The New GM Revolution: Plans for Trials of Genetically Modified Crops in Europe Were Met with a Wall of Resistance from Groups Such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and Outraged Editorials in the Tabloids. but in the Developing World, Their Dire Predictions Have Proven Unfounded, and GMOs Are Becoming Increasingly Popular with Small-Scale Farmers, Attracted by the Increased Yields and Profits They Offer

By Furniss, Charlie | Geographical, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The New GM Revolution: Plans for Trials of Genetically Modified Crops in Europe Were Met with a Wall of Resistance from Groups Such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and Outraged Editorials in the Tabloids. but in the Developing World, Their Dire Predictions Have Proven Unfounded, and GMOs Are Becoming Increasingly Popular with Small-Scale Farmers, Attracted by the Increased Yields and Profits They Offer


Furniss, Charlie, Geographical


Salina Nobulhe Manukuza is very happy. Over the past six years, the 33-year-old farmer from Makhathini Flats in South Africa's Kwa-Zulu Natal province has seen yields on her cotton farm increase and her profits rise. "Life used to be hard, and the future was uncertain," she explains. "But I can now pay the school fees for my kids and buy some clothes for them and myself."

The secret behind Manukuza's success is Bollgard, a strain of cotton that is resistant to the bollworm, the sworn enemy of cotton farmers around the world. Developed by the US biotechnology company Monsanto, this so-called Bt cotton has been genetically modified through the addition of DNA from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (hence 'Bt'), that produces an insect toxin.

Since she adopted this new variety, Manukuza has not only produced higher yields of better quality cotton she has been able to save money she would have spent on insecticides, as well as the time and energy it took to spray her crop.

Manukuza is one of 3,500 farmers who've adopted Bt cotton in South Africa since it was first introduced in 1998. Together, they represent an estimated 95 per cent of the country's small-scale cotton farmers. Ongoing research by agricultural economists from Reading University has shown that, almost without exception, the new technology has been well received: average yields are up by 65 per cent and profits by almost 300 per cent. "Today, I am very respected in the community as one of the men who gives job opportunities," says 55-year-old Dumezweni Mhawu Ntuli, also from Makhathini Flats. "To myself, I'm very happy to know that I can provide for my family's needs."

But how can this be? According to environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Greenpeace, GMOs and the developing world don't mix. They're simply the means by which large multinationals such as Monsanto plan to take over the world's agriculture and squeeze every last penny out of its poorest farmers. Not only is GM technology dangerous, they say, it doesn't work.

In fact all of the available evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Ten years after the commercialisation of the first biotech crops, more than six per cent of the world's agricultural land is devoted to GM varieties. Not only have the plants themselves flourished, with none of predicted health and environmental problems, but millions of people are enjoying the benefits, the vast majority of them resource-poor small-holders in developing countries who live on less than US$1 a day.

The fact is that, contrary to what we in Europe have been led to believe, GM crops can work. And not only can they work safely and effectively, they can also give poor farmers such as Manukuza an opportunity to raise their standard of living.

Indeed, with experts predicting the arrival of a second wave of GM crops developed specifically to meet the needs of the world's poorest farmers, the next ten years might well prove that it's in the developing world that GMOs will be most appreciated.

Enthusiastic adoption

News of GM crops' success may come as something of a surprise to many Geographical readers. In the UK, we're more used to reading about the failures of, and opposition to, biotechnology because what can only be described as propaganda from the anti-GM lobby has skewed the debate. Riding the popular wave of anti-globalisation sentiment and the public concern about food safety caused by the BSE and foot-and-mouth outbreaks, environmental and social-rights groups have whipped up frenzied opposition to GM crops among the press and general public here and elsewhere in Europe. Unfortunately, much of its information is based on half truths and factual inaccuracies (see Public service or propaganda?).

The latest FOE report on GMOs, published earlier this year to mark the tenth anniversary of the commercialisation of transgenic crops, is typically inflammatory and misleading. …

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The New GM Revolution: Plans for Trials of Genetically Modified Crops in Europe Were Met with a Wall of Resistance from Groups Such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and Outraged Editorials in the Tabloids. but in the Developing World, Their Dire Predictions Have Proven Unfounded, and GMOs Are Becoming Increasingly Popular with Small-Scale Farmers, Attracted by the Increased Yields and Profits They Offer
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