Wambugu - a spin doctor's dream lobotomises the media (31/7/2003)

"is it too cynical to suggest that having a black African as the face of a multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream? This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that was almost fawning."
GM science can be blinding
Rankin McKay
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), July 30, 2003

I HAVE never met Florence Wambugu. But she certainly sounds like  she is passionate about her cause and is probably a very  nice person. But for all that, we should not swallow hook,  line and sinker the message she is selling on GM foods. For  those who have not heard, Mrs Wambugu has generated a lot  of publicity as a Kenyan geneticist who works for Monsanto  and was recently in Melbourne for an international genetics  conference. She criticises Western anti-GM activists for  opposing the introduction of GM crops in Africa and is also  willing to criticise public distrust of the crops here. So,  are well-fed Westerners denying poor Africans the chance to  sustain themselves with dignity because of our objection to  GM crops? No. If any option denies Africans choice it is  that of relying on a couple of large chemical companies for  their staple diet. Nor will the new strains save  wilderness, as many GM crop proponents claim. Human nature  tells us that if the Africans can grow more they will, just  as we would, especially if there was the promise of selling  a surplus. If everybody produces a surplus then of course  prices will fall which means more will be grown, using more  land. In the broader context there are problems with major  companies owning the genetic blueprints of our food.

 Because the creation of these is a race for market share,  it could reach the point where we rely on a relatively  small number of monoculture varieties to feed ourselves.

 This represents a great biological opportunity for pests,  weeds and bacteria and makes our food sources vulnerable to  these. Hence the need for herbicides and pesticides, and  now, we are told, GM crops, to keep all these threats at  bay -- marketed of course by those who gave us these crop  varieties in the first place. The whole process is one of  major companies creating their own market. These  business-driven monocultures exist not because they  represent the most efficient way to feed humanity, but  because they are profitable. In fact, no monoculture can  equal the food-per-area productivity of a polyculture. Such  gardens can grow all sorts of different food in the same  area because they make use of all the land's  characteristics, such as different soil depths, sunlight  and so on. We have the know-how to create these  self-sustaining food gardens -- gardens where disease is  minimised because the variety of crops, pests and weeds  compete and help keep each other in check. No buying of  seed, everything sourced from and adapted to the local  environment and controlled by the local people. In this  scenario GM monocultures cannot compete. There are already  groups teaching this method throughout the Third World and  it is the perfect system for rural Africa except for one  thing: there's no money in it. Much has been made of the  fact that Mrs Wambugu grew up in an African village and  that her mother sold the family cow to fund her education.

Regardless of her scientific bona fides, is it too cynical  to suggest that having a black African as the face of a  multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream?  This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have  treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the  normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that  was almost fawning. At one point Mrs Wambugu took the  familiar tack that GM crops were no big deal because  genetic modification had always occurred in the natural  world. Yes, but in the natural world genetic modifications  take place over many generations within closely related  species. Modern GM can make a fundamental change virtually  overnight by splicing a gene from a trout into a strawberry. It is this that makes its outcome and interactions  difficult to predict.

SCIENCE is about dreams and betterment and politics, grants,  status and money. The same well-intentioned motives that gave us antibiotics and cars also gave us nuclear weapons and acid rain.  We are not all academically qualified but a lot of us can sense  when something is being put over us, when the promises seem too  good to be true.

There is no problem with everyone having an angle as long as we  get a few different ones, and then, Mrs Wambugu, we'll make up  our own minds.

RANKIN McKAY owns a farm at Beech Forest in the Victorian Otways


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