The splendour of the purple and snow-white ripe cotton assault our eyes with a painful-pleasurable sensation in the sweltering heat of the autumn sun of South Africa.
Acres upon acres of the healthy crop waft in the lazy breeze, a sharp contrast to the surrounding sea of grey and dust, the hallmark of a semi-arid land.
To add to the exuberance of the occasion on the farm, a young woman leads the group in a cheerful song and dance which exalts agriculture, and though we don’t understand the Northern Sotho dialect in which it is delivered, we are soon on our feet too, unable to resist the celebration of a bumper crop.
Welcome to Marble Hall, a small municipality in Limpopo, the most northerly province of South Africa, which is separated from Zimbabwe by the famous river which gave the province its name.
We are at Francis Malela’s farm to learn how he grew his farming empire from four hectares to today’s 150 hectares in the dry region.
“When I first went into farming, as a part-time job, I used to plant conventional maize and the harvest never went beyond one tonne a hectare. Now with biotechnology, I get up to seven tonnes a hectare if the rain is good,” the retired electrician tells us.
“I have done conventional before and now I am doing BT (biotechnology). I have seen both sides.”
Malela grows cotton, maize and soybeans, all of them genetically modified. And all he talks of are the benefits of genetically modified crops and his expansion plans.
“We are ploughing back to increase the equipment, bigger machines, tractors, planters book sprayers. I also want to go big on peanuts and sun flower.”
He adds that the crops are efficient as they save on production costs and enhance the quality and quantity of harvests.
Bubi Aphane, another farmer from Boekenhoutskoof Oog in Pretoria says: “We grew up when this technology wasn’t there. We were reaping nothing because insects and diseases would destroy the crop. So when I heard about biotechnology and the resistance genes, I thought why not? It saves a lot on labour and weeding,” Bubi, also the president of the Federation of South African Women Farmers, says.
Bubi, who retired a couple of years ago to pursue farming as a career, has recently acquired 50 hectares, two of which she has already put under biotech maize farming.
Land distribution has been going on here quietly, unlike in neighbouring Zimbabwe where chaotic distribution turned the former bread basket into a basket case.
Braving news of xenophobic attacks, we have travelled to South Africa with Kenyan farmers, policy makers, seed traders and researchers under the auspices of African Agricultural Technology Foundation and AfricaBio, a not-for-profit organisations which facilitates safe and appropriate use of biotechnology to increase yields.
With at least 2.9 million hectares of land under genetically modified crops, South Africa is a leader in biotech food globally. 86 percent of maize, 92 per cent of soybean and 100 percent of cotton grown in the country is genetically modified.
David Mogophi, an agricultural extension officer, says the government’s role is to provide infrastructure and production inputs.
“We identify small holder farmers and facilitate them to grow. Under the ‘Kick Out Hunger,’ we have selected five farmers in every municipality who we give free land and fertiliser. We also till the land for them,” Mogophi, who chaperons 125 students in five municipalities, said.
One of Mr Mogophi’s successful agricultural mentees is Maria Swele, 30, who has taken advantage of government grants and technology to make money by growing cotton, soya beans, ground nuts and sun flower.
The government of South Africa gives land, money and free inputs to youth who want to engage in agriculture under the land reform programme.
“I was working at Malela’s farm, weeding his cotton. After two years, he told me: I can mentor you to begin farming, too. I went biotechnology when I saw what happened at Malela’s farm.
One time, he planted conventional maize on four acres and got half a tonne. Yet he got a whole six tonnes from an acre. Today I have been able to educate my children, built a house and bought a tractor.”
She says thanks to biotechnology, “no one knows that we are going to the farm because we no longer carry a hoe.”
But besides the adoption of biotechnology, South Africa is also a study in a subsidy economy where farmers are motivated to farm.
Gift Mafuleka, 34, is another young farmer who has taken advantage of the programme to get into large-scale agribusiness. He grows 5,000 hectares of maize and 50 hectares of soybeans southeast of Pretoria.
“I also pursued agriculture in high school and university.”
On graduation he worked for four years. “From the onset I knew I wanted to be a commercial farmer. And while here I made contacts. I knew from the word go what I wanted. I did not look for money; I looked for the means – tractors. Right now I am paying off the loans and making some profit. We are sustainable.”
