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Africa: Monopolizing Maize

AfricaFocus Bulletin
November 9, 2013 (131109)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

According to a new report from the African Centre for Biosafety, in South Africa, "Monsanto's Bt maize, MON810, has failed hopelessly in South Africa as a result of massive insect resistance, after only 15 years of its introduction into commercial agriculture." Yet the same variety is being promoted in other African countries by projects supported by Monsanto. And South Africa's supply of maize, a staple food, is dominated by a few large companies and consists almost entirely of GM crop varieties.

While scientific and public opinion world-wide is fiercely divided about the safety of genetically-modified crops, South Africa, like the United States, is a country where the dominance of large-scale commercial agriculture linked to global seed supply companies has meant an open door for this controversial technology. Even if one refrains from judgment on the safety for consumers of the technology, the threat from the oligopoly of large corporate interests to control of smallholder farmers' control of their seeds is undeniable.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a press release and excerpts from a new report from the African Centre for Biosafety, one of the leading civil society research and advocacy organizations on this issue. The new threat, they stress, is that the South African model and the sway of South African and global agribusiness will be further extended in the rest of the continent, including through the dominance of corporate interests and thinking in philanthropic projects.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on food and agriculture issues, visit

See, in particular, "Underdeveloping African Agriculture"

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

GM Maize Cartels Gorge Profits on SA's Poor, Eye African Markets

05 November 2013

African Centre for Biosafey

Contact: Gareth Jones 081 493 4323;
Mariam Mayet 083 269 4309

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) has today released its new research report titled 'GM Maize: Lessons For Africa-Cartels, Collusion And Control Of South Africa's Staple Food' showing how a select group of companies, including Tiger Brands, Pioneer and Premier Foods who have previously fixed the price of bread and maize meal, commandeer the entire maize value chain and continue to squeeze the poorest South Africans. The ACB has recently shown that the entire maize meal market is saturated with GM maize. [ACB (2013), "Food Fascism in South Africa: Tiger Brands, Pioneer and Premier Force Feeding the Nation Risky GM Maize."]

The report shows that the South African government, through the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) is the largest investor in Tiger Brands, and that over 50% of the company's shares are held outside South Africa. Pioneer Foods' largest shareholder is Zeder, the agribusiness investment arm of PSG Konsult Group, a private financial services company. Premier Foods is 80% owned by private equity firm Braite, listed on the Euro MTF market in Luxemburg but domiciled in Malta, both jurisdictions being notorious tax havens. 'These ownership patterns have increased the distance between food producers and consumers, and are lucrative avenues for capital accumulation by actors far removed from these firms' locales.' Said Mariam Mayet, Director of the ACB.

According to Gareth Jones, researcher at the ACB, 'It appears as if South Africa's major millers and retailers are making healthy profits from our staple food and certainly not passing falling maize prices onto consumers.' The report shows that from April 2007 to April 2013, the average cost of a 5 kg bag of maize meal increased by 43.7% in rural areas, and 51.8% in urban areas. 'These sharp price increases aggravate the already appalling conditions that millions of South Africans live under. This is particularly significant for the poor, who spend 41% of their income on an average "food basket" said Jones.

Further findings of the report include:

  • Two companies Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred control the maize seed market;
  • Maize handling and storage is dominated by three companies Senwes, NWK and Afgri, all former co-ops;
  • Louis Dreyfus and Cargill, international grain traders, dominate the maize trade on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange;
  • A highly concentrated value chain feeds into an equally concentrated food retail sector, with four major retailers: Shoprite/Checkers, Pick n Pay, Spar and Woolworths dominating the market.

Rest of Continent at risk

According to the report, Premier and Pioneer have all expanded their operations on the continent. Tiger Brands already operates in 22 countries on the continent and is a key player in establishing maize value chains in Southern Africa. 'Having already gorged their profit margins on the poorest of the poor in South Africa, these corporate giants are now glancing covetously to the vast African market north of the Limpopo. Experiences from South Africa should serve as stark warnings' said Mayet.

