Wandile Sihlobo forms a connection between the production of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops and food security, yet makes no actual correlation between supposed GM benefits and food security (“SA maize yields prove GM is the way to go”, February 22).

The main supporting argument in his article is that GMO production not only increases yields but also provides financial and labour savings. However, the SA case illustrates anything but this. Despite over 20 years of growing GM maize, continued widespread hunger and malnutrition is well-documented. The statistics are staggering, especially as SA is considered a food secure country.

About half of the SA population is food insecure, or at risk of food insecurity — going hungry, skipping meals or going for days without food. Oxfam documented this extensively in its report on hidden hunger. According to Stats SA, SA has one of the highest incidences of low birthweight rates in the world, due to 35% of pregnant women being unable to afford sufficient, nutritious food. A third of children in Gauteng and the Free State are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition.

This highlights the complex nature of food insecurity, which is not correlated simply to production, especially not of a single crop, maize. Unfortunately, the right to sufficient food — available, accessible and adequate — for everyone without discrimination, as enshrined in our constitution, is far from being realised.

In a separate Stats SA report, which measures food security along the four dimensions of food availability — the presence of food; food accessibility (the resources to obtain sufficient quantity, quality, and diversity for a nutritious diet); food utilisation (the digestibility, health status, diets, knowledge and habits around food); and food stability (the sustainable supply of food at national and household levels).

The narrow framing provided by the author fails to consider the fact that increased productivity does not automatically link with consumption, and cannot alone be a measure of food and nutritional security.

A direct comparison of yield and productivity with other parts of the continent fails to take into account that in Africa, intercropping is commonly practised. Therefore, lower productivity of maize may have higher volumes of net produce, as documented by the International Panel of Experts on Food Systems.

Beyond this, yield cannot be attributed to genetic engineering (GE) alone, as this is but one variable. Plant productivity depends on a range of components, including the variety, climatic conditions, soil type, pest pressure, and water availability, among others. The GE traits of herbicide tolerance and/or insect resistance are inserted into a variety of the crop that, through conventional breeding, may either be high-yielding or not. The GE trait contributes to higher yields only through its ability to reduce insect pressure, through the Bt Cry gene, which is short-lived and influenced by the factors above.

Expectedly, pest resistance has been extensively documented globally and in SA (SA National Biodiversity Institute report, Van den Berg et al, 2012). Along with other nontarget effects, such as the emergence of secondary pests, this results in the need for more toxic chemical cocktails, dispelling the very reason for adopting this technology. This has been the case with Bt cotton in India and many other parts of the world.

Alternatively, continuous and indefinite stacking of GM traits has been used to deal with pest resistance. This comes at extensive environmental, social and financial costs, which can have devastating effects on already stretched and indebted farmers that have to pay for increasingly expensive, toxic inputs.

Rates of resistance may be reduced when complying with refugia requirements. In fact, Sihlobo uses a study from Spain and Portugal to support the argument of reduced insecticidal use, using Monsanto’s insect resistance MON810, yet that paper states that this is actually due to the implementation of, and adherence to, the refuge and coexistence requirements by farmers.

However, even making a comparison between these cases and the SA context of smallholder farmers, who tend to live and farm in close proximities and on small land sizes, is inappropriate. Administering the necessary refuge requirements to prevent pest resistance is near impossible, and no monitoring is conducted in this regard. With GM seed being distributed across the country through farmer support programmes, and limited access to non-GM seed through the public sector, this is a recipe for disaster.

It is difficult to comprehend how the paper referenced to support labour savings benefits can be used to justify GM production. The SA agricultural system is highly dualistic — large-scale commercial and concentrated farmers dominate while resource poor small-scale farmers continue to be marginalised. While GM seed may offer labour savings in the short-term, the long-term effects exacerbate many of the historical challenges.

GM seed, with its associated chemicals and agricultural model, is unsuitable and inappropriate for smallholder farmers in SA, and Africa more generally, as discussed in ACB’s paper on transitioning out of GM maize. Such a system locks already financially strapped, food insecure households into a cycle of technology and subsidy dependence. This is blatant capture of an already marginalised population.

GM seed is significantly more expensive than other seed on the market, which displaces diverse seed and populations, and promotes monocropping and genetic homogenisation. As Sihlobo may be aware, we are in an ecological crisis. Industrial agriculture, of which GM seed is a part, substantially contributes to biodiversity depletion, soil infertility, deforestation, landscape degradation and greenhouse gas emissions, among others. What little environmental benefit there may be is masked by these other devastating ecological and social effects.

The best approach to mitigate and adapt to these impending crises is through transforming our agricultural systems to biodiverse agro-ecological systems. Many international and intergovernmental organisations and experts have been calling for this shift, including the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Biodiversity International and IPES-Food, and the UN’s food and agriculture organisation.

The safety and efficacy of GMOs is also highly controversial, with no scientific consensus. Consumers of this technology, as well as farmers, have the right to sufficient and nutritious food, the right to know what is in their food, the right to choice, and the right to sustainable livelihoods. This is not simply about the economics of food, but about the future of our food.

Instead of irresponsibly promoting technologies ill-suited for our context, South Africans should be leading the way to ecologically sustainable systems, based on biodiversity, social justice and food sovereignty.

Linzi Lewis, African Centre for Biodiversity

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