PhD candidate Maya Marshak writes about a public seminar in Durban.

At the end of January I attended a public seminar on GM Contamination in the Durban Botanical gardens, organised by Biowatch South Africa and the Bio-economy Chair at UCT. Speakers included: two farmers – Thombithini Ndwandwe, co-founder of the Zimele Rural Empowerment Organisation in Mtubatuba and Petros Makhanya from Kwangwanase; Vanessa Black from Biowatch; Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley; Rachel Wynberg from UCT, and Angelika Hilbeck from ETH-Zurich.

Whilst sitting in Cape Town and reflecting on last week’s seminar the theme of drought and seed feels very relevant to write about. Cape Town is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history and water supplies are so low that even with severe water restrictions (25 litres per day per person) taps are predicted to run dry on the 12th of April this year. Cape Town’s 4.5 million residents will have to queue for water at 200 water points throughout the city to receive daily rations. For months restrictions have meant that watering gardens, including food gardens, has not been an option. Remarkably however with below average rain for 3 years many plants have managed to survive on the mountain and in gardens. Over the past few weeks I have been noticing tomatoes and rocket shooting up in the cracks in the pavement in our neighbourhood.  These plants have been rapidly growing, and putting out seed in the hope that rain will come soon so that some will have the chance of survival. It is amazing to witness the evolutionary resilience of these plant species and how this may be absolutely vital in the future of food.

Angelika Hilbeck’s talk at the seminar, titled ‘The GMO Push in Africa and the Drought Tolerance Trojan Horse’ explored drought resistant GMOs and the many controversies surrounding this in the African context. Angelika explained how while big promises were made (at the onset of GM crops being released over 20 years ago) concerning the development of new traits and how these would solve world hunger for example, in reality very few genetic innovations have been made.  In terms of maize only two significant traits have been developed, Bt (where GM plants express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins throughout their cells which kill stem borers) and Roundup Ready (which are able to withstand the common glyphosate-based herbicide, Roundup). A further innovation has been to stack these traits so that plants express both Bt and Roundup ready characteristics.

However more recently drought resistance has been the focus of genetic engineers. Monsanto’s DroughtGard contains the gene for ‘cold shock protein B’ (cspB) from Bacillis subtilis bacteria. While this evolved in bacteria to withstand the stress of cold shock, it is also intended to help plants survive in similarly water stressed hot conditions.

Drought has been identified as an increasing reality on the African continent in the face of climate change and in 2008 a public-private partnership known as WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) was established to focus on developing drought resistant maize varieties for the African context. Initially this involved the development of hybrid maize varieties and as explained by Angelika, was relatively successful in developing hybrids that were more tolerant to water stressed conditions. In 2015 WEMA’s track changed when Monsanto became a partner organisation. At this point Monsanto donated the insect resistant trait CRY1AB which was the active trait in MON810. However MON810 was unpopular as insects quickly developed resistance to it. Another addition was the cspB gene first used in MON87460, or DroughtGard maize which was first commercially released in the United States in 2011. In South Africa WEMA intends to make these traits readily available to small-scale farmers who normally can’t afford to buy GM varieties through making ‘seed products available to African seed companies of all sizes, royalty free, so they can offer these hybrid seeds to smallholder farmers’.

Angelika’s talk pointed to the fact that there has not been a lot of evidence to show that this innovation in genetic technology has managed to tackle the very complex issue of water stress in crops. Monsanto themselves state that it can produce ‘moderate’ yield improvements under ‘moderate drought conditions’. It is therefore not conclusive that it is able to perform well under severe drought conditions. As explained in a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are many complexities associated with drought such as that ‘droughts vary in their severity and their timing in relation to crop growth. Related factors such as soil quality affect the ability of crops to withstand drought’.

The African Centre for Biodiversity have warned that through WEMA making this drought resistant maize to small-scale farmers they may be undermining the drought tolerance of farmer crops (developed over time and in situ) that are lost when farmers adopt new GM seed in the hope that it will be a silver bullet solution.

It is important that we don’t lose the agricultural diversity which may hold the key to attaining resilience in a very uncertain climatic future in favour of technological solutions being put forward as the answers to such a complex problem.


Photo credit: MIT News.