The Truth Behind GM Cotton in the Makhathini Flats

Dear Friends and colleagues,
RE: The Truth Behind GM Cotton in the Makhathini Flats
The adoption of GM cotton in South Africa’s Makhathini Flats in 1998 was heralded as a success case in which agricultural biotechnology could benefit smallholder farmers, and a model for the rest of the continent to follow.
But a new report concludes that the enthusiasm around GM technology is misguided. The authors argue that the adoption of GM cotton by farmers is driven by the lack of choice facing them and does not reflect farmers’ endorsement of GM technology.
It also debunks the claims by Monsanto that farmers adopt GM cotton because of the higher yields it produces. The report found that yield levels before and after the adoption of GM cotton were more or less constant, thus contradicting the claim that the introduction of GM cotton has increased yields in the region.
With regards to pesticide usage, it was found that while pesticide application to control boll-worm has fallen in the period since the introduction of GM cotton, these reductions have been offset by increased pesticide application to control secondary insects such as jassid, whose appearance has substantially increased since the introduction of GM cotton.
The study is published in the journal, Review of African Political Economy No.109. Some extracts and the conclusion of the paper are reproduced below.
With best wishes,
Chee Yoke Heong
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister,
10400 Penang,
Website: and
Can the Poor Help GM Crops? Technology, Representation & Cotton in the Makhathini Flats, South Africa
Harald Witt, Rajeev Patel & Matthew Schnurr
(Review of African Political Economy No.109197-513)

[Extracts only]

The adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) cotton in South Africa’s Makhathini Flats in 1998 was heralded as a case in which agricultural biotechnology could benefit smallholder farmers, and a model for the rest of the continent to follow. Using historical, political economic and ethnographic data, we find the initial enthusiasm around GM technology to be misguided. We argue that Makhathini’s structured institutional framework privileges adopters of GM technologies through access to credit and markets. The adoption of GM cotton is symptomatic not of farmers’ endorsement of GM technology, but a sign of the profound lack of choice facing them in the region.

We suggest that, in the light of current evidence, the considerable favourable attention accorded the Makhathini cotton farmers is indicative not of the appropriateness of the technology, but a symptom of a development policy and life-science industry which is keen for the technology to succeed. We argue that the adoption of GM cotton in the Makhathini area is symptomatic not of an endorsement of GM technology, nor a step on the road to regenerating the agricultural sector, but rather a sign of the profound lack of choice facing farmers in the region. Following Ferguson (1990), we conclude that the technology represents an anti-politics machine – offering a technological solution to a series of political problems around differentiated access to markets, and access to state resources including credit, agricultural extension services.


The development of cotton in Makhathini suggests that the success story of GM cotton has been ascribed a prematurely happy ending. Technical interventions, even relatively easily adaptable ones such as Bt cotton, are not inserted into a vacuum. The ecological and political economic contexts have been shorn away from the accounts that, on balance, find grounds for ‘cautious optimism’ in the Makhathini area. Yet the political economy of Makhathini has been consistently transformed to accommodate the needs of cotton, despite the ongoing uncertainty around the compatibility of small farms and the scale-based returns necessary to sustain modern cotton economics. The political economy of cotton production puts the MCC [Makhathini Cotton Company] in a position in which it seeks to increase its land holdings, resulting in sleight profit-sharing arrangements for some, coerced eviction for others, and widespread indebtedness for many.

This results in the exclusion and disempowerment of the very farmers Bt cotton is intended to empower.

Yet, the MCC remains committed to its planned expansion. We can make sense of this, despite the potential losses currently sustained by the company, not because of the intrinsic benefits conferred on it by genetically modified seed, but because the company is merely the latest in a succession of large-scale development efforts in the Makhathini region. As with previous efforts, it is important for the development intervention to appear as if it is ‘benefiting the poor’. It is perhaps for this reason that the MCC has recently relaunched its website, hosting a 2005 news article from the ‘life-sciences’ industry-funded Council for Biotechnology Information (Company, 2005; Council for Biotechnology Information,n.d.) in which T.J. Buthelezi claims: ‘Normally, at the end of the year, I would ask my wife how we are going to pay our bills,’ he says. ‘Now I ask her, how are we gonna spend this money?’ Our interviews with Buthelezi, as well as with other leading cotton farmers, contradict this rather favourable scenario.
We have shown that farmers on the Makhathini Flats adopt Bt cotton not because they consider themselves to be innovative adopters of biotechnology, but because agrarian choices are severely limited. The principal intervention in the bringing of GM cotton to the region has been the facilitation of access to cotton markets for local farmers. Absent from the area has been any serious and consistent engagement by government to offer genuine sustainable alternatives or to promote a viable model suitable to small-scale agricultural development. In this context the rhetoric of ‘GM technology helping the poor’ seems to serve the needs of the promoters of the technology, rather than the residents ofMakhathini. With the spectre of similar interventions haunting other parts of Africa, sanctioned through the ‘success’ of Makhathini, we sincerely hope that this prioritisation can be reversed.

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