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Raj Patel on T. J. Buthelezi and Monsanto's Bt cotton project in S. Africa

NOTE: South African farmer T. J. Buthelezi has a long established relationship with Monsanto and the biotech industry. With their assistance, in 2002-3 he was brought to Washington, Brussels, Pretoria, St Louis, London, Johannesburg, and Philadelphia to help promote GM foods. He recounted in particular his positive experiences with Monsanto's Bt cotton in Monsanto's showcase project, supposedly showing how GM crops could benefit small farmers in the developing world, in the Makhatini Flats, South Africa.

We've often wondered what happened to Buthelezi, especially in the light of the failure of Monsanto's Bt cotton project in the Makhatini Flats. We got a clue from a 2007 film made by a group of women farmers from India, A disaster in search of success: Bt cotton in global South. T. J. Buthelezi's wife is interviewed in the film and says that her family makes no profit from the crop. Buthelezi himself is low-key on Bt cotton, saying the crop is only suitable for large holdings and that farmers need other options.

Raj Patel's brilliant book about the corporatisation of the food supply, Stuffed and Starved, fills in the gaps in Buthelezi's story. Reading Patel's account from Stuffed and Starved (below), it's hard to feel anything but compassion for Buthelezi and his family, who must be counted among the long list of victims of GM industry greed.

Stuffed and Starved: Press reviews

More on the Congress of Racial Equality, which Patel mentions at the end of his chapter:
Making up Makhathini
From Stuffed and Starved
by Raj Patel
Portobello Books, 2008
Out of print; available on Amazon in various formats

In the Makhathini Flats area of South Africa's northern KwaZuluNatal province is a hub of Monsanto's operations. Robert Horsch, the Vice-President for Product and Technology Cooperation at Monsanto Inc., gave evidence about it at the US House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Research on 12 June 2003:

"T. J. Buthelezi, one of the first farmers to plant biotech cotton in South Africa, says higher yields from biotech cotton have helped him invest for the future in more land and better equipment. T. J. recently told me, 'For the first time I'm making money. I can pay my debts.' The successful adoption of biotech cotton clearly shows the power and relevance of biotechnology for Africa."

Why is this small patch of land, with a handful of farmers, worthy of mention in a congressional briefing? Recall that the companies behind genetically modified crops want for legitimacy, above all, from a Northern audience. With this in mind, we can put the pieces together. The innovation in genetically modified crops lies in 'making the seed an all-in-one' package - something so simple you need few skills in order to be able to grow it. Monsanto sells its crops worldwide, to large-scale farmers. But they can't sell their crops if countries refuse to accept them. Because of the place of Africa in the Northern imagination, if African farmers can do well with GM crops, anyone can. And if African farmers want to do it with GM, who are white Europeans to stop them? Nobody wants to be accused of racism, after all. For these reasons, Makhathini was a PR godsend.

Although some have access to irrigation, most in the Makhathini Flats are dryland farmers. That the majority here own small plots of land, few more than ten hectares, also helps. They're not rich, and any intervention that promises to improve their lives will be well received. From its introduction in the 1998-9 growing season it took only four years for nearly everyone to adopt the cotton. The data, it seems, would speak for itself. Farmers had chosen to grow RoundUp-ready seed, and that, it would seem, is that. The market has decided, the environmentalists were wrong.

Except that the market has been a little distorted. In 2001-2, the company offering the genetically modified seed was offering loans to anyone who promised to use it to buy genetically modified cotton seed. People were queuing up at the gate, swearing blind that they were cotton farmers and could they have a loan please? As one might expect, as we would have ourselves done if we were in a similar position, the crop loans went to payoff existing debt, the 'cotton farmers' disappeared, and the cotton crop was significantly lower than the loan data would have led anyone to expect.

The local cotton firm dispensing the loans went out of business, replaced by a more prudent company, the Makhathini Cotton Company (MCC). Determined to clamp down on poor people asking for free money, the MCC instituted a new system. Rather than hand out money to all takers, the new cotton company stepped back from the loan market and instead offered concessions only to those 'people whom it knew to be farmers. It did this by providing free bags for farmers to put the cotton in, free transportation of those bags, and a guaranteed market for the cotton. In exchange for the bags, the company requires proof that the cotton seed has been bought legitimately, proof that the bag recipients are indeed thefarmers they claim to be. The proof they demand to see is a valid Monsanto GM seed licence.

The net effect of this, of course, is to offer farmers the following choice: choose GM seed, or don't grow cotton at all. Since there are no other cash crops with a local market, farmers choose GM cotton.

Now, that said, it could be that GM seed is actually better if you want to grow cotton on dryland. The jury is still out on that: initial yield increases seem to have declined, and adoption rates can be explained for a range of reasons other than crop performance. Less money is spent on pesticides by people who buy GM seed, Partly because the seed is much more expensive, and partly because farmers who buy the more expensive GM seed ignore Monsanto's instructions and choose not to spray at all. Given the history of the crop elsewhere in the world, though, it seems unlikely that GM cotton will prove a substantial improvement on its predecessor for small farmers. But there's a bigger picture here. Choices about choosing or not choosing what to grow happen in a context. What happens on that stage is shaped by its most powerful actors. And, in Makhathini, the most powerful actor is the Makhathini Cotton Company.

