Suffocating the truth over GM in Africa (8/12/2005)

2.Is the European attitude to GM products suffocating African development?

Jonathan Matthews, GM Watch

There's something about the GM food aid issue that seems to bring out the very worst in biotech proponents. Zambia, in particular, has shown that for the GM lobby there are no limits, even when it involves rewriting history. And with Zambia facing maize shortages once again at the moment, there is a new flurry of unpleasant propaganda of the sort I chronicled in my article 'Fake Blood on the Maize'.

Perhaps surprisingly the most recent example crops up in Functional Plant Biology, which is described by its publisher as a 'highly cited international journal' which 'publishes research