South Africa is in the grip of the worst drought since 1992, with many parts of the country experiencing record temperatures and little to no rain. The maize and transport industries are currently planning for a worst-case scenario, where the continent’s largest maize producer – South Africa – may potentially need to import 4 million metric tons of maize due to the prolonged drought.

It is against this backdrop that the South African government has granted approval to Monsanto for it to market its wholly inadequate and over-hyped ‘climate smart’ solution to drought– genetically modified (GM) drought tolerant maize, also known as ‘MON87460.’ The controversial maize was developed under the auspices of a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) funded project called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), currently operating in five African countries and aimed at ‘benefitting’ smallholder farmers.

The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has consistently opposed MON87460 as unproven, unsafe and inappropriate for resource-poor smallholders. The organisation has formally appealed against its approval for commercial cultivation in South Africa. The Minister of Agriculture, Mr Senzeni Zokwana, has advised the ACB on the 15th December 2015 that he has established an Appeal Board to deal with this pivotal appeal next year.

According to Mariam Mayet, Executive Director of the ACB, “drought tolerance is by no means a new innovation; there are exceptional drought-tolerant farmers’ maize seed varieties all over the continent, as well as open pollinated varieties released through public agricultural research institutions, which can yield as much and more than this GM variety. What is more, unlike MON87460, these varieties offer real drought tolerance, are not reliant on synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals and can be shared and replanted year after year. The demand of the climate justice movement throughout the recently concluded Paris Climate Change talks was for “system change, not climate change”. Similarly, system change, not proprietary and limited technological fixes, is necessary to deal with our increasingly harsh climatic conditions in the region, including real agrarian reform and a transition out of industrial agriculture which is responsible for the lion share of global greenhouse gas emissions”.

These sentiments have been echoed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who recently submitted her interim report in which she emphasised the need to move away from industrial agriculture practices and instead support “small-scale farmers and agroecological practices [because they] play a central role in conserving crop diversity and developing varieties of plants that are adapted to a range of weather conditions, including droughts.”

The implications of this appeal will be felt far beyond South Africa’s borders, as the WEMA project aims to also cultivate this GM drought tolerant maize in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. There is currently no commercial cultivation of GM crops in any of these countries. The WEMA project has been somewhat of a battering ram against these closed doors, in some cases playing a crucial role in weakening biosafety laws and regulations in these countries to favour agribusiness interests. The WEMA project has received over US$85 million from the BMGF, a major supporter of the much wider Green Revolution push in Africa.

ACB researcher, Haidee Swanby said that, “the ACB insists that our government must urgently support a whole new system of agriculture based on agro-ecological principles, which take social economic and ecological issues into account and farmers, not corporate profit, as priorities. This shift will represent a real climate solution.”


Notes to editor

Related ACB press releases & briefings: