Genetically Modified Crops in Africa; hope, hype and hubris (16/11/2003)

A slightly edited version of this was published in the Cape Times, Cape Town, South Africa. 14 November 2003, under the title; Africa can be fed without GM crops.
Genetically Modified Crops in Africa; hope, hype and hubris
By Glenn Ashton

Despite the increased area dedicated to growing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as food crops in South Africa, a veil of secrecy remains in place. The Department of Agriculture bluntly refuses to allow public oversight, citing commercial confidentiality agreements with corporations pushing the technology. The department has even gone so far as to spuriously use opponents of GMOs as reason to keep locations of GM crops secret, saying that anti GM campaigners would destroy GM crops if the locations were divulged. These extraordinary claims are refuted by the fact that many of those opposed to GM know the locations of numerous sites where these crops have been or are being grown and have not engaged in direct action against these crops at any time. Instead opponents of GM technology are far more interested in enabling independent monitoring and oversight of them in order that the claims made by promoters of the technology can be verified.

In May this year the government held a so called "GMO Conference" to bring all of those involved in the debate together to discuss the issue. At the conclusion of this conference a transparent review of the GMO Act, the relevant legislation that has been shown to be seriously deficient, was promised. To date nothing has happened; in fact, in the interim the Department of Agriculture has been joined by Monsanto - responsible for over 90% of global GMO plantings - in a court case brought by a public interest NGO in an attempt to gain proper insight into the decisions allowing the introduction of GMOs into South Africa.

Recently the biggest public debate in the world over the use of GMOs was carried out in the United Kingdom. Even though much criticism has been levelled at those directing the debate as having inordinately close ties to industry, a clear message emerged that the public does not welcome GM crops and food. Importantly, the more the public is informed about the facts behind GM technology, the more distrust they have of it. The overwhelming majority of UK (and international) consumers would like to see GMO products labelled properly. If an alternative were offered, consumers would choose non-GMO produce. A group of 114 industry lobbyists responded to the negative outcome of the debate with outrage but were soon silenced by a response from over 600 independent scientists who rejected the emotional response of industry aligned interest groups.

More important for Africa was the revelation that even with the strong pro-GMO bias amongst panelists, two of three crops under examination were found to have significant negative environmental effects.

Meanwhile Africa is being used as the justification for the technology with US insistence that only by using GM crops will we be able to feed our burgeoning population. Despite extensive data on other far more promising agricultural interventions, the focus on GM undermines such programmes.

Through one of the most expensive PR campaigns ever mounted, Monsanto, Syngenta and other promoters of GMOs have engaged a series of front organisations such as AfricaBio, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) and Crop Life as supposedly neutral arbiters of the promise of GMO crop technology. All of these receive extensive industry funding. Due to the sophistication and repetitiveness of the public relations campaign significant inroads into Africa have and are being made, by lobbying key politicians, funding political parties and by generally greasing the wheels to gain permission for the introduction of these products. Similar campaigns are also mounted in an attempt to sway public opinion.

After half a decade of hype, reality is starting to bite back. Besides the uncomfortable outcome of the UK public debate, several independent studies have shown that the present emphasis on high technology solutions is insufficient. It is far more important to first address the systematic problems inherent to African agricultural production.

In probably one of the most comprehensive studies of the technology, Aaron De Grassi, an agricultural researcher working for the Third World Network, looked at a few claims made by promoters of GMOs in Africa. In the first analysis he examined the extravagant claims made by Florence Wambugu, that her sweet potatoes, engineered to create virus resistance, were a great success. He estimated that funding of at least US$ 6 million has been granted to Wambugu and others from Monsanto, the World Bank and US Aid; at least 18 university graduates have been engaged in the research, most of who were PhDs, a rarity in Africa. All of this research, driven not by farmers needs but by US interests and by scientific hubris for PR purposes, has resulted in a claimed project yield increase of 18%, in potatoes genetically engineered from an unpopular East African eating variety. Neither independent studies nor peer-reviewed studies have yet emerged from this expensive and time-consuming investment. If a peer reviewed success story had emerged, we would have heard all about it.

The promotional spin, hubris and hype related to this project has been completely over the top. A good example is that of well known pro-GM pundit, CS Prakash, who recently touted the wonderful results of this project without even bothering to find out critical relevant information about the trials. But then Prakash is never one to allow a few facts to get in his way.

