GM will "Make Poorest of Poor Millionaires", and other stories (31/8/2004)

Here are a couple more extraordinary examples of what the economist Joseph Cortright has termed the "bad-idea virus" - the fever that sweeps through political leaders leaving them believing the money-losing biotech industry is about to generate a wealth-creating bonanza in their locality. Cortright's research on the biotech industry has led him to conclude: "This notion that you lure biotech to your community to save its economy is laughable."

It's hard to laugh, though, when that idea is being fed to the leaders of countries facing problems that include often desperate poverty, hunger and disease. It's even harder to laugh when one hears these leaders talking about impoverished farmers being turned into millionaires by GMOs (item 1), or blithely claiming biotech as the answer to almost every ill known to man (item 2).

As Michael Manville once noted, "the companies who make [GM foods], and the flacks who hawk their falsehoods, offer us a new definition of depravity, a new standard to plunge for in our race to care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all shame."
Welcome to the Spin Machine

These days, of course, agencies like USAID are to the fore among the 'flacks' doing the industry's dirty work.

1.MALAYSIA: Abdullah Plans to Make Poorest of Poor 'Millionaires'
2.NIGERIA: How Bio-Tech Can Drive National Economy

1.MALAYSIA: Abdullah Plans to Make Poorest of Poor 'Millionaires'
Baradan Kuppusamy
Inter Press Service News Agency

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 24 (IPS) - Small Malay farmers, struggling daily to make ends meet, are now within the sight of newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The premier has reprioritised agricultural development in a bid to fight Islamic fundamentalism in the country - that has its roots in rural poverty - in order to wean poor Malays away from the opposition.

The change in direction recognises the fact that over one million Malay Muslims had backed the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS in the March general election. PAS' party platform includes turning multi-racial Malaysia into an Islamic theocracy.

Kelantan and Terengganu states, that border violence wrecked South Thailand, is where rural poverty, conservatism and fundamentalist Islam dictate the pattern of life. It is also where the opposition PAS holds sway.

Among the PAS faithful is Pak Yusuf, 58, a traditional Malay rice farmer struggling to feed his family of nine on a three-hectare plot in Pasir Mas district in the east coast state of Kelantan.

Pak Yusuf wears his Islamic piety with honour and he is also unashamed of his poverty.

''What we are and what we get is 'rezeki Allah' (Allah's gift),'' he says when met at roadside tea stall in Pasir Mas recently.

''I pray as required, donate to the mosque and vote for PAS,'' he tells IPS.

Besides his rice plot and a ramshackle hut he calls home, Pak Yusuf's other worldly possession include some chickens and three goats. He catches fresh water 'haruan' or snakehead fish to supplement his meals.

The government estimates over two million Malays - farmers and fishermen - are trapped in a vicious cycle of low income, poverty and Islamic conservatism, similar to Pak Yusuf.

''A 20-year economic boom from the late 1980s and founded on electronics and manufacturing had lifted millions of Malaysians from poverty into the middle class but had by- passed people like Pak Yusuf,'' Mahfuz Omar, a PAS leader told IPS. ''It is lopsided development...development by the rich for the rich.''

The statistics, however, tell this lopsided story better.

The agriculture industry's contribution to Gross Domestic Product or GDP shrank from 30 percent in 1960 to 9.8 percent in 1996 and to about four percent now.

In 2003 the country's food import bill was 13 billion ringgit (3.42 billion U.S. dollars) and it is forecast that by 2010 the amount could rise to 20 billion ringgit (5.26 billion U.S. dollars).

The word ''agriculture'' and ''farmers'' became a dirty word during former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's so-called 'Great Leap Forward' to accord the country a First World status by the 21st century.

''He (Mahathir) envisaged Malays evolving into Japanese businessmen jet-setting around the world in coats and suits and briefcases in hand - selling the country and its industrial wares. Farmers for that matter did not figure in his scheme,'' said an economist specialising in agriculture who did not want to be named.

''Mahathir even renamed the country's only agricultural university removing the word agriculture from it,'' the economist told IPS. ''Now we are trying to turn the clock back.''

The drive for rapid industrialisation made the people of Kelantan and Terengganu, mostly Malays rooted in agriculture and fisheries, the poorest of the poor in the country.

Since taking over from Mahathir last October, Abdullah has relentlessly pushed to regenerate and modernise the agriculture sector with an infusion of capital, bio-technology and the introduction of new, genetically modified (GM) seeds that proponents claim would turn poverty stricken farmers into millionaires.

