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The GM Bubble
Science in Society issue 22, summer 2004
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Claire Robinson questions ISAAA's inflated figures of GM crop uptake and planting
"India a key GM crop cultivator" ran a headline in the Times of India back in January. "India has made it to the list of top ten transgenic crop-growing nations," the paper reported, alongside what it called the "glowing figures" on "the global acreage of transgenic crops" and the number of farmers planting them - seven million in 18 countries, up from six million in 16 countries in 2002.
The Times of India was not alone in its breathless account of GM crop expansion. Headlines around the world declared, "Frankenfood flourishing" and "Biotech crops continue rapid global growth". Every January, similar headlines appear when the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Association (ISAAA) publishes its "Annual Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic (GM) Crops." They are drawn directly from press releases sent out by ISAAA's agri-centers around the globe plus country-specific media briefings via worldwide teleconferences. ISAAA stands at the front line of a major public relations war, and as with all wars, the first casualty is the truth.
Fortunately, a few are not taken in. India's Financial Express reported that despite ISAAA's hype about India being "a key GM crop cultivator", the actual area planted with India's first GM crop, Bt cotton, is minuscule in terms of the total area devoted to cotton in India. According to an internal report of the country's agriculture ministry, "In 2002-03, the first year of its approval for commercial cultivation, Bt cotton covered an area of only 38,038 hectares, representing only 0.51 per cent of the area under cotton in the period. In 2003-04, with good monsoon rains, the area under Bt cotton increased to 92,000 hectares. This area coverage under Bt cotton is almost negligible as compared to over 9 million hectares under cotton crop in the country. This points to the low acceptability of Bt cotton by farmers."
As well as engaging in selective spin about the popularity of GM crops among farmers, ISAAA stands accused of pumping up the planting figures. ISAAA's Southeast Asia director, Dr Randy Hauteau, while briefing the media, quoted ISAAA figures for Bt cotton plantings in India in 2003-04 of 100,000 hectares - a nearly 10% inflation of the agriculture ministry's figures. When questioned about the data and methodology underlying this claim, the Financial Express reported that Hauteau refused to comment. Hauteau was also unable, the paper reported, to justify claims made in the ISAAA study that "in 2003-04 almost one-third of the global biotech crop area was grown in developing countries."
Although ISAAA's figures are quoted routinely by official bodies and even governments, the organisation is vague about how its figures are generated, referring only to their being "based on a consolidated database from a broad range of sources, including government agencies and other organizations in the public and private sector".
But Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex has shown the questionable validity of ISAAA figures. Analysing GM cotton farming in South Africa, he notes, "ISAAA implies that small farmers have been using the technology on a hundred thousand hectares. Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe - an industry coalition - suggests 5,000 ha of 'smallholder cotton.' The survey team [from the University of Reading, UK] suggests 3,000 ha." In other words, ISAAA's GM plantings figures are 20 times higher than even those claimed by a biotech industry source and more than 30 times greater than those from an academic survey.
ISAAA's figures claiming increased profits to South African farmers from Bt cotton are also dubious, deGrassi points out. ISAAA argued that switching to Bt cotton allowed farmers to make an extra US$50 per hectare, whereas the University of Reading survey team found that farmers gained only US$18 in the second year. But deGrassi notes that in the first year, "Bt cotton non-adopters were actually $1 per hectare better off".
As well as exaggerating the extent of GM plantings and profitability, ISAAA has given misleading figures on yields that have been discredited by subsequent scientific research findings. For instance, ISAAA's "Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops" for 1998 claimed yield improvements of 12% for GM soy over conventional soy, as reported by American farmers. However, a review of the results of over 8 200 university-based controlled varietal trials in 1998 showed an almost 7% average yield reduction in the case of the GM soy - the diametric opposite. It later transpired that ISAAA's figures were based on nothing more substantial than producer estimates.
Who pulls ISAAAs strings?
ISAAA is supported by cash from the GM industry. Its funders include Bayer CropScience, Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and the BBSRC (the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council). In other words, ISAAA's reports should not be considered as coming from an independent source.
ISAAA's multi-million dollar budget is matched by high-profile industry board members past and present, such as Monsanto's Robert Fraley, Wally Beversdorf of Syngenta, and Gabrielle Persley, Executive Director of AusBiotech Alliance and advisor to the World Bank. ISAAA has no representatives, however, from farmers' organizations in areas like Africa.
One of ISAAA's goals is to "facilitate a knowledge-based, better informed public debate." To that end, ISAAA has three "Knowledge Centers": the "AmeriCenter" based at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; the "SEAsiaCenter" in Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines; and the "AfriCenter" in Nairobi, Kenya. ISAAA's Africa office was originally headed by Florence Wambugu, the Monsanto-trained scientist who hyped the company's GM sweet potato around the globe until it was exposed as a failure earlier this year (see "Broken promises", this series).
Aaron deGrassi says that in Africa the ISAAA has "spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech NGOs", such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders' Forum and the African Biotechnology Trust. Pro-biotech Western aid agencies have joined with these organizations to quietly conduct one-sided conferences at upmarket venues around the continent, such as Kenya's Windsor Golf and Country Club, aimed at swinging high-level officials in favour of GM.
But critics allege that these forums are facades for large corporations; the NGOs consist of little more than a website and a few staff. In a report on ISAAA's activities in Asia, GRAIN concluded that its role was one of "promoting corporate profit in the name of the poor".
Claire Robinson is an editor with GM Watch www.gmwatch.org
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