At the same time as the Kenyan project, Ugandan plant breeders have quietly used conventional breeding - not genetic engineering - to increase virus resistance in sweet potatoes. They used a popular eating variety and in a short time, using a fraction of the resources, increased the yield of these potatoes by almost 100%. So what we see here is a rush toward a sexy new technology with corporations betting on GMO as the way to go, putting massive resources in place in order to gain PR advantage while drawing human and financial resources away from far more suitable technologies.

In examining South Africa's benchmark Makatini Flats GM cotton growing project De Grassi further exposed the hype and bluster behind this internationally touted project. Here, so-called poor farmers are supposedly benefiting from the use of insect resistant GM cotton. Extravagant claims have been made; supporters say that spraying frequency has been reduced by 9 sprays per season, yet the most reliable statistics show a reduction of between 2 to 5.4 sprays per season.

CropGen, a pro GM lobby group, put the profit gain at $113 per hectare. Monsanto claimed that farmers gain $90. ISAAA says an extra $50 per hectare, University researchers $35, and the survey team found farmers gained only $18 in the second year, but in the first year those who did not use GM cotton were better off than those who did.

Similarly ISAAA implied that GM cotton was being grown over 100,000 hectares by smallholder farmers, fudging figures from South Africa as a whole. Another EU industry group claimed 5000 hectares, while the actual area is more like 3000 hectares, according to De Grassi.

The very same farmers who are supposed to have benefited from this technology have meanwhile sunk even more deeply into debt. In 1998, before GMO cotton arrived, farmers in the irrigation area carried about R16 million of debt. Over the next two years this debt burden grew over R8 million more as farmers engaged in farming this high risk, high cost crop were affected by floods and other natural damage. Prices for cotton also fell. So much for helping small farmers. The real beneficiaries remain the seed companies. The farmers and their state loans remain red ink on South Africa's debit sheet.

The promoters have singularly failed to explain the implications of the adoption of GM technology to these small farmers, nor are the required refuges - a percentage of the GM crop area seeded with conventional crops - understood, enforced or monitored in any meaningful way. This will lead to a rapid build up in resistance amongst target insects. Monsanto is already running trials on newer, more potent, less tested GM cotton varieties, with far more complex and unpredictable genetic alterations to counter this emerging threat.

The claim that we need GM crops to feed Africa is possibly the most cynical lie that has been perpetrated by an industry already deeply mired in controversy. Since the introduction of this technology into South Africa more than 58, 000 cotton workers have lost their jobs as farmers adopted less labour intensive farming methods such as insect resistant cotton. Hunger problems have become worse than ever for these people and many more South Africans beside.

Instead of dealing with the real challenges of food security facing Africa, GMOs have distracted attention and diverted resources from integrated solutions that would offer superior advantages. The use of some of Africa's most highly qualified technicians for many years in a spurious project, is a case in point.

Extension services are one of the most urgently needed interventions in African agriculture, yet are under pressure everywhere from structural adjustment programmes forced on Africa by those same governments that push GM technology. This allows a significant opportunity for the cynical introduction of costly corporate extension packages. What is really needed is more state extension officers to address soil fertility and erosion, water conservation, storage, infrastructure problems and the like; each of these basic considerations are far more important than the adoption of GM crops.

This is an overt attempt to relegate Africa into the position of a food dependent vassal continent, reliant on the faux-philanthropic image projected by America and its big Biotech muscle men. Instead of a programme to build the capacity of Africa that will enable it to become secure in its own food production, a blind faith in genetic hokery-pokery, the new snake oil is forcefully pitched.

Is it not telling that Donald Rumsfeld, amongst others in the Bush inner circle, was head of a Monsanto subsidiary? The relationship between the US government and industry has become a continuum under the Bush regime and then, to add insult to injury, the South African government continues to undemocratically force GMOs on us as consumers while we similtaneously subsidise their introduction through our taxes at the cost of urgently needed rural infrastructural reform.

The new American Imperium has already clearly stated their wish to feed the world - with their subsidised and unwelcome products. It is a tragedy of immense proportions that our African leaders have allowed themselves to have been so thoroughly misinformed by an industry that is engaged in a battle to secure control of global agriculture wherever possible. Big Biotech cares not a jot about the food security of Africans; all that interests them is the corporate bottom line.

Glenn Ashton is the co-ordinator of the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering, SAFeAGE, a network of individuals, families and over 130 organisations representing over 250, 000 South Africans opposed to the import, export and growing of GM crops and food until their safety and desirability has been proven. www.safeage.org

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