He got a US $310,000 from the government to do this. He now has eight permanent employees. There are also awards such as the Female Farmer of the Year and Youth in Agriculture. Maria was last year the runner-up in the Youth in Agriculture award in Limpopo, which made her 120,000 rand (about Sh1.2 million) richer.
Biotechnology involves altering the genetic make-up of an organism, in this case seeds, using the DNA of other organisms such as bacteria and other seeds, to make the altered seed better.
This is done in three main ways: the seed is either made herbicide tolerant only or it is made insect pest resistant, or both.
Herbicide tolerance basically means that when a herbicide is sprayed on the crop, weeds will die but the crop will remain standing.
These herbicide tolerant crops are referred to as round-up ready crops. The most common herbicide used is called Glyphosate.
Although the technology clearly helps in improving yields, there are health concerns, concerns which biotechnology seed makers say have no basis, because genes introduced into the crops pose no threat to humans and animals.
“What we do is we take a protein from bacteria, and that protein is very specific to pests we are trying to control,” explains Fanie Friis, the team leader for technology and development for Monsanto Central, East and Southern Africa.
“Take maize for example. The target pest is Buseola fusca or the stalk borer disease. The protein we add to the seed is specific to Buseola fusca such that only that pest will die, not any other pest. Not man.
“For humans and animals, it is completely harmless because their digestive system can digest that protein,” he says. Despite the success of the technology in South Africa, there have been stories about insects and weeds building resistance to the technology, but Friis says the resistance is in isolated areas that are under control.
“This is not a problem. We are advancing the technology, introducing more genes into the market and stacking them, so it is even more difficult for insects to build resistance,” he says.
He says the challenges of resistance come about when some farmers fail to follow planting instructions properly, such as having a refuge to sustain the strength of the technology.
A refuge is an area between 200 and 800 metres from the genetically modified crops, on which conventional seed of the same crop is planted. If you are planting biotechnology soybean for instance, there should be another section of the land on which biotechnology-free soybean is planted.
This must make up five per cent of the total crop acreage.
The purpose of conventional seed area is to ensure that all pests coming out of that area to the biotechnology area remain susceptible to the technology, and that they get no chance to build resistance. If there is no refuge, then the pests are likely to become resistant to the technology.
While biotechnology has in recent years received a boost from Kenya’s top leadership including Deputy President William Ruto, who is a scientist, proponents are impatient that a longer wait before the ban imposed in 2012 can be lifted.
They say the ban was imposed on the basis of a paper (by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini) which has since been withdrawn.
The paper had linked biotechnology to cancer.
On the sidelines of the flourishing cotton and against the backdrop of the triumphant song and dance back in Limpopo, Dr James Okeno, the product stewardship manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, tells reporters: “When I see all this prosperity and compare it with the suffering of farmers back in Kenya, I shudder.
“This is because I know the capacity of Kenyan scientists, seed companies and regulators to ensure a safe adaptation of this technology.”
Dr Okeno says Kenya has 14-year research experience in biotechnology.
Dr Wilson Songa, the Principal Secretary in the ministry of Industrialisation, concurs: “For how long will we let our farmers suffer under poor yields yet we have the power in our hands to change that?
“The truth is, we are dealing with this matter out of ignorance. Are you aware that the injection vaccine you get when you are a baby is genetically modified? Or that insulin is genetically modified? Stop misleading farmers.”
But some still urge caution. “When independent scientists raise concerns of health risks, people look into their character and bash them, yet we need to pay attention to what they are saying,” says Wanjiru Kamau, the policy manager of the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network.
A task force presented a report to the Parliamentary committee on Health three weeks, which recommended that the ban be lifted, provided that the government enacts legislation that will ensure proper safety assessment.
Several research works into genetically modified crops are ongoing in Kenya with confined field trials for maize and cotton having been completed.
Biotechnology potatoes and bananas are in the field trials stage.
“This at the end of the day is for the benefit of the people,” says Betty Kiplagat of Monsanto, the leading biotechnology seed producer.
“When farmers get a seed that is drought tolerant and can be planted in a place like Turkana where there’s no water, I can assure you they’ll be happy with the technology.”
Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, the chief executive of AfricaBio, says: “Biotechnology has proven that it has the capacity to improve yields and we have seen it here in South Africa. Let the farmer make the choice for himself.”