As a child, I would collect dry cattle dung on the outskirts of town. My family burned it to cook food and keep warm. For protein, we often ate locusts. They’re crunchy and you get used to the taste.
Those were desperate times, before I had a chance to settle down and become a farmer. Then agriculture pulled me out of poverty and gave me a better life.
Today, I own 21 hectares of land near Johannesburg, South Africa. Only about a third of it is arable but I rent more, growing maize (corn), beans, and potatoes and also raising pigs and cows.
Growing up, I hardly could have imagined this opportunity. My mother did her best to raise my siblings and me, but she was an anti-apartheid activist who was absent for long stretches of time, usually because she was in jail for protesting the abuses of the government.
One day in 1965, shortly after a heavy snowfall, I returned home from school to find her belongings thrown out of our house. A big padlock stopped us from going inside. I was just nine years old.
We went homeless for years, staying with neighbors and moving around a lot. I was never sure where we would sleep at night. I dropped out of school and followed my mother’s example of political protest, joining the 1976 uprising in Soweto. My brother was beaten almost to death for demanding equal rights for black South Africans.
For money, I worked as a farm laborer. I cleaned out pigsties, turned manure into compost, and rode on planters as a “jockey” who helped seed and fertilize fields. My pay was 50 cents a day—not much, but enough to put a roof over our heads and buy basic necessities.
In 1999, I applied for a plot of land through a redistribution program. I got it in 2003 and began my new life as a farmer.
This changed everything. For the first time, it seemed, I was fully in charge of my own affairs and I had a clear path to a better future. Racism couldn’t keep me down.
I also learned that farming is hard—and one of the things that make it possible is technology. Without access to GMO crops that help defeat weeds and pests, I’m not sure how I would have made it. Perhaps I would have become a subsistence farmer who barely survives. Or maybe I would have been forced to quit.
Instead, I’m a man who has afforded college for one of his boys, now a senior analyst at a pharmaceutical chemical lab.
My mother—may her soul rest in peace—would be thrilled to know of her grandson’s success.
When South Africans fought against apartheid, we always appreciated the fact that people overseas sympathized with our cause. Change might not have come without the assistance of Europeans and Americans who criticized a bad regime.
Today, however, some of our former friends have turned their backs on us. Rather than recognizing the benefits of technology, they insist that we abandon GMO crops and take up organic farming.
Something tells me that they don’t know what it’s like to eat a bug or burn poop to cook a meal. From the security of prosperous nations, they call themselves “Greens”—but they’ve never tried to grow a green plant on an impoverished continent that struggles to feed itself.
This year, the Global Farmer Network has chosen me for its Dean Kleckner Award. I’m deeply honored to accept—and determined to use the prize for the benefit of my fellow Africans.
I’ll keep pointing out the benefits of biotechnology. I have a small role, for instance, in the excellent new documentary “Food Evolution,” narrated by the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For people who seek an introduction to GMO crops, this is a great place to start.
Safe science and sound technology are solutions rather than threats. On my farm, I depend on them and look forward to new innovations. They hold the potential to provide food security to starving nations and also to fight the scourge of malnutrition, the “hidden hunger” found in Africa and around the world.
This is our new fight for justice—and we’re hoping you’ll join us.