Biotech's deceptive fiction (11/10/2005)

'I wish we could clone her,' says a Biotechnology Industry Organisation Vice President about Dr Florence Wambugu. And the US magazine Forbes even named her as one of fifteen people around the globe who will 'reinvent the future'.

But evidence continues to emerge as to how that 'reinvention' takes place - through bogus and unsupported claims that serve to create a deceptive fiction.

And while the industry may not be able to clone her, Florence Wambugu is far from a lone actor when it comes to deceptive fictions involving biotechnology and poverty.

Biotech's deceptive fiction

Earlier this year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted a consortium led by the lobby group Africa Harvest and its CEO, Dr Florence Wambugu, the better part of $16.9 million to develop a GM sorghum.

A key part of the Wambugu consortium is DuPont, the GM and chemicals giant. And this is not the first time that DuPont and Dr Wambugu have collaborated.

In mid-August, a subsidiary of DuPont's, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, put out a press release entitled: 'Harvesting Hope: Kenyan Farmers Celebrate First Banana Harvest Using New Growing Technology'. In it DuPont's Chairman and CEO, Charles O. Holliday, Jr, was quoted as saying, "DuPont is proud to partner with Africa Harvest in bringing tissue culture banana technology to the Chura community".

Dr Wambugu is also quoted in the press release, saying that tissue culture technology in Africa has increased banana productivity from 20 to 45 tons per hectare. For the typical Churan family, according to Wambugu, this remarkable increase in production can translate into a tripling of income - from the current average of $1 per day per family to as much as $3 per day per family.

"For these families, this additional income can mean the difference between sending their children to school or being forced to keep them home," says Wambugu. "It is important to understand that the difference tissue culture bananas make is far beyond the field."

According to Wambugu, tissue cultured bananas are reversing a dire situation in Kenya. "Banana production in this country has been in decline over the last 10 years," she says. "Yields can be reduced by up to 90 percent from using the same suckers on multiple farms, and this of course, means a major income loss for farmers."

Elsewhere Dr Wambugu has written of an even longer decline in yields, "This project was conceived in response to the rapid decline in banana (Musa) production experienced in Kenya over the last two decades."

Dr Wambugu has also emphasised the importance of bananas as a staple crop in Kenyan agriculture, the centrality of this crop to small holder farmers and their incomes, and the important calorific contribution of bananas to rural people's diets in Kenya. (Wambugu and Kiome, Benefits of Biotechnology for Small-Scale Banana Producers in Kenya)

Against this disturbing background of a rapid decline of a key crop for food security in Kenya, Wambugu notes that the success that has already been attained by her tissue cultured banana project is "incredible to say the least."

Although tissue culture is a relatively unsophisticated, and largely uncontroversial, biotechnological technique that does not involve genetic engineering, Dr. Wambugu has been keen to draw the widest possible conclusions from the project. For instance, in a 'Statement on Biotechnology in Africa' submitted to the Committee on Agriculture of the U.S. House of Representatives she argued, "programs such as the tissue culture banana project in some East African countries have demonstrated that biotechnology can have a positive impact on hunger, malnutrition and poverty. In some cases, rural farm incomes have tripled as a result of biotech techniques."

According to DuPont's Chairman, the success of this project makes it "a model for other sustainable agricultural and developmental projects that can benefit many more communities and farmers throughout Kenya, Africa, and the developing world."

However, in November 2004 a paper was published that cast serious doubts on just about every one of the claims of Florence Wambugu and her collaborators. In 'The Anti-politics Gene': Biotechnology, Ideology and Innovation Systems in Kenya, James Smith - an African Studies specialist at the University of Edinburgh - carefully analyses Wambugu's tissue culture biotechnology project.

Smith's findings are also usefully summarised in 'Smoke, Mirrors and Poverty: Communication, Biotechnological Innovation and Development ' (2005), by Joanna Chataway and James Smith, as part of a discussion of how projects involving innovation and development are communicated. (It is not our intention to deal with the main points of Chataway and Smith's paper here but we will draw on its summarising.)

According to Smith, Wambugu and her coll


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