Hellen Mahlase reports back on her Masters project.

The use of genetically modified (GM) seed is a controversial topic, with opinions of consumers, scientists and farmers around the globe divided about its value in food and other goods, and concerns expressed over potential health and environmental impacts. Introduced in South Africa in the 1990s, the uptake of GM crops, and particularly GM maize, has been substantial, with most commercial maize farmers in the country planting GM varieties. Through agricultural extension services, and support from multinational seed suppliers, there has also been adoption of GM maize by small-scale farmers.

Hoping to better understand GM maize uptake by small-scale farmers in South Africa, and the impacts these crops have on people’s livelihoods and cultures, Masters student Hellen Mahlase from UCT, undertook research with farmers based in Hlabisa in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province. Hellen visited Hlabisa between 2014 and 2016, interviewing 47 farmers who used GM maize that was acquired from Monsanto, mostly women (33), and 11 farmers who used hybrid maize from the seed company Pannar, eight of whom were women.

Farmers who grow GM crops are prohibited from saving or exchanging the seed after harvest, and must plant buffer areas to prevent pest resistance and contamination. Through the study it became clear that none of the farmers were aware that such contracts had been signed on their behalf by Vemken, a seed and chemical distributor, highlighting the lack of transparency between farmers and Monsanto. Results also showed that some farmers continued to save seed of GM crops despite prohibitions on seed saving, and despite being told that the seed would not perform well in subsequent years. This also indicates farmers’ lack of understanding of the agreements between themselves and GM seed suppliers.

Farmers were asked about seed saving and exchange. They responded that they used to save and exchange seed before the introduction of Pannar and Monsanto seeds, but it was no longer common. Traditional seed networks of exchange were thus disrupted by the introduction of modern seed varieties. Some farmers were reluctant to exchange their expensive GM or hybrid seeds with others and the social custom of paying farm labour in maize was fractured as GM maize farmers no longer shared their harvests with those who helped them farm. It was felt that those who laboured were not entitled to part of the crop since they had not contributed to purchasing the expensive seeds. Furthermore, farmers decided to sell surplus maize rather than gift it.

The main deterrent to the uptake of GM maize seeds among non-GM growing maize farmers was expensive input costs. Nearly half, 49%, of interviewed GM maize farmers were in debt, due in part to their use of Monsanto seeds. Farmers in the study also had to rely heavily on social grants to pay for seeds, raising questions about the use of public funds to support seed companies. In the short term, however, many farmers felt that GM maize allowed them to grow enough food, reduced their labour time, and presented opportunities for selling surplus crops.

Key findings emerging from the research

1. The perceptions of modern maize varieties were determined by the agricultural extension officers, Farmers’ Associations and seed companies in Hlabisa. The farmers did not explicitly state that the performance of traditional maize weakens over time but rather that they perceived the performance of hybrid maize to be better than their traditional maize. With the introduction of GM maize, the perception evolved to GM maize performing better than both traditional and hybrid maize.

2. The local Department of Agriculture was used as a conduit for seed companies to gain access to farmers. Heavy reliance on the Department of Agriculture and seed companies such as Monsanto to address small-scale farmers’ agricultural issues have led to the deskilling of farmers in terms of weed and pest control.

3. It is likely that the farmers began using GM maize seeds because they received technical maize farming advice from the local Department of Agriculture and Monsanto without being exposed to alternatives.


1. Small-scale farmers should be given agency through providing them with relevant information and full disclosure regarding the types of crop choices they have available to them.

2. The national Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries should move away from the notion that small-scale farmers need or must commercialise their farming practices, and that this must be done through scaling-up production and using modern crop varieties.

3. If farmers elect to plant GM crops, after having been provided with in-depth information and training on the risks and benefits of different options, there is a need for the monitoring of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of these choices.

This thesis illustrates the problems of the promotion of costly GM crop technology to poor small-scale farmers who are forced to tap into social grants and credit to purchase agricultural inputs. It is important for small-scale farmers to learn more about GM seeds and their effects on rural livelihoods. Farmers need to be offered appropriate extension and advisory services that do not threaten their livelihoods and that protect their seed practices and traditions.