For cotton-ginning companies, there are economies of scale. The more cotton they receive, the greater their profit per unit of cotton. A cotton gin, even the mid-twentieth century model imported from the US that roars in Makhathini, is an expensive bit of kit. One look reveals why. It's a tangle of drums, saws and dryers, the size of several houses. Its job is to take seed cotton fresh from the fields, remove the impurities, clean it and draw the strands of cotton out. The economics of a cotton gin depend on receiving a bare minimum to keep the machine running. And in Makhathini, the gin doesn't receive enough. In an attempt to secure more cotton, the company has offered inducements to farmers in order to increase its supply. Farmers can choose to work as contractors for the company or even to accept a lump sum, while the company takes care of the cotton growing on their land. As a result of a series of events - the location of the mill, the financial disaster of the previous company, the mechanisms of farmer verification - the consequence of the new seed experiment in Makhathini has been that some farmers don't even have to farm.
There's a further consequence of the cotton gin's hunger for cotton: the company's hunger for land on which to grow it. In order for large-scale farming operations to work, the land on which it happens needs to be contiguous. Small, disconnected plots aren't well suited to industrial farming machinery the length of several football fields. The Makhathini Cotton Company approached local community leaders to ask them to sell their land. Local headmen agreed on behalf of 'their people', and the deal was signed. Except that not everyone wanted to move.

'They'll shoot me for talking to you.' Mrs X (her name for herself) was terrified. 'Please speak to all the other women here otherwise they'll know it was me.' This was the response when our research team tried to start a conversation about the local cotton project. Mrs X didn't want to move from her land. She was forced out. Of course, the local cotton company didn't come around with the bailiffs. The company hadn't a clue that it had caused her to live in fear of her life. She was intimidated out of her home by the recipients of development, the local village headmen. Mrs X was evicted. The cotton company got its land. The seed was planted. But problems remain.

The seed itself is doing poorly. Without irrigation, and with increasingly unpredictable rain, it has been impossible to plant the cotton. In 2005 T. J. Buthelezi, the man whose progress was hymned by Monsanto's vice-president not three years before, had this to say: 'My head is full - I don't know what I'm going to do. I haven't planted a single seed this season. I have paid Rand 6,000 (US$820, GB£420) for ploughing, and I'm now in deep debt.'

T. J. is one of the faces trucked around the world by Monsanto to prove that African farmers are benefiting from GM technology. He's in a difficult position - he has twenty-seven children and needs to support them. He lives in a small house without electricity, and although he's one of the larger landowners in the Makhathini Flats area of northern Zululand, with over 30 hectares, and although he's doing much better than the workers on his fields, he's not a rich man. I'm not in a position to blame him for being Monsanto's Man in Africa. When the seasons turn against him, he suffers along with everyone else in Makhathini, albeit a little less.

Under scrutiny here, though, is Monsanto's use of T. J., and farmers like him. Africa has been a particular zone of engagement over GM crops. Although it's never officially admitted, it's hard not to think that the racially tainted images of permanent hunger, bestial violence and or prelapsarian incompetence with which most people outside the continent associate Africa don't playa role in its choice as the place in the world primed to benefit from biotechnology.

If we're taking the idea of choice seriously, then what would these selfsame, allegedly lousy African farmers choose? In a range of conversations with men and women in Makhathini, one thing becomes abundantly clear. No-one, it turns out, would choose cotton if there were anything else to farm. This is a problem that the Makhathini Cotton Company can't do anything about, for it too is hostage to forces larger than itself. An official from CottonSA, the South African cotton industry's own federation, sums it up: 'Yes, Bt cotton is a technology for a crop that's on the way out. It'll help postpone the problem for a little while.' The problem is that cotton is itself not an economically viable crop in South Africa. The South African Rand is strong, and cotton produced elsewhere in the world is cheaper. The South African cotton industry is in terminal decline, and it will take much more than magic seeds to make it better. The structural problems facing rural communities can only be addressed by concerted public action. The intervention of genetically modified seed, however, postpones the need for this action, delaying the imagination and creation of more robust alternatives.

The farmers in Makhathini are desperate to grow something else, whether it be sugar cane - which has a local market - or preferably food. There isn't, however, a market for food. The local Spar supermarket doesn't buy locally, but trucks its food in from hundreds of kilometres away. Farmers in Makhathini aren't being given the choices they really want. Just the ones that are most profitable to those who control the food system.

And this is something that the Congress of Racial Equality doesn't seem to want to acknowledge. Of course, CORE isn't a major player on the international scene. But the questions they fail to ask, the interests that they represent, the solutions they peddle and the strategies through which CORE are used demonstrate the forces prevalent within the food system.