The heat hits us head on as Jill Farrant opens the door to her greenhouse at the University of Cape Town. Even in the early days of summer, this glass box under the morning sun is not for the faint-hearted. “I’ve kept them dry now for 18 months, and it’s impossible to kill them”, Farrant tells me, holding a parched fern with her hands which looks like it could crumble at any moment. Next to it stands another fern, the same species, yet transformed overnight simply by adding water. “They appear to resurrect from the dead, I mean if you look at this you would never say that it’s alive”, Farrant continues. A cell biologist, she’s been studying these “resurrection plants” for over three decades. By borrowing their natural know-how, she hopes to genetically engineer food crops to become drought resistant.

South Africa is still reeling from a two year-long drought (the worst on record) that ended in 2016. And they are not alone on the African continent: drought is a driving force behind current humanitarian crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan (and Yemen)— in which 20 million people are facing starvation and famine.

The problem of food insecurity in a rapidly changing world is not new. In 1798 Thomas Malthus outlined how the Earth’s population would continue to grow exponentially, while food production would only increase at a constant rate. “Premature death”, he concluded, “must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Malthus didn’t foresee the impact that mechanisation would have on the world’s farming systems, nor the fertilisers, new crop varieties, and innovative irrigation systems developed under the Green Revolution in the 20th century. Yet in 2017, fears of a Malthusian catastrophe are renewed with the effects of climate change already harming food supply. By 2050 crop yields across sub-Saharan Africa are expected to fall by anything from ten to fifty per cent. A problem compounded by Africa’s accelerating population which is projected to have double to 2.4 billion by 2050. Can technology save us once again?

Farrant believes that genetically modified (GM) crops are essential to addressing these dire predictions: “if you take a crop and you want to get a drought [resistant] characteristic, you would otherwise to have to cross many generations, many thousand of genes – and ultimately we don’t have that that time”. She’s not alone, with some of the world’s most influential leaders putting their weight behind the technology. “It’s kind of a second round of the Green Revolution”, said Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in 2016. His Foundation has invested billions of dollars in biotechnology for the developing world.

Despite promotion of GM crops, adoption has been slow across the continent. South Africa began using the technology in the late 1990s, but twenty years on it is still the only sub-Saharan country to commercially grow them as a food crop (although Sudan and Burkina Faso grow GM cotton). This is rapidly changing, with Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda all currently carrying out field trials of various GM crops. No commercial release has yet been approved, and it will take time for the technology to reach anything like the levels in South Africa where 2.7 million hectares of GM crops were planted in 2016, the vast majority of which was maize.

Cell biologist Jill Farrant has been studying “resurrection plants” for over three decades.

Yet the technology’s widespread adoption in South Africa has also spurred a significant resistance movement: the annual March Against Monsanto gathers thousands of protesters across the country. Opposition is centred around the safety of eating GM crops, and the widespread spraying of Monsanto’s weedkiller Roundup – a potential carcinogen. Most of the maize and soy grown in South Africa are genetically modified by Monsanto to be “Roundup Ready”, and so are not effected by chemicals in the weedkiller.

“The people who are not in favour of these technologies are very disingenuous”, says Andrew Bennett, Monsanto’s Technology Development Lead for Africa and Asia. “I suspect many of them just don’t like corporate kinds of companies”. In his Johannesburg office a map of Africa stretches from the floor to the ceiling behind him. He calmly rebuffs the usual accusations: “caffeine is much more carcinogenic than [Roundup] is, that doesn’t put people off using coffee”. The data backs him up. More to the point, there is no reliable evidence that eating GM crops is harmful. Bennett is clearly proud of what Monsanto have achieved in South Africa, boasting that since the introduction of GM crops in the 1990s the average yield of commercial maize has risen more than four-fold.

While these statistics are impressive, food poverty in South Africa remains a serious problem. The country produces enough food to feed its population, yet one in four suffers hunger on a regular basis. “It’s just too simplistic. This idea that if we just increase yield we can address food security,” says Haidee Swanby of African Centre for Biodiversity, sitting in a cafe in Cape Town’s trendy Observatory district. Here in Cape Town inequality is perhaps starker than anywhere in the country, with wealthy apartments in the City Bowl overlooking the sprawling Cape Flat townships – where over eighty per cent of population are food insecure. “We have to look at the political background, we have to look at the context of the people growing crops,” Swanby continues.

South Africa’s history of apartheid has left a unique agricultural legacy. While smallholder farmers grow eighty per cent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, the figure in South Africa is around five per cent – although accurate data is hard to come by. The long road from Johannesburg to Cape Town is punctuated with towering silos, while monocultures of maize and soy stretch as far as the eye can see. “Right from seed, all the way to manufacture and distribution, it’s owned by very few companies”, says Swanby. “If you want to be a farmer involved in growing maize in South Africa you need at the very minimum about five hundred hectares of land. The whole system has really cut out smallholder farmers.” The dominance of industrial agriculture in South Africa made it an ideal landscape for GM crops to take hold; traits like Roundup Ready were developed with monoculture in mind, killing any plant which doesn’t contain Monsanto’s resistant gene.

