The news that the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA) had authorised the importation and commercial release of Bt cotton seeds came as a huge shock to the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). It meant that ACB had to reconsider its earlier acceptance of an invitation by SEA to attend a National Biosafety Indaba on 22 May 2018, where ACB would share knowledge and experiences on GM crop cultivation, in order to inform Swazi decision-making. When ACB received the news, it was just four days before the Indaba and all logistics had already been confirmed and paid for.

PELUM Swaziland, a network of NGOs that work to promote ecological land use management, made a strenuous and persuasive request for ACB to attend the Indaba in solidarity with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and those protesting the environmental release of Bt cotton eSwatini, and eventually ACB agreed to speak at the public awareness event.

2ndpic_ Indaba_eSwatiniAlthough it is commendable that the SEA reached out to ACB to participate, and that it included our work and our concerns on GM cotton, what unfolded at the event was far from co-creation of knowledge. Despite our request to speak after the pro-biotech presenter, Dr Bongani Maseko from industry-supported Africabio, ACB was first on the programme.

Linzi Lewis presented on behalf of the ACB. In a professional and respectful manner she spoke about ACB’s knowledge of people’s experiences of GM cotton in South Africa, Burkina Faso and India – where it was a dismal failure. Lewis showed that, despite claims that Bt cotton had brought benefits to the continent and elsewhere in the world, the reality, especially in developing countries, reveals a tragic tale of crippling debt, appalling market prices and a technology prone to failure in the absence of very specific and onerous management techniques that are not suited to smallholder production.

Lewis also referred to the tragic Indian example, where farmer suicides rose to staggering numbers alongside the use of GM cotton, in particular – requiring us to address these issues head-on, and not slavishly swallow industry hype. Cotton is often the entry crop, a Trojan horse, opening the doors to future GM crop cultivation. Further, Lewis used sound science to argue in favour of the adoption of the precautionary principle, especially in light of the fact that GM crops are inappropriate to smallholder farmers’ social and diverse agroecological conditions.

3rdpic_ Indaba_eSwatiniMaseko speaking after ACB gave Africabio the upper hand, which Maseko used with gusto. He aimed his aggressive and vitriolic remarks at ACB, in particular, and at activists and CSOs, generally, asserting that activists are standing in the way of GM technology adoption across the continent. He made outrageous claims about the benefits of GM crops, without providing any scientific backing. Participants at the Indaba were shocked by his manner, and voiced their concerns about not being given enough time to make their submissions. People who did manage to get a word in spoke against the technology and queried how the decision to allow importation and commercial release of GM Cotton had been made.

4thpic_ Indaba_eSwatiniWhile Maseko accused activists of preventing smallholder farmers in Africa from having choices, during the discussions Lewis clarified that, ironically, this is exactly what ACB and CSOs were advocating for: more choice. She further highlighted that in places like South Africa, with the total capture and contamination of the maize, soya and cotton value chains by agribusiness, smallholder farmers and poor urban and rural populations today have no choice. Indeed, GM-based agriculture threatens already fragile food and fibre production systems, perpetuating and reinforcing hunger and poverty, and locking farmers in an increasingly expensive, technology treadmill.

There were sounds of support coming from the audience when Lewis made her remarks and murmurs of disapproval when Dr Maseko spoke about the benefits of the technology. Despite this obvious public discontent, the fact remained that SEA had issued the permit for the approval for commercial release of BT cotton.

The push for GM cotton in Swaziland is a well-coordinated strategy, including public relations work and biosafety capacity building, supported especially by the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) with funds provided by USAID.

The GM cotton that will be grown commercially in Swaziland is called ‘JK Event 1’ cotton, owned by JK Agri Genetics, an India-based seed company. This Bt cotton makes use of a throwaway and outdated GM technology previously patented by Monsanto- the cry1Ac gene encoding for a Bt insecticidal toxin- that targets pests from the Lepidoptera order of insects, like the African bollworm. The trait has come off patent and has been discontinued in South Africa, owing to widespread pest infestation. JK Agri Genetics Ltd, which is linked to Mahyco Monsanto (India) Company, entered into a non-exclusive, nontransferable sub-licensing agreement in regard to the trait, with Mahyco Monsanto.

5thpic_ Indaba_eSwatiniIn Swaziland, the cotton sector is vertically integrated and state controlled, which is an attractive environment for large multinational seed companies to enter, as was the case in Burkina Faso. The Swaziland Cotton Board provides a secured market for cotton producers, internationally supported research and development, and production and marketing of the cotton sector, and administers a credit scheme which finances seed, chemicals for cotton management, tractor hire and other activities related to the cotton sector. In this context, large multinational companies are provided a monopoly on cottonseed production. Bt cotton is being offered as a saviour to declining cotton production, particularly with changes in market access following Swaziland being suspended from African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), and because of the potential of developing an integrated cotton-textile-clothing value chain in Swaziland.

The SEA also gave a presentation in which they outlined the application and decision-making processes, and institutional composition of government structures. This was followed by members of the National Biosafety Advisory Committee (NBAC) coming on stage for a brief plenary session. The very close and intimate relationship between industry, regulators and decision-makers was blatantly obvious: an extremely problematic dynamic, as government should ensure that they are impartial and that their decision-making is beyond reproach.

1stpic_ Indaba_eSwatiniCSOs voiced their displeasure at the manner in which the public had been consulted. They noted that consultation is not just about publishing a newspaper advertisement about an intended GM application, but, rather, should involve workshops, meetings or indabas, where the implications of the application are extensively explained, and people are invited to make their submissions in person. The Indaba was farcical: public consultation should have happened long before decisions were made to commercialise Bt cotton, not after.

PELUM Swaziland said that, while insufficient consultation is the case in most parts of the world, they hoped that eSwatini would be the first country to change this and make it mandatory for public consultations to be more extensive and inclusive. They pointed out that much of the public does not read the newspaper or understand scientifically written application documents.

PELUM also noted that the risk assessment procedures set out in the Biosafety Law (2012) were flawed, as the NBAC had mainly collected studies and documents in favour of the technology and used those as a basis for deeming the biotech crops to be safe. There should rather be research conducted in the local context, as well as acknowledgement and consideration of the numerous studies that point to the dangers of the technology.

It would appear that CSOs in eSwatini have their work cut out for them as they intend to get this decision revoked. PELUM Swaziland is looking into a nationwide awareness raising campaign that will mobilise farmers and the public to speak out against the decision to commercially release Bt cotton and hopefully lobby enough cotton farmers to boycott the GM seed.

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