By Motlatsi Musi of Pimville, South Africa
When I first heard about the activists who want to take away crop-protection products from African farmers like me, I couldn’t believe it. Do they really want to force us back into the Stone Age?
That’s what would happen if we were to lose access to glyphosate and other safe technologies that help us defend what we grow from weeds, pests, and fungus. A bad situation in Africa would grow grimmer.
We must avoid this fate at all costs – and this week it got a little harder as an American jury in California awarded more than $2 billion in damages to a couple that claimed a connection between glyphosate and cancer.
Here in South Africa, I’ve used glyphosate for at least a dozen years, ever since herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans became available to small-scale farmers. Other farmers in my country have used glyphosate going back to the 1970s. We all agree that it helps us defeat the weeds that compete with our crops for water and nutrients. It’s a safe and proven tool.
I dread to think about what would happen to African farming in the absence of crop protection. Our continent trails the rest of the world in food production. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, more than 250 million of Africans suffer from malnourishment. That’s 21% of my continent’s total population—and it’s almost twice the rate of malnutrition in Asia (about 11%) and more than four times the rate in South America (about 5%).
And yet we could fall further behind. Right now, we merely struggle to grow the food we need. In a world without crop protection, we’d fail entirely. Many of us would turn into subsistence farmers who barely survive. Rather than selling food to consumers, we’d have to keep it for ourselves.
I’ve seen poor crop protection lead to farming disasters. An activist group will show up and encourage small-scale farmers to quit using conventional crop-protection products. Its members will peddle a theory about the value of intercropping, ways to attract insect predators, or something like that. But these attempts to defy the lessons of modern agriculture do not work. Farmers and consumers always suffer.
In the 21st century, we must embrace technology, not fear it. For Africa, the way forward involves picking the right seeds, raising the best plants, and using the finest crop-protection products so that we can enjoy strong harvests.
I’ll be the first to admit that many farmers need to read the instruction labels on their spray more carefully because they don’t always use them properly. But that’s an argument for better education, not for the elimination of good products.
By using crop protection, I grow more food on less land. So it’s an important part of sustainable agriculture. Yet it’s about more than just growing food. Because of glyphosate, I don’t have to fight weeds by ripping up my soil with deep plowing. That means glyphosate protects not only my crops from weeds but also my fields from soil erosion.
Less effective herbicides would require me to drive my tractor over my fields more times, raising my fuel costs and pushing up consumer prices. This would increase the greenhouse gases that I release into the atmosphere. With glyphosate, however, I’m sequestering carbon dioxide—and doing my small part to prevent climate change.
Yet that’s not all. Few people appreciate another challenge and how it threatens to compound the problems African farmers already face.
Even with crop protection, we have trouble convincing our children to follow us into agriculture. They’re drawn to city life and wonder whether there’s a future in farming. If we have to tell them that farming suddenly means going backwards in time and returning to the obsolete practice of weeding by hand, we’ll have even less success in persuading them to choose careers in agriculture.
Africa would risk running out of farmers.
What would that mean? Something tells me that each time we read about a boatload of refugees who drown in the Mediterranean, we’re catching a tiny glimpse of what could lie ahead. Hungry people will do desperate things—and an Africa that fails to protect its crops would become the most desperate place on the planet.
Africans will risk everything to escape the new Stone Age.
Motlatsi Musi grows maize, beans, potatoes, and breeds pigs and cows in South Africa. He is the 2017 Kleckner Award recipient and a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).