Motlatsi Musi has followed a rough road to farming. Made homeless by South Africa’s apartheid practices in the 1960s, he landed a job as a permanent laborer on a large farm, where he gained a wealth of experience. But it wasn’t until apartheid ended that he could get a place of his own.
“Then came new South Africa, and in new South Africa I applied for land,” he said. He and six other “emerging farmers” — “we emerged in the new South Africa” — formed a cooperative. But though they moved on, he stayed, and is now successfully raising genetically engineered (GE) maize and soybeans, as well as pigs, cattle and goats.
"South Africa had a bumper harvest this year,” he told the Alliance for Science in late 2017. “South Africa last had a bumper harvest during 1979, when I was a farm laborer. It was very risky that year. South Africa was under economic sanctions, and we were at the brink of a civil war. There were land mines. I took a risk, but we planted and harvested a good yield. I’m proud of myself to say now I’m an owner of this land. I have had my silos filled with the latest technology — GM [genetically modified] food that is safe and a good quality.”
Musi first heard about GE crops while operating a side business of hiring out a Massey Ferguson tractor he’d bought to other small-holder farmers. As part of the service, he would help farmers prepare their soil and plant.
“One of the farmers came to me to say she had met scientists from Africa Bio who had a pest resistant maize,” he recalled. “She called it biotech maize and I wanted to know about it because it was new to my ears and I thought, now here we are in new South Africa and now we’re having new varieties of seeds. Let me see with all my experience, more than 40 years of experience in grain production. Let me see what we’re having now that we’re the bosses, now that we own the land. And I questioned the scientists so much, they ended up requesting that I join them.”
Though Musi asked for seed, the scientists instead proposed conducting a demonstration crop trial on his land. He invited all the farmers within a 50-mile radius to attend an awareness day on his farm and see the new pest-resistant Bt maize.
“And then that’s where it started,” he said. “It made farming easier and safer — safer in the sense that I do not spray pesticide for the stalk borer, whereas with conventional, we used to spray up to four times. At times you’ll lose the battle with the stalk borers, because maybe the maize would be too high for you to drive through with your tractor. You break the stalks and carrying a [spraying] knapsack on your back can be, with all these protective clothes being air tight, very hot. So, Bt maize came with a solution to spraying. And then we have Round-up Readiness. Now having those two, I only drive one trip after planting. I have one trip doing weeding with glyphosate, spraying my fields. Two liters of glyphosate into 200 liters of water is enough to weed a hectare.”
Besides saving time, the seed technology also allows him to use his tractor less, which reduces the amount of carbon emissions released into the environment. It has also allowed him to practice a more sustainable method of farming.
“During conventional farming, I was spraying my field 100 percent, trying to knock out the stalk borer,” he recalled. “But with the GM technology I’ve joined the stalk borer because it was one I couldn’t eliminate. With the GM technology, 20 percent of my grains are conventional for the very same pest to enjoy and not develop a resistance [to Bt]. So, farming is about interdependence; all living organisms have a right to life. In GM technology, I found that solution.”
Musi is so convinced of the value of GE seeds that he continues to educate farmers and host awareness events. He has also mobilized small-holder farmers to demand the release of drought-tolerant seeds at a low, royalty-free price.
Still, he is acutely aware that farmers in most of the neighboring countries do not have access to these improved seeds due to government restrictions. He frequently speaks at conferences and meetings where he tells farmers how the technology has helped him both save and earn money, enabling him to send one of his sons to college.
In planting GE maize, “we had a good yield and we made money and above all, we even have enough food in the house,” he said.
After hearing his presentation, the farmers typically demand that their own government conduct GE crop trials so the farmers can judge the resulting product for themselves. Musi attributed the restrictions on GE crops in other African nations to activism by “the rich, mainly in US and Europe."
"There is a saying in Africa that ‘when two elephants fight, the grass dies.’ And the [African] continent is the grass that is dying when these two elephants are fighting," he said. "It pains me a lot, seeing my fellow continent people not having the technology. We missed out as a continent during the Green Revolution. We cannot afford to miss the Gene Revolution.”