Once, my farm was part of a war zone, just south of Johannesburg, South Africa. I had to be optimistic to drive a tractor through a minefield, as I did in the aftermath of South African apartheid. In fact, trying something new always requires a bit of optimism. Nonetheless, the first time that I planted genetically modified crops, I was nervous. Would they grow? Would they improve my yields? Or would they fail, as so many other crops in Africa had before them?
Nearly a decade has passed since then, and today I can hardly imagine farming without these important tools of technology. Although things are better now in South Africa, life has conditioned many of us to pessimism. Why wouldn’t it? Two-thirds of all Africans are farmers, according to the World Bank. That’s a higher rate of employment in agriculture than anywhere else on the planet. And yet Africa is the hungriest continent. What a cruel paradox: We farm the most and eat the least.
I’ve farmed for more than 20 years, starting as an ordinary laborer. In the wake of my country’s land redistribution, I own and farm 21 hectares and rent more. One of the biggest challenges for any farmer involves guarding crops from pests. In my experience as a farm laborer, my boss used tractors with huge booms to spray the plants. When the corn grew too high for driving, airplanes flew overhead and dropped pesticide. As smaller, independent farmers, we wore protective clothing and carried 12-liter knapsacks of pesticides through the field ourselves, often on tremendously hot days. It was a constant struggle against pests and for personal safety.
Pesticides break down before the food they protect reaches consumers, but exposure to them in large quantities can hurt farmers who don’t take proper precautions. So when pest-resistant GMO corn became available in South Africa in 2005, I wanted to try it. A non-profit group, AfricaBio, gave me guidance. I learned, for instance, that 20% of our seeds were non-GMO, so that our fields would fight pests but also provide a refuge, preventing them from developing a resistance to GMO corn. This approach contributes to the environmental sustainability of GMOs. Our goal, after all, is not to drive a species into extinction, but merely to protect our plants from its attackers. Ultimately, we seek a kind of peaceful coexistence.
During that first season, I started to see the results soon. My plants were bigger, stronger and healthier. During harvest, the yields increased by 34 percent. At that moment, I understood that biotechnology would be an essential part of Africa’s farming future.
We grow more, spray less and look forward to a future full of biotechnology.
A generation ago, much of Africa missed out on the Green Revolution, which brought modern agricultural practices to the developing world. Today, Africa must become a full participant in the Gene Revolution. Our governments must let us enjoy access to the biotechnology tools that fuel incredible agricultural production in the United States and so much of the western hemisphere. Why should we lack what those farmers have?
South Africa was an early adopter of GMOs, and for that I’m grateful. Too many other African countries have resisted biotechnology. They’ve responded to the misplaced worries of Europeans, who have largely refused to accept GMO foods. In my opinion, GMOs are perfectly healthy for human consumption. I’ve been eating them for years, from what I grow on my own farm!
The good news is that seven African countries—Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda—appear ready to join South Africa in commercializing GMOs, according to the latest report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). On my farm, I’ve hosted visitors from these countries and elsewhere. They want to see how GMO crops succeed, and I like to think that I’ve done my small part to inform and educate people who want to improve their own food security.
Many of the anti-GMO activists come from wealthy countries, where food security is taken for granted. I suspect that most of them never miss a meal. They remind me of the protestors from an earlier time, who complained about advances in conventional farming during the Green Revolution. Sometimes I wonder if they’re not against GMOs as much as they’re against every kind of new technology that farmers find helpful. I’d like to invite them to tour African farms, and see the hardship. Maybe that will change their hearts and minds.
GMOs changed my life for the better. I’m not just a subsistence farmer, as are so many of my fellow Africans, but rather a farmer who makes a profit. One of my sons went to college, where he earned a biomedical degree, and my profits paid his school fees. People are always talking about sustainable agriculture, and I’m a believer in this movement—especially if the definition of “sustainability” includes economic sustainability, and an appreciation for farmers who aspire to do more than merely feed their own kids.
When I started working on farms as a young man, the thought of giving away food never occurred to me. Today, however, I’m able to donate a portion of my crops to local charities, including a child-care center, an old-age home and a hospice. So agricultural biotechnology sustains me, my family and my neighbors—as well as consumers who I’ll never meet.
We need more GMOs, not less. We need new traits that help us survive droughts and adapt to climate change. We need seeds fortified with vitamin A, so that our children can get the nutrition that they need. Right now, we’re on the threshold of remarkable progress, all because we’ve learned how to make the most of our crops.
Let’s continue to do all that we can to grow as much as possible.
Motlatsi Musi farms maize, beans, potatoes, and breeds pigs and cows in South Africa. He is a member of Truth about Trade & Technology’s Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).
This column first appeared in the 2014 issue of Scientific American’s Worldview