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Bt cotton in South Africa: the case of the Makhatini farmers

This article challenges the view that genetically modified, insect-resistant 'Bt' cotton has brought significant benefits to smallholder farmers in the Makhatini Flats of South Africa. The author is a former researcher with BioWatch South Africa. The paper summarises the findings of five years of research by the author and colleagues at BioWatch.

Makhatini smallholders' experiences with Bt cotton have been widely celebrated as demonstrating the benefits of GM crops for African smallholders. The author rejects this view, arguing that "initial results from the Makhatini cannot serve as a model for Africa". According to the BioWatch research, the initial very high rates of adoption for Bt cotton dropped dramatically within the first three years. Makhatini smallholders had accumulated very considerable debts and lacked effective extension support. Richer farmers and businessmen were said to have benefited from Bt cotton at the expense of poorer farmers.

The researchers were unable to obtain reliable data on production costs and yield. However, the strength of the research is that it is based on detailed local knowledge, observation and prolonged engagement with Makhatini farmers. Therefore the report provides an important and useful insight into the experiences of smallholders with GM crops in South Africa.

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