agroecological farming.  

Another speaker mentioned that the animations raised emotions within him, since he came from a place where farmers have been leasing land to corporates who use chemicals in planting; however the farmers themselves don’t see any returns from the agriculture taking place on their land. Many smallholder farmers are acquiesced  into corporate value chains, through contract farming, dictating the varieties to be planted, for various local and external markets. The beneficial claims of such an approach, providing a secure output market for smallholder farmers, often has limited livelihood benefits, while simultaneously locking farmers into a corporate input and output dependence. The speaker also highlighted the dangers of GMOs, sharing examples from the daily lives of people who suffer from increasing non-communicable diseases, as a result of changed diet and lifestyles.

Some of the speakers were a bit sceptical about agroecology, since extension officers had repeatedly told them that GM seeds are better than local varieties. Extension workers often provide GM seeds to smallholder farmers as part of farmer support programmes. However, in addition to promoting the erosion and displacement of local maize varieties and agricultural practices, extension officers fail to state the long-term negative effects of corporate seed, associated agrochemicals, and industrial agriculture more broadly on the environment and human health. There is a need to expose the myths surrounding GM seeds, and to illustrate that agroecological farming with farmer seeds is possible and scalable. To this end, Edmore Parichi from Zingisa led the ilima on the Mxumbu Youth Cooperative’s  agricultural site,  sharing details on how to plant maize through sustainable, diversified, agroecological methods.  

Following the ilima, people ate the food that had been prepared, and shared seeds and knowledge about local varieties and practices of seed production, multiplication and saving. This celebration of local seed custodianship turned the complex and disheartening issues in a more positive and empowering direction, where everyone felt inspired to raise their voices together.

The ilima successfully incorporated a powerful traditional practice, bringing a community together for a common goal: to share seeds, learn about seed saving and seed production, and celebrate the traditional varieties, practices and knowledge in the area.

#PhansiGMOMaize #PhambiliAgroecology #WeAreTheSeed