Small-scale GM farmers are ‘thriving’

2013-06-25 00:00

IN his article “Monsanto: the most hated corporation on Earth” (The Witness, May 29), Glenn Ashton’s claims that Monsanto is “the world’s single-biggest producer of GM crops”; is the manufacturer of the pesticide DDT; manufactured Agent Orange, the Vietnam War defoliant; markets the herbicide Roundup Ready, which is linked to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and gut diseases; and is responsible for driving small farmers into urban slums, where they are trapped in a cycle of poverty due to the company’s chemical contamination of their crops, are unfounded.

Ashton raised the same arguments 10 years ago and I challenged him then to produce scientifically peer-reviewed evidence to prove his assertions. I’m still waiting. In 17 years (15 in South Africa) of the production of GM crops, no academies of science or medicine, agricultural-research institutions, faculties of medicine, science and agriculture, or organised agricultural unions in the world, have backed Ashton’s claims.

Monsanto had nothing to do with DDT. It was first synthesized in 1874. Monsanto was founded in 1901. DDT was manufactured in the United States by Ciba Montrose Chemical Company Pennwalt and Velsicol Chemical Corporation. No company in the world manufactured a product known as Agent Orange. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army commissioned seven chemical companies in the U.S., including Monsanto, to develop a herbicide required for the defoliation of forests in Vietnam. They were government contractors.

The products were 2,4-D and 2,4.5-T. The U.S. government specified the chemical composition, when and where the material was to be used, including application rates. The army mixed the concoction 50/50 and dispatched it to Vietnam in drums marked orange, pink, blue and white, and code named Agent Orange, Agent Pink, Agent Blue and Agent White. The product was approved by President J.F. Kennedy and used between 1965 and 1969.

Roundup Ready herbicide, with the active ingredient glyphosate, is a market leader. It has been on the market for more than 40 years, registered in 130 countries. Apart from agricultural applications, it is used in homes, gardens, zoos, golf courses and conservations areas. In more than 40 years, there has been no scientifically or medically peer-reviewed substantiated evidence of adverse effects to humans, animals or the environment. In South Africa, regulatory authorities have given glyphosate one of the safest ratings, with a blue-label warning (caution). The next classification is a yellow label (harmful), followed by a red label (poisonous). Professor Bruce Chassy, a former head of the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois in the U.S, said: “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assigns glyphosate to the lowest class of toxic agents. It does not accumulate in the body and does not persist in the environment.”

The joint United Nations agencies FAO and WHO (Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Health Organisation) meeting on pesticide residues in Rome, in September 2004, reported: “Glyphosate has low acute toxicity, is not genotoxic and not carcinogenic, has not produced birth defects, is not a neurotoxin and has had no effect on reproduction.”

Ashton is not a scientist, agronomist or nutritionist, and is not qualified to tell farmers what to plant, or people what to eat. As far as “driving small farmers into poverty slums”, the facts tell a different story, of millions of thriving small-scale GM cotton farmers in India, China and Burkina Faso. Monsanto’s Bt cotton was introduced in Burkina Faso in 2008. Since then, production has increased by 57,5% in 2012/13, according to the Burkina National Cotton Producers’ Union. Earnings from cotton exports amounted to $1,2 billion. “This is unprecedented for an African agricultural product,” the survey said. More than 100 000 small-scale farmers planting an average of 3,16 hectares each, produced GM cotton on 314 000 hectares in 2012. Net gain was $95,35 per hectare more than conventional cotton. Similar stories come out of Indian and China. While Ashton’s few thousand protesters around the world on May 25 protested against Monsanto’s GM crops, nearly 18 million farmers in 28 countries were planting more than 170 million hectares of GM crops. In South Africa, GM seed companies sold out seed for the 2013/14 planting season. GM maize is heading for 90%, soya 95% and cotton 100%.

• Hans Lombard is an agricultural analyst and consultant to the agricultural biotech industry.

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