water uncertain futures and maize seed

image taken from :http://thegreentimes.co.za/south-africa-maize-prices-scale-new-peaks-as-drought-bites/

Last week i attended a public seminar on GM Contamination in the Durban Botancial gardens organised by BioWatch South Africa. Speakers included; Two agroecology farmers Thombithini Ndwandwe cofounder of the Zimele Rural Empowerment Organisation in MtubaTuba and and Petros Makhanya from KwaNgwanase, Vanessa Black from Biowatch, Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley, Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town and SARChI Chair on Bioeconomy and Angelika Hilbeck from ETH Zurich.

Sitting in Cape Town and reflecting on last weeks seminar the theme of drought and seed feels very relevant to write about. Cape Town is currently experiencing The worst drought in recorded history and water supplies are so low that even with severe water restrictions (25 litres per day per person) taps will run dry in April. Cape Towns 4.5 million residents will have to queue for water at 200 water points throughout the city to receive daily rations of water. For months restrictions have meant that watering gardens including food gardens has not been an option. Remarkably however with below average rain for 3 years many plants have managed to survive on the mountain and in gardens. Over the past few weeks i have been noticing tomatoes and rocket shooting up in the cracks in the pavement in our neighbourhood.  These plants have been rapidly growing, and putting out seed in the hope that rain will come soon and some will have the chance of survival. It is amazing to witness the evolutionary resilience of these plant species and how this may be absolutely vital in the future of food.

Angelika Hilbeck’s talk at the seminar, titled ‘The GMO push in Africa and the drought tolerance Trojan horse’ explored drought resistant GMOS and the many of the controversies surrounding this in the African context. Angelika explained how while big promises were made (at the onset of GM crops being released over 20 years ago) concerning the development of new traits and how these would solve world hunger for example, in reality very few genetic innovations have been made.  In terms of maize only two significant traits have been developed, Bt (where GM plants express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins throughout their cells which kill stem borer) and Round up Ready ( which are able to withstand Glyphosate herbicide). A further innovation has been to stack these traits so that plants express both Bt and Round up ready characteristics.

However more recently drought resistance has been the focus of genetic engineers. Monsantos DroughtGard contains  the gene for “cold shock protein B” (cspB) from Bacillis subtilis bacteria. While this evolved in baceria to withstand the stress of cold shock it is also intended to help plants survive in similarly water stressed hot conditions.

Drought has been identified as an increasing reality on the African continent in the face of climate change and in 2008 a public-private partnership known as WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) was established to focus on developing drought resistant maize varieties for the African context. Initially this involved only the development of Hybrid maize varieties and as explained by Angelika Hilbeck was relatively successful in developing hybrids that were more tolerant to water stressed conditions. However in 2015 WEMA’s track changed when Monsanto became a partner organisation. At this point Monsanto donated the insect resistant trait CRY1Ab which was the active trait in MON810. However MON810 was unpopular as insects quickly developed resistance to it. Another addition was the cspB gene first used inMON87460, or ‘Droughtgard’ maize and first commercially released in 2011 in the United States. In South Africa WEMA intends to make these traits readily available to smallscale farmers who normally cant afford to buy GM varieties through making “seed products available to African seed companies of all sizes, royalty free, so they can offer these hybrid seeds to smallholder farmers“.

However Angelika’s talk pointed to the fact that there has not been a lot of evidence to show that this innovation in genetic technology has managed to tackle the very complex issue of water stress in crops with Monsanto themselves stating that it can produce “moderate” yield improvements under “moderate drought conditions“. It is therefore not conclusive that it is able to perform well under drought conditions. As explained in a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists there are many complexities associated with drought such as that “droughts vary in their severity and their timing in relation to crop growth. Related factors such as soil quality affect the ability of crops to withstand drought”. This considered engineering traits suitable for drought a very complex process.

African Centre for Biosafety have warned that through WEMA making this drought resistant maize to small-scale farmers they may be undermining drought tolerance of farmer crops (developed over time and in situ) that are lost when farmers adopt new GM seed in the hope that it will be a silver bullet solution. It is important that in the face of technological solutions being put forward as the answers to such a complex problem that we don’t loose agricultural diversity that may hold the key to attaining resilience in a very uncertain climatic future.


Talk on maize for human consumption in Lleida (Catalonia – Spain)


On Wednesday 4th May the Agri/Cultures Project attended a talk on maize for human consumption (aka non-GM maize) in Lleida. Below you can read a short chronicle of this experience.

Everything began when Comú de Lleida, a political group from the city of Lleida, suggested the agricultural land around Lleida be declared GM-free. Farmers from the area (where GM maize is widely cultivated) who are very concerned about what this suggestion could entail, responded that non-GM maize did not actually offer many opportunities for them. El Comú de Lleida organised a talk about why some farmers choose to sow non-GM maize and the commercial possibilities that this maize could offer. They invited two main speakers from the neighboring region of Aragon, a  farmer from the farmers cooperative Joaquin Costa, in the neighbouring region of Aragon, and a representative from Liven Agro, one of the main companies producing non-GM maize in that neighbouring region too. The audience was made up of approximately 30 farmers, including several representatives of the main agrarian trade unions.

The company representative gave a commercial presentation about how they are encouraging farmers to produce non-GM maize for them. They pay more for non-GM maize and they also offer monitoring, harvesting machinery and transport vehicles for free. According to this representative, this was encouraging farmers to embrace non-GM maize production and work with them.

The trade union representatives, on the other hand, while opposing the GM-free initiative, were pointing out that in the fields ‘there was room for everyone’ and that decisions on whether cultivating GM or non-GM should only be driven by economic criteria.


Juanjo Mallén, farmer from the cooperative Joaquin Costa

To me, the best intervention by far was Juanjo Mallen, from the farmer cooperative Joaquin Costa. He told us the story of his cooperative and how it’s approach had evolved regarding GM maize. As a cooperative, they embraced and started producing GM maize when it was first introduced, in 1998. After some years, while distrusting the GM hype, they started developing their own agricultural trials and realised that GM varieties are not actually more productive than non-GM varieties. During this process they also increasingly informed themselves on the scientific controversies and uncertainties surrounding GM crops. And as a result (and because there was a company willing to buy non-GM maize), they decided to produce non-GM maize. It has really worked well for them. He pointed out that non-GM maize varieties are more inclusive because it is not true that ‘there is room for everyone’. Non-GM maize, and especially organic maize, can suffer the consequences of GM contamination and lose a market, or a certification. In fact, he mentioned that wherever there is GM maize, organic maize disappears. By focusing on non-GM maize, he added, some of the farmers of his cooperative could aspire to produce organic maize again, which was very good news.

Lastly, he pointed out that it was important to realise the paradigmatic differences implied in the different ways of understanding and doing agriculture that were being discussed. One prioritised more isolation and controllability of the different parts of the agricultural ecosystem and the other valued more interconnection and interdependency. To give an example, he told us how his own perception of weeds had changed from seeing them as something undesirable to be eradicated to considering them as a bio-indicator of the agricultural ecosystem. His point of view is that, more research and more political will should be encouraged in order to explore and promote ways of farming without agro-toxics.

In the end, I don’t think it is likely that the agricultural land around Lleida will be declared GM-free, as many farmers were still not convinced, but it was an interesting debate in which it was obvious that there was a clash between antagonistic cultures of agriculture.