Three varieties of Monsanto’s genetically modified maize failed to produce crops during the 2008/9 growing season, leaving up to 200 000 hectares of fields barren of cobs and crop losses across several provinces in South Africa. According the GRAIN SA, the varieties are: MON 810, NK 603 and MON 810 x NK 603.

These seeds were sold to commercial maize farmers and provided to resource poor farmers in South Africa. Monsanto has compensated commercial farmers who lost their yield, and barred these farmers from speaking to the media or public. Monsanto has claimed that a mistake was made in the breeding process. No further details regarding this mistake or how it might have similarly affected all three varieties has been forthcoming from Monsanto. Why the veil of secrecy on Monsanto’s part and the gagging of affected commercial crop producers?

The South African biosafety regulatory authority, which approved the commercial release of these three maize varieties, has not seen fit to make any statement regarding the crop failure to the consuming public. Should we assume that the regulatory authority has uncritically accepted the Monsanto explanation? South Africa is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and is therefore obliged to implement an effective precautionary approach to monitor and regulate GMOs. What confidence can we, the consuming public, have that our regulatory authority is effectively fulfilling this role in an independent and transparent fashion?

Concerned scientists have long since warned that commercialisation of GM plants is premature given the attendant uncertainties and imprecision of genetic crop modification. The impact of these ‘mistakes’ in producing these GM maize crops was smoothed out this time by compensation from Monsanto to affected commercial farmers. How might other mistakes impact on farmers and consumers and who will pay the price? What steps has Monsanto taken to protect the interests and reimburse the loss of affected resource poor farmers? These and other questions remain unanswered.