Urgent Change Needed

The ACB report calls for an urgent reversal of this economic concentration and for mechanisms to be put in place to develop small players throughout the maize value chain, from farmers to millers and retailers. This should include the promotion of agroecological production methods, decentralised value chains and public maize breeding programmes that provide access to seed that can be freely shared and exchanged.

Africa bullied to grow defective Bt Maize: The failure of Monsanto's MON810 maize in South Africa

[The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) is a non-profit organisation, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was established to protect Africa's biodiversity, traditional knowledge, food production systems, culture and diversity, from the threats posed by genetic engineering in food and agriculture. It has in addition to its work in the field of genetic engineering, also opposed biopiracy, agrofuels and the Green Revolution push in Africa, as it strongly supports social justice, equity and ecological sustainability.]

Key Findings

  1. Monsanto's Bt maize, MON810, has failed hopelessly in South Africa as a result of massive insect resistance, after only 15 years of its introduction into commercial agriculture. In an effort to deal with the pest infestation, Monsanto has compensated South African farmers who experienced more than 10% damage on their genetically modified (GM) insect resistant crops - some farmers experienced as high as 50% insect infestation. MON810 is now obsolete in SA and has been replaced with Monsanto's GM stacked variety, MON8903, which expresses two different cry proteins, Cry1A.105 and Cry2Ab.

  2. Bt technology was approved in SA before regulatory authorities were capacitated to regulate it properly. MON810 was not fit for commercial release and should never have been granted commercial approval. The necessary monitoring of insect resistance was not carried out and regulators did not ensure that farmers were carrying out the required insect resistance management(IRM) strategies, i.e. planting refuges.

  3. In any event, IRM strategies were based on the false assumption that the inheritance of resistance to MON810 was a recessive, not dominant trait. In terms of this false assumption, current IRM strategies require farmers to plant a 5% non-Bt maize 'refuge' which may not be sprayed, or a 20% refuge which may be sprayed. However, recent research has shown that the inheritance of resistance is a dominant trait and that in order to stem rapid and large-scale resistance, farmers will need to plant more than 50% non-Bt maize as a refuge where non-resistant individuals can breed. This requirement is not viable for farmers, highlighting the unsustainability of the technology.

  4. In Kenya, an attempt to commercialise publically developed Bt technology in open-pollinated seed (which can produce a viable crop year after year) by a charitable project called Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA), funded by the Syngenta Foundation, failed after 10 years of work. IRMA was unable to find Bt genes in the public domain that were effective against the African stem borer. It also came to realise that Bt technology cannot be used in openpollinated varieties because reusing seed that has been engineered with Bt genes would expedite the development of insect resistance, rendering the technology useless within a couple of seasons. The IRMA project also found the cost of biotech seeds prohibitive for typical African farmers. Hence IRMA abandoned their attempt to bring Bt technology to resource poor farmers.

  5. Another charitable project, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project which for the best part of five years only focused on drought tolerant maize varieties in South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda is now incorporating MON810 into their drought tolerant varieties. Monsanto has donated MON810 to the project, royalty free. Unlike IRMA, WEMA's values are not underpinned by a desire to bring GM crops that are appropriate for African farmers onto the market. Although WEMA's products are said to be 'royalty free'to small-holder farmers, the seed will be sold to seed companies under strict licensing conditions. Under the auspices of the WEMA project, trials of MON810 are already taking place in Kenya and Uganda. WEMA is thus a convenient vehicle for Monsanto to gain regulatory approval in Africa for the commercial cultivation of MON810.

  6. In Egypt, MON810 has been genetically engineered into a local Egyptian maize variety called Ajeeb. This Egyptian variety has now been patented by Monsanto. The introduction of GM technology on a large scale in Egypt has largely failed to date, due to corruption and difficulties in passing its Biosafety law. ...


