Masters student, Hellen Mahlase, reports on her work. In this project two case study areas were selected to illustrate the perceived benefits and problems associated with the adoption of modern biotechnology in smallholder agriculture. Genetically modified maize (GM) was selected as a lens to observe changes in the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape. Fieldwork was conducted in the months of April and July 2015 with a total of 47 GM maize seed adopters from Hlabisa, KZN and 18 users of either hybrid or GM maize seeds in the Eastern Cape.

The major differences between these two areas is the scale at which farming takes place and farming goals. In KZN individual farmers cultivate mainly white GM maize in their home gardens with the goal of feeding their families. On the other hand, Eastern Cape farmers collectively cultivate mostly yellow GM maize on about 10 – 100 hectares of land. There is a misconception held by both sets of farmers in believing that traditional maize seeds have vanished from the landscape. The perceived success with productivity among the early adopters in Hlabisa encouraged other non-adopters to use GM maize seeds. However in the Eastern Cape, the maize seed type was not the main concern of the farmers. Instead hybrid/ GM maize seeds were adopted because they came in a support package of free agricultural inputs, tractors and extension services.

“We do not care about the seeds, we care about the money. We want money.” – An Eastern Cape farmer’s response to the question: “Do you care which maize seeds you use?”

Preliminary findings
Most of those interviewed in Hlabisa who had adopted GM maize seed reported a perceived improvement in their quality of life. They claimed that they no longer needed to buy maize meal from stores as they were able to harvest enough maize that will last them until the next planting season. On the other hand, only a few of the Eastern Cape farmers have experienced some improvement in their quality of life through selling yellow maize to other commercial farmers and local shops.

The use of GM maize seeds had some social implications for the adopters. For instance, in Hlabisa, some social networks strengthened after the use of GM maize seeds, largely due to the fact that there has been considerable effort on the part of companies to build up institutional support for farmers planting GM crops. The farmers described good relations with other farmers and receiving support in the form of reciprocal labour and information regarding GM maize farming. Noteworthy is the fact that such support has been largely absent for traditional seed systems. In other words, in the absence of alternative support systems, and with the parallel collapse of government extension systems, farmers have clustered around the model provided by the private sector – by default rather than by choice.

In the Eastern Cape there was a financial and institutional support bias towards smallholder farmer co-operatives engaged in large scale maize farming, i.e. farmers using 50 to 100 hectares of land. Some of the respondents in this study have received free agricultural inputs, machinery and subsidies since 2003. There were some respondents who believed that their maize farming needs could only be recognised by their departments of agriculture if they were members of registered co-operatives. Moreover there were some tensions about which type of hybrid or GM maize seeds to plant – should people plant more white maize for human consumption or plant the more profitable yellow maize which has a “good” market in Eastern Cape?

The culture of purchasing maize seeds has spilled over to the traditional maize seed system, some of the respondents have resorted to buying traditional maize seeds from other farmers outside their villages as the seeds have “disappeared.” This highlighted that the respondents did not have strong maize seed saving and exchange networks and the adoption of modern maize does very little in conserving the traditions of the respondents.

Work is ongoing, with the thesis planned for submission in 2016.