Last week Abdullah got together Malaysian and international experts at a five-star hotel to kick start his Green Revolution. The two-day seminar saw the country's top political leaders, chairmen and CEOs of giant private companies and international agriculture experts meeting together to discuss how to rejuvenate agriculture into a wealth generation powerhouse for the poor.

''The Green Revolution would narrow the income gap between urban and rural Malaysians,'' Abdullah said when opening the seminar.

Government statistics show that many farmers earn less than 265 ringgit (69 dollars) per month - a paltry sum and far below the national poverty line of 350 ringgit (92 dollars) fixed 30 years ago.

''We want to eradicate the association between Malay poverty and agriculture,'' Agriculture and Agro-based Industies Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told IPS. ''Many developed countries are wealthy because they modernised agriculture...we want to walk on the same path.''

''Look at Taiwan, Australia and Japan they are able to create millionaire farmers and able (at the same time) to market their produce internationally,'' the minister said. ''We can do the same.''

The forthcoming national budget in September is expected to have numerous incentives and tax breaks to jumpstart Abdullah's version of a 'Green Revolution'.

''Everything possible is being done to make agriculture big, successful and a source of national pride,'' wrote prominent columnist Ahmad Talib in the government-controlled 'New Straits Times' daily. ''Abdullah is turning agriculture into a strategic industry.''

While government planners and the government-controlled media are full of enthusiasm for this Green Revolution, environmentalists, however, express worry that such a ''high tech, money driven'' revolution would not benefit poor farmers like Pak Yusuf.

They also worry that the ''revolution'' would be driven by advances in genetics and bio-technology and that Malaysia could end up as an experimental guinea pig for giant food conglomerates.

''There are issues of food safety, environmental health and role of the giant international companies in agriculture that have not been fully investigated in this drive to regenerate agriculture,'' said the agricultural economist. ''Only big corporations would stand to benefit if the regeneration is driven by bio-technology and GM seeds.'' (END/2004)

2.How Bio-Tech Can Drive National Economy
This Day (Lagos)
August 25, 2004

Years ago, bio-technology made news -- and acquired sinister aspects -- when scientists cloned the sheep, Dolly. Today, issues of safety of genetically modified (GM) foods are controversial and even mysterious.

The Director General of the National Biotechnology Agency, Prof. Chukwuemeka Omaliko, who reveals how Nigeria is trying to catch up in this sector of the near-future, answers tough questions on these and many practical, everyday uses of bio-tech that rarely make the headlines: how Nigeria can reap its full benefits in poverty alleviation, agriculture, environment and healthcare delivery. He spoke with CHUKS OKOCHA in Abuja

What is the bio-technological agency to Nigerians?

It is an opportunity for us to catch one of the two trains that will drive the global economy, at least, for the first half of the century. The first technology is information technology; the second is bio-technology. So that is what it means to most Nigerians.

When did the federal government adopt it as a policy?

April 2001 -- about three and half years ago. It became adopted as a policy and the agency itself came on in November to drive and implement the policy.

In actual sense, when we talk of biotechnology, what are we talking about?

Let me use a common explanation someone gave: biology plus technology or biology plus engineering -- that is it basically. We look at the science, engineering and technology of biological entities, to see how we can use living organisms to modify the existing buildings or crate new ones that will give us better services and better goods and product.

To a weak economy like Nigeria's, of what effect would biotechnology be?

Quite tremendous! We have quite a lot of things we can gain, but to summarise it, we can look at it from the various sectors of the economy. Let's start with our stomach: food and agriculture, you find that definitely it is going to help us a lot, first in having the inputs more available, much more empowered. They are going to be modified in a way that they can on their own do better than their parents were doing. It will come to the point of production itself, because the production inputs are improved upon, then you have something that will have a higher productivity, you come to the post-harvest processing, you also have a better storage in some of the instances like in tomato, where we can now have tomatoes that can stay on the table for two or three weeks without spoiling against the three or four days of the normal tomatoes. So post-harvest you have it there, in processing, we are able to use bio-tech to get better processing facilities that will enable us go ahead and implement our processing cheaper and more efficiently and more nutritional, so that is just trying to quickly summarise. Of course, I have mentioned more of plants. You go to the animals, you also find genetic improvement. I think globally we know Dolly, where we now clone the sheep so as to have a better animal performance. You find it in fish and we have it with catfish, which is a popular fish in Nigeria. And you go to health -- bio-tech helps us to have a cheaper, more efficient healthcare delivery system. I give you an instance: whereas Hepathis B vaccine is imported and is sold at two, three thousand dollars per jar, we (are thinking of using) bio-technology to produce it at less than three hundred naira in Nigeria. So it will be more available, it will be far cheaper. There are other drugs that we can handle with bio-tech; of course, for the diabetes, many people may not know that most of the insulin being produced today are bio-tech. They are no longer through the pancreas of the pigs but through bio-tech. There are so many drugs that are not produced globally, and we are trying to catch up and start producing some of them so as to bring to bear the full benefits of bio-tech in the healthcare sector. You go over to our industry, the same thing; you go to the environment where Nigeria has a major problem, we have a lot of advantages. Bio-tech can enable us handle many of our problems most efficiently and be sure that every Nigerian will benefit from it.