Genetic engineering (GE) is undoubtedly one of the most controversial technologies to emerge in the 20th century; the advent of modern biotechnology has 'triggered major scientific, social and political controversies' since its introduction in the 1970's. The story of one of the first genetically modified (GM) products to come onto the market, Monsanto's MON810 maize, which contains Monsanto's patented Bt gene Cry1Ab, embodies much of the controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Bt trait, which is toxic to certain agricultural pests, is derived from a soil microorganism called Bacillus thuringienis (Bt). MON810 is the 'event' name for the Bt maize variety owned by Monsanto which expresses the Cry1ab Bt toxin, sold commercially in South Africa as 'Yieldgard' maize. The Bt toxin expressed in the crop is meant to render the use of pesticides to control insect pests unnecessary. MON 810 is one of the oldest GM events on the market and is approved for human consumption in more than a dozen countries worldwide, including South Africa. It is also the only GM variety cultivated in some parts of the European Union, mostly in Spain. It is, however, banned in eight European countries on environmental grounds. According to the United States, these bans are not about safety concerns, but rather political in nature and constitute unfair 'trade barriers' to American produce. Unfortunately, Africa has become one of the battle grounds of the GMO trade war between the US and Europe, and the adoption or rejection of GMOs in Africa will mean a victory for one side or the other. The story of MON810 in Egypt is a rich illustration of Africa's awkward position in this trade war.

South Africa was an extremely early adopter of GM technology, not just in Africa, which is yet to commercialise GM food crops on a large scale, but even globally. The South African government issued a permit for the commercial release of MON810 in 1997 - even before GMO legislation was in place. This decision opened the door for Monsanto to colonise the production of our staple food through aggressive acquisitions in the South African seed industry and patent laws protecting Monsanto's GM technology. The majority of maize production in South Africa is carried out by large-scale commercial farmers, who eagerly adopted the technology for ease of pest management, savings on pesticides and reduced loss of yield through pest damage.

However, South Africa is the first place in the world where insect pest resistance has developed on a large scale. It is now recognised by the scientific community and South African regulators that this resistance cannot be managed or remediated; MON810 has decisively failed. The product has been withdrawn in South Africa from the 2013 planting season and has been replaced by Monsanto's MON89034 in an attempt to deal with the insect resistance problem. A recent peer-reviewed study has revealed that the African maize stem borer (Busseola Fusca) hasan inherently low susceptibility to Bt toxin. Long held assumptions that the inheritance of resistance to Bt is recessive have been shattered.

Although MON810 will no longer be cultivated in South Africa, the Department of Agriculture's GM permit lists indicate that Monsanto is exporting MON810 seeds to Kenya and Uganda for field trials. This, despite the fact that the most damaging pest that needs to be controlled in sub-Saharan Africa is the very Busseola Fusca that has proven to be impervious to MON810 in South Africa. One of the major vehicles pushing MON810 onto African countries is the public/private partnership (PPP) spearheaded by the Gates Foundation and Monsanto, called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). The aim of WEMA is to develop drought resistant crops, through both conventional breeding and genetic engineering. However, since 2011, with little fanfare, it has become evident that MON810 will also be engineered into these new drought tolerant GM varieties. The veneer of the 'charitable' orientation of the project provides an excellent opportunity for Monsanto to gain regulatory approval for a stacked GM event that is said to be both drought tolerant and resistant to stem borers.

Another PPP, funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) project, called Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA), spent many years attempting to develop Bt maize varieties appropriate for African conditions. While the projectsucceeded in developing scientific capacity in GM technology, it ultimately failed to find an effective gene to control the African maize stem borer. This, along with massive obstacles created by intellectual property rights on the technology, led the IRMA project to abandon the GM side of its project in 2006. IRMA will now share its wealth of technical knowhow with the WEMA project, as well as assisting with implementation of biosafety legislation and procedures (such as risk assessment and experimental protocols) in Kenya, to pave the way for the introduction of the very technology that has failed in South Africa - MON810. It is anticipated that the first GM drought resistant and insect resistant varieties will be released in Uganda and Kenya in 2015.


GM Maize - hi-tech, high cost crop

The biotech industry aggressively sells their product on the basis that it is a key contributor in the global fight against hunger. However, there are only four GM crops available on the market (soya, maize, cotton and canola) and these crops are not primarily valued for their contribution to global food security. This expensive technology is being deployed in lucrative commodity crops for the sake of profit.

