Ann Crotty

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) warned yesterday that effective use of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) seed relied on a package of inputs that cost money and were not available to the majority of small-scale food producers in South Africa.

Mariam Mayet of ACB said hybrid and GM seed could not be saved from season to season, and was unable to adapt over time to the natural environment.

“Hybrid and GM seed are unstable and the traits they were bred for disintegrate after one season. We need ‘old-style’ seed – the open pollinated varieties (OPVs) – to adapt effectively to the challenges of food production into the future.”

Mayet was reacting to comments by Pioneer Hi-Bred International that non-governmental organisations, such as ACB, were focusing on ensuring continued access by small-scale farmers to OPV seed rather than helping to provide them with access to “good-quality” and high-yielding hybrid seed.

The comments were made in the context of the Competition Tribunal’s hearing into the proposed merger between South African-based Pannar Seeds and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of US-based Du Pont.

The tribunal is hearing closing arguments today in a case that has raised concerns about food security as well as about the rights of a company – Pannar – to determine its future.

Earlier this week ACB, which has been granted intervention status by the tribunal, presented a set of proposed remedies aimed at addressing some of the concerns about the proposed merger.

These proposals were in response to proposed remedies that the merging parties had earlier presented to the tribunal.

Both sets of remedies appear to focus on dealing with the impact the merger will have on small-scale and developing farmers.

The merging parties undertake in their proposed remedies not to increase, for three years after the effective date of the merger, the price of hybrid maize seeds Pannar ordinarily sells to developing farmers; and for an additional three years the price increases will be limited to the increase in the consumer price index.

The merging parties have also undertaken to keep in place these products in sufficient commercial quantities to meet demand from developing farmers.

Pioneer will establish an international research and technology hub in South Africa by 2016. The merging parties have also undertaken “to foster and work with the government to establish further community programmes and partnerships in the interest of developing farmers”.

In response, ACB has called for a set of remedies that will help build smallholder farmers’ capacity to produce seed for themselves and so make them less reliant on large seed companies.

ACB also wants black smallholder farmers to have access to plant material and germ plasm for cultivation to advance their opportunities for production.

To this end, ACB has called for the merging parties to establish a programme to improve maize OPVs and establish a fund that can be drawn on for building seed-production capacity among smallholder farmers.

Mayet said the use of hybrid and GM seed sold by the companies involved not only the purchase of seeds, but also of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which were often produced by the same companies. The seed also required irrigation and established marketing channels.

“The majority of small-scale food producers in South Africa do not have any hope of gaining sustained access to this package of inputs. They don’t have the resources, and will never have them until there is a fundamental redistribution of wealth in our society as a whole.”