Biotech take-over in Kenya - Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize (31/5/2004)


1.The biotech take-over in Kenya
2.Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize

1.The biotech take-over in Kenya - the role of Monsanto, Syngenta and USAID

A number of reports in the past few months have highlighted the failure of the GM sweet potatoes trialled in Kenya. But this bad publicity is just an embarrassing blip in relation to the overall PR success of the project, which has been hailed for years with headlines such as 'Transgenic sweet potato could end Kenyan famine'. Nor should the project's failure mask the success of the industry's real agenda in Kenya, an agenda that is now being taken forward by Syngenta.

The GM sweet potato was field trialled by the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) but the project was initiated by Monsanto, and made possible by funding from Monsanto, USAID and the World Bank. It is one of two industry showcase projects in the country.

The other is that of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Foundation has as its declared goal 'contributing to sustainable food security for small-scale farmers'. Syngenta, the result of a merger incorporating Novartis, is the world's largest biotech company and Syngenta directors occupy 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation's board. Heinz Imhof, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Syngenta is the Foundation's President. Its Executive Director is Andrew Bennet, a controversial figure formerly with the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID). http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=175

According to a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, the Syngenta Foundation's activities have much more to do with PR than with delivering real benefits to poor farmers.

'The Syngenta Foundation,' he writes, 'has a poor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes, as illustrated by the Cinzana research station in Mali. The extent of damage by stem borers was repeatedly over-estimated based on ad hoc guesses. No rigorous assessments were done before the project was started of the extent of damage by stem borers, nor of whether farmers felt they were a significant problem. When the project did survey 30 villages throughout the country, none identified stem borers as the most pressing constraint upon maize production... project surveys found that many farmers were already using their own resistant varieties.' http://www.twnafrica.org/docs/GMCropsAfrica.pdf

The Syngenta Foundation's showcase project in Kenya is its 'Insect Resistant Maize for Africa - IRMA'. For this several maize varieties have been genetically engineered to protect against 3 types of stem borers. The project, as noted in the article from the Kenyan press belowis being jointly implemented by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, which is being funded by the Syngenta Foundation.

The Kenyan article holds out great hope for the project: 'Every year, Kenya loses Sh7.2 billion ($90 million) to a pesky insect that attacks maize stalks. The stem borer, which eats away 400,000 tonnes of maize - about 15 per cent of farmers’ annual harvests - has been on scientists’ minds for a long time. Now, a new project to develop insect resistant maize on the continent is likely to put farmers at rest.'  ('Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize'),

However, accoring to Aaron deGrassi, the Syngenta project has failed to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya - the one which affects 80% of the country's maize crop.  Moreover, deGrassi reports that in terms of alleviating poverty, which is the basis on which these projects are being promoted, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor. Of far greater importance are other agronomic constraints - such as 'droughts, low soil fertility, and the weed Stiga - as well as other socio-economic and political constraints - such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, poor transport, unequal land tenure, and political repression.'

In any case, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques that have already proven capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. DeGrassi points out that some of these methods, which have been shown to reduce borers to negligible levels, have been tested in farmers' fields and are already being adopted. These methods, unlike the use of the genetically engineered (Bt) maize, also do not face the likelihood of evolved pest resistance.

DeGrassi's over all conclusion on this Syngenta Foundation project, and others like it, is that 'while genetic modification may constitute a novel tool, in Africa it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one. Cash-strapped scientists working with poor farmers in Africa might well regard genetic modification as a waste of time and money.'

That's certainly been the case with the GM sweet potato project which wasted over 12 years of research and around $6 million. But deGrassi points out that despite their low suitability these projects manage to generate a great deal of interest, even excitement. Thus, while the 'maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques', they generate 'heavy publicity'. In particular, he notes, 'biotechnology firms have been eager to use philanthropic African projects for public relations purposes. Such public legitimacy may be needed by companies in their attempts to reduce trade restrictions, biosaftey controls, and monopoly regulations.'

And this takes us to the heart of the matter. The Monsanto-trained scientist Florence Wambugu, who did much to help the company realise the PR potential of the sweet potato project, now defends it in terms of it having laid a bridgehead for the continued introduction of GM crops into Kenya, and via Kenya into other countries in the region.

These are the revealing points Wambugu makes:

*Many Kenyan scientists were trained via the GM sweet potato project. "It is this human capacity that has enabled the country define its nature of support to the GM technology."

*Kenya now has a "bio-transformation" lab where other crops – other than the sweet potato – can be researched in future. "The lab puts Kenya in a position to form vital collaborations with countries such as South Africa which may be conducting related scientific work." It also enables it to take on other GM crops such as Syngenta Foundation's Bt maize project.

*Kenya is now in a position to run GM field trials.

*"The GM Sweet Potato Project also helped the development of national biosafety regulatory framework." And this sets a model for other African countries to follow.

These "spin-offs" from the project mean, according to Wambugu, that Kenya is now "well equipped wi

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