Maize is the world's tenth most valuable agricultural commodity, and the second most profitable grain, after wheat. It is the most important crop in the United States, valued at US$76.5 billion in 2011, representing over 53% of global maize exports. In 2012, 90% of maize production in the United States was genetically modified (GM). While many of us in South Africa know maize as a staple food for many millions of Africans in several countries on the continent, maize as a staple is not common outside of Africa, except in Mexico and some parts of the Andean region.

Maize - South Africa's staple food compromised

South Africa has eagerly followed GM developments in the United States, however, an important difference between South Africa and the world's largest producer of maize, is that maize is the staple food in South Africa. About 60% of South Africa's maize production is white maize, used primarily for human consumption, and 40% is yellow maize, used primarily for animal feed. Maize is eaten several times daily in a relatively unprocessed form, for example, milled and boiled into porridge. It is commonly used as a first food for babies, to wean them off the breast. In 2000, the ultrapoor spent over 50% of their income on food, of which up to 20% was spent on maize meal alone. In general, the 'typical' maize meal consumer refers to a low-income individual residing in an urban and rural area.

South Africa is unique in the world in that it has allowed the genetic modification of its staple food. As GM varieties now comprise close to 90% of the country's maize production, and no segregation of GM and non-GM exists, consumers have no access whatsoever to non- GM maize. Recent tests carried out by the ACB on a range of popular maize brands in South Africa revealed that the country's staple food is completely saturated with GM content ...

Civil society has petitioned the South African parliament to seriously look into the matter, claiming that this situation is a contravention of human rights. Having no choice but to eat a highly controversial staple food, which is severely restricted in many countries around the world, has been labelled 'food fascism' by local social movements. They have also called for a review of government's risk assessment procedures, to include, amongst other things, long-term safety studies on human health. Currently, South African regulatory authorities rely solely on safety data generated by the producers of GMOs and long-term feeding trials to determine safety are not required. This safety data is neither peer-reviewed nor available to the South African public in its entirety, being protected under laws that allow for the exclusion of information considered to be 'confidential business information' (cbi).

Corporate takeover of South Africa's maize

As noted earlier, in 1997 Monsanto's GM 'insect resistant' (IR) maize variety MON810 was approved for environmental release, meaning that GM maize could be grown on a commercial scale. The first commercial plantings took place in 1998. During the 2004/05 cropping season, when the South African National Seed Organisation (SANSOR) began publishing such information, GM maize seed accounted for 20% of maize seed sales. By


The adoption rate of GM maize seed in the intervening period has been astounding: in 2012, 86% of all maize grown in South Africa was GM. Up until 2003, when Syngenta's Bt11 was commercially released in South Africa, all Bt maize hybrids involved MON810. By 2008 three new GM maize events had been approved for cultivation in South Africa, but MON810 remained the most popular event - over 80% of all GM maize seed imported into South Africa that year was MON810.


As demonstrated above, the uptake of MON810 and subsequent GM varieties in South Africa was extremely rapid, and Monsanto soon dominated South Africa's maize seed market. In 1999 and 2000 Monsanto acquired two of South Africa's largest seed companies, Sensako and Carnia, giving them a dominant share in the maize seed market. By 2009, Monsanto controlled 50% of the maize seed market ...



The greatest beneficiary in the end is the developer or the owner of the technology, like Monsanto, who has: captured charitable projects as a way to introduce its product onto the market; undermined good biosafety policy and gained access to public germplasm and patented these. At the same time, classical breeding programmes continue to develop new varieties that are performing very well in African conditions, and this is done quicker, cheaper and without the dangers of patents or the need for excessive regulatory requirements.

It is now time for African governments to take cognisance of the recommendations of many international reports that support agroecological farming methods and distance themselves from privately owned industrial agriculture. Agroecology is the key to our future food security, social and environmental well-being. Policies need to be shaped, not to hand over our food systems to transnational agribusiness, but to support smallholder farmers using the resources they have available to cultivate diverse food systems for local consumption.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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