Does your organisation have any relations with poverty eradication? Will there be where you can use biotechnology to reduce the level of poverty in the country?

The answer is capital YES. Probably at an opportune moment we will take you to some locations where we are already active so you can see for yourself. For instance, I mentioned the cat fish, we have now trained over four hundred young ones in the Niger Delta area and we hope to have them to start producing catfish, because it is an indigenous profession, but because the catfish is far more efficient, we've been able, we've trained them so they can now start producing. The next thing we are trying to do is to have the facility to start producing the young ones, the fingerlings which we give to them and the feeds, which we also give to them so that they will start producing and they make a lot of money. Also we have the grass cutter, bush meat, which is expensive. We now rare them. I will give you an instance: we brought in a hundred of them in January. Right now we have over two hundred and before the year runs off, we must have at least additional four hundred to top more from the initial stock and if you have a family of ten, ten families rather, which is made up of forty, because a family of grass cutter is made up of one male and four females, so let's say five, that is four families, that is 20 -- if you have, say, ten, you will be making, at the end of the second year, you will be making about four point something million. We have the data, if someone can stay in his house and make four point something million, what better way of eradicating poverty. It is not alleviating we are going for, bio-tech will help you eradicate poverty. There are so many examples that are there, but I just give you these two as those that are on stream already. You find that in Cross River State, Governor Duke has gone into a bold programme on pineapple production, thanks to bio-tech because without the bio-technique he cannot have the siblings to do that, but because we can use some bio-technique, which we call tissue culture we are able to raise millions of siblings in any given year and supplying, the supplies are coming from within and outside the country to the best of my knowledge and by the time we are fully on stream, there will be no need to get from outside and other states who are within the area where you can produce such crops will benefit. The same thing goes for plantain, banana, date palm for the northern states, sheer butter, Gum Arabic, coffee, tea, these are crops that we can easily get going, if you go to countries like Kenya, you find where these things are already fully on stream and that is what we are doing.

What is the relationship between biotechnology and genetically modified foods?

It is like father and son. GM foods are the products of bio-technology; it is bio-technology that produces them. What we mean is that we have our own technique that enable us to genetically modify some plants which when you process into foods, we call it genetically modified foods. So it is our products and we are happy with the product.

Is GM foods fit for human consumption?

Again it is another capital YES and it is being consumed by man over the years and it is even consumed today.

There is this position in Zimbabwe that the government is rejecting GM foods coming into the country and the fear is that GM foods, that the contents have been altered. How can you assure Nigerians that it is safe for consumption?

First and foremost, if it is not fit, I wouldn't accept this responsibility. Definitely, one is not looking for a job. I will not be involved in anything that will kill my countrymen and women, it is because I know it is safe, that is why I accepted the job, but going to the scientific level, you find that it is safe and we've been consuming it. If you look at America, for instance, at least 60 per cent of their Canola, that is where they get their vegetable oil, at least 60 per cent of their maize, their soya beans are all GM products and that is what they use to make burger. So if you've been to America, you have a very high probability you've eaten GM food and you haven't grown horn since then, that is a typical way of saying it is safe, it is being consumed all over and when we talk of genetic modification, there is nothing new, we can explain that further if you need, but it is nothing new, it is something that has been going on, but we can explain why we now have it in this form.

One of the problems in the Niger Delta, between the indigenes and oil companies is pollution. Is there any way biotechnology can help take care of the pollution, all the environmental hazards coming from the oil companies?

Certainly yes. We are looking at this; we are working with some of our scientists to develop bio-remediation protocols. We soon will sign a memorandum of understanding with an international company that will enable us eventually to start producing the protocols in the country on a commercial basis so as to go in and handle them. We will probably, within the next couple of weeks, after signing the agreement, go to one location in the Niger Delta, where there is oil pollution, to reclaim the land as a demonstration of this benefit. So there is every room for bio-tech to help solve the problem and we are on it.

Have you met the oil companies operating in this area and what are their responses?

Yes, we are planning an international workshop training between the three major stakeholders: the communities that are affected, the people that are creating the problem and the people that have the solution. When we look at the communities that are affected we are talking of the Niger Delta people, when you look at the people who are creating the problem, you are looking at the oil industry and their headmaster I think is the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), when we look at the scientific community, that is where we come in. So we've been having several meetings, planning to meet and handle these issues together. It is not from the top you start doing things; it will be a bottom-up approach. We are working, through NNPC we are reaching the oil companies, through NDDC we've been reaching the rural communities that are involved and through the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, all the scientific communities are involved.

On healthcare delivery, what is the relationship between biotechnology and healthcare delivery to Nigeria and to what advantage can Nigeria benefit it?

The relationship is strong, in terms of, if you were to score all the sectors of our economy where bio-tech will have an impact, it may be a little difficult to know whether it is more in health or in agriculture. It is just to show you how strong the effect on health could be, there is a lot of impact being made, abroad. Today people are turning more and more to bio-tech approach to drug development. People are turning more and more to bio-tech approach to healthcare delivery. The medical science, in the next ten to 20 years may be a different science from what it is today, because with the completion of the human gnome project, we will be able to know better what gene is responsible for what illness. We will be able to know what best combination you can have to effect a treatment and you find vaccine production has been totally altered -- it is much cheaper. We can now use recognat technology, which is an aspect of bio-tech to produce drugs and that is what we are planning to do in this country. We are looking at three possible drugs in this country, on is hepathis B, 22 per cent of Nigerians are careers of this virus, it is more deadly than AIDS. And we thought the vaccine, it costs like N3,000 per doze and a child must have three injections within six months, so that is about N9,000, whereas our own production will be less than 300 dollars if you use bio-tech; it will be far cheaper to do it through bio-tech. We also find that most AIDS patients have to be treated, one of the drugs you use for their treatment is retroviral. This drug is selling at 78,000 for 4,000 IU we are going to produce it at about one point something dollar, if we use Recongant DNA technology, we also have Human intersnrnal A, which is what you need for cancer patients, and it is selling about 5,000 per ample, we are producing about one dollar, using bio-tech and the list goes on. There are so many things that could be done in healthcare delivery. Look, today we are talking of AIDS, that is the world number one problem, the virus strain varies from place to place, so we are beginning to realise that it is not every diagnostic kits that we have that could be very efficient for our own lesson. So we've gone into an arrangement with a company in Ireland, we will start producing the same HIV/AIDS diagnostic kits in the country. That will take care of our own virus trail, when you pick a sample and evaluate it and if says it is positive is positive, if it says negative, it is negative. Otherwise we are having a wrong diagnosis in some instances. The same technology we are going to use to produce malaria hepatitis B diagnostic kits that will be quite efficient and quite affordable, so bio-tech really has a lot to do with health.

You've been in this organization for the past three years, how can you account for the taxpayers money?

Any time, I will be able to assure the taxpayer that they have good value for their money, what we are doing really is that my personal ambition is that by the time I leave this agency on my retirement, which I am looking forward to, that this agency should be self-financing, so we are investing our money in a way that it will yield money, we are not investing so as to spend, we are investing to yield money, like I told you, we've gotten a company from Ireland, with whom we are going to produce the HIV diagnostic kits we are having 20 per cent equity in the company, we are being approached by another company for producing the bio-remediation for the Niger Delta oil pollution, we are going to take equity there, we are talking with someone to start producing hapatetiatis B vaccine, we are taking equity, by the time we finish all these things, we believe that the agency should be able to say to Ministry of Finance: bye, bye, because we can sustain ourselves from our research and development (R&D). we can account for the money.

As a new agency, how do you have a feedback relationship on what you are doing with the Nigerian public? How do they get across to you to know what you are doing?

That is one of the challenges we are facing. We realise that it is not only getting a feedback, but also even feeding them. In the first instance, because there are so many agencies in the country, the country is so large that many people may not know, so the first thing we've done is to start working with journalists. We had a programme with them, I think May this year, where we trained them. We've taken some of them abroad to go and see bio-tech at work in other countries, also see the problem of bio-safety because it is of concern to everyone. You asked the question: How safe is this? To see these things and how they are regulated, so we've taken them and we will continue to take people out and to top it up, with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we've created a Bio-tech Information Centre, which is an Internet-based facility, that will enable us and the public communicate, especially with journalists. We allow them come in here, surf the Internet, get to know what is happening globally and be able to now have in-depth analysis of what we are doing in the country. They could give us knocks on the head or pats on the back. We are quite open, we want to reach out to the public. We are also creating our own web site and communication lines like e-mails so that when issues are discussed, we want them to call back on us and ask us questions and raise opinions. We are not assuming any monopoly of knowledge or capability.

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