I meet agroecologist John Nzira under the shade of perfectly symmetric tree in the northern province of Limpopo. Gathered around him local smallholders have come to learn how to get more out of their land; he tells them that today is about him learning from them. The farmers get into groups and start listing every edible species of plant, fruit and insect they can think of – the elders winning by a fair margin as they remember the species they gathered in their youth. “I grew up eating food from my own field, I learned to play with soil when I was young”, Nzira tells me. “And as I grew up I started seeing the erosion of our heritage in a number of indigenous species. They mostly disappeared because of the introduction of industrial agriculture.” Nzira is part of a growing movement of farmers integrating agriculture with natural ecological systems. As he puts it to a group of school children at his urban farm in Pretoria: “how do we produce food while taking care of nature?”

Critics point to the lower yields that these farms typically produce when compared to intensive industrial agriculture – although the jury is still out. “A farmer, if he has a hectare, can produce enough food for the whole family”, claims Nzira. He digs up carrots from the soil and hands them out to his captive audience as he tells them that this small plot of land can feed 15 people. “Trees, shrubs, they have a purpose,” he continues as he lists almost twenty different species growing in one of his soil beds. The mulch from one plant fertilises another; a natural insecticide from another protects them all. You could call this biotechnology. And by collecting information about South Africa’s indigenous species he hopes to expand his own genetic toolkit. “The way to improve food security is to empower myself and to have the right to type of food I want,” he says. “But if we have seeds from outside, it’s a colonization”.

John Nzira works with smallholder farmers in Limpopo to reintroduce indigenous crops.

Despite the success of Nzira’s farms, there remain some intractable problems in agriculture that indigenous crops are ill equipped to deal with. A host of diseases – from bacterial wilt in bananas to brown streak virus in cassava – have wiped out entire crops across Africa. Genetic modification can offer solutions that would be impossible to achieve through conventional breeding. Often genes must be cut and pasted between species in order to confer disease resistance. For example, in Uganda a gene was taken from a sweet pepper and put into bananas to make them resistant to bacterial wilt. Yet often solutions like these don’t make it out of the lab.

“Before our drought tolerance work, we developed GM maize that is resistant to maize streak virus, but it’s sitting in the fridges”, Jennifer Thomson tells me as we drive through the klein karoo semi-desert. Thomson works alongside Farrant at the University of Cape Town and is using resurrection plants to develop drought-resistant maize. We’re on the way to another blazing hot greenhouse where field trials will soon begin. It’s taken fifteen years to get this far. “The anti-GM lobby have made it so expensive that it’s only the multinationals who have the money”, she says. “Some of it [the safety testing] is important, you’ve got to make sure there’s no negative environmental effects, but not to the extent that it is”. Even though maize is the staple crop for half of sub-Saharan Africa, it doesn’t make business sense for biotech companies to commercialise streak-resistant maize as it mostly affects smallholder farmers. “What’s so bad about making a profit?” Bennett asks me back at Monsanto HQ. Monsanto wouldn’t be much of a business if it made a loss.

While Monsanto promote their work with smallholders (including their own version of a drought resistant maize), adoption of GM technology by smallholder farmers has been slight. A more cynical view of Monsanto’s corporate social responsibility in Africa is that they’re paving their way into the continent. “Africa is a completely untapped market for agricultural business”, says Swanby. “A lot of what they’re doing is making sure that if they bring their technology they get to change the business environment in Africa: reducing taxes, making access to land easier, making sure the intellectual property rights on seed are very strong. It’s very much a business strategy.”

With food shortages by no means limited to Africa, a global debate is in swing over what kind of agricultural systems can best provide for the planet. Is industrial agriculture exacerbating the effects of climate change? Can more sustainable forms of farming grow enough food and produce it at a competitive price? While the agroecology movement gains momentum, leading biotechnology firms are undergoing a burst of corporate consolidation, with control over most of the world’s agricultural inputs falling into the hands of a few companies. GM crops have traditionally found themselves in bed with big biotech, yet there is a wealth of independent research aimed at solving problems for smallholders the developing world. “In academia we’re funded by government agencies who are not necessarily looking for a commercial return,” Thomson explains. But as government funding for science around the world declines, it can only become harder to develop biotechnology in the public good.

Philanthropic organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plug this gap to an extent, yet their significant investments in Monsanto and other biotech multinationals suggests they favour a top-down business approach to development. To boot most of the Foundation’s agricultural grants are spent in the US and Europe, rather than Africa. “If they need us, they to have a proper participatory process”, Nzira tells me as he pushes a well into the soil with his thumb and places a shoot inside. “They need to involve us in all stages so that we agree that the type of seed they introduce to us is going to be a good plant for the local farmers.” Engrossed in his cuttings, GM crops seem an irrelevance right now. Back in Cape Town, Haidee Swanby concludes: “This is what GMOs don’t recognise. They just bring technological fixes and pretend that power and money have no role when you bring new technology to a community”.

Biotechnology will only ever offer partial solutions to food insecurity in Africa. But for those solutions to be effective we need to ask deeper questions about how science is done and, more to the point, who does it. A first step would be to untangle GM crops from multinational corporations and monoculture. As well as offering solutions driven by pressing need rather than profit, this would help to tackle the common misconception that genetic modification and agroecology are at odds with each other.  “Organic farming is a method of framing, GM crops are method of farming,” says Thomson. “If only we could get together and combine the two –  after all DNA is a quintessential organic molecule.”

Reporting for this story was made possible by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

About the author

THOMAS LEWTON is a science writer and documentary filmmaker, whose freelance film and photography work has featured on the BBC, VICE and the Guardian.