Fiasco of GM showcase projects in Africa (8/9/2005)

1.Fiasco of GM showcase projects in Africa
2.SciDev.Net on the maize fiasco - telling it softly

1.Fiasco of GM showcase projects in Africa

The article below from SciDev.Net reports the recent halting of the Syngenta-originated GM maize trials in Kenya but completely fails to put this into its true context.

One part of the context, to which SciDev.Net does make limited reference, is that the pulling of the maize has happened to the accompaniment of comments from Kenya's Agriculture Minister about scientists succumbing to pressure to rubber stamp GM crops, as well as indications that some sort of skullduggery may have taken place during the trials.

Far more importantly though, this latest fiasco comes on top of the collapse of the biotech industry's two other showcase projects in Africa.

The SciDev.Net article as originally published presented the Insect Resistance Maize for Africa (IRMA) trials as the very first GM trials to have taken place in Kenya. This was changed after we contacted SciDev.Net to point out that there had previously been three years of field trials in Kenya on the Monsanto-originated GM sweet potato - trials which ended in abysmal failure.

We referred SciDev.Net to the New Scientist article, "Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails". As that article noted: "Three years of field trials have shown that GM sweet potatoes modified to resist a virus were no less vulnerable than ordinary varieties, and sometimes their yield was lower, according to the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Embarrassingly, in Uganda conventional breeding has produced a high-yielding variety more quickly and more cheaply."

The New Scientist article also noted that the GM project had cost Monsanto, the World Bank and the US government an estimated $6 million over the preceding decade. Syngenta's showcase maize project is predicted to cost at least as much. That may appear to be a lot of money down the drain but their true value for the companies is in PR terms. Both projects have successfully been hyped worldwide as examples of how GM crops will help revolutionise farming in Africa. While the hype has been very widely reported, the fiascos that have followed have had only a tiny fraction of the coverage.

And these are, as we have indicated, not the only showcase projects to have gone disastrously wrong. The industry's remaining showcase in Africa involves actual commercial production of Monsanto's Bt cotton. This has been going on in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa and like the other projects has been hyped as a huge success story.

It has been claimed that the project has transformed the lives and the incomes of small-scale farmers in the area and that it sets a model for the rest of Africa. Farmers who claim to have benefitted from the project have been flown around the world to tell stories that read remarkably like Monsanto press releases. But in May this year came a report showing that the number of small-scale farmers in Makhathini who grow Bt cotton has dropped by 80%, because farmers have simply been unable to repay the debts from the higher seed cost of GM cotton.

Interestingly, in reports of the recent address made to South Africa's parliamentary science and technology committee by Monsanto's managing director for sub-Sahara Africa, there are no references at all to Makhathini, but there are to Kenya. "President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya summed up the need very effectively when he announced that Kenya lost up to $75-million (R488-million) annually in maize production due to the stalkborer and claimed that agricultural biotechnology could minimise these losses," Monsanto's man claimed. This was part of a pitch about how agricultural biotechnology was on the threshold of unprecedented new developments with immense economic advantages and vast employment opportunities. (GMO farming offers 'immense economic advantages')

The GM maize project in Kenya has taken place to the accompaniment of a similar fanfare of headlines about how this "Amazing maize" would "save farmers millions of dollars" and "prevent up to 40 percent of crop losses", thus delivering "increased food security" for everyone in Kenya.

While the industry and its supporters have a talent for creating such "silver bullet" fairytales to hype to politicians, bureaucrats, farmers and the media, the reality is very different. As Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies has noted, the Syngenta Foundation, which is ultimately behind the maize for Africa project, "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."

In Kenya, deGrassi reports, scientists have genetically engineered several maize varieties to protect against 3 types of stem borers but the project has yet to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya - the one which affects 80% of the country's maize crop!!!

In any case, deGrassi notes, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor to poverty in these areas. Of 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."

Moreover, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques that have already proved capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. Some of these methods, which have been shown to reduce borers to negligible levels, have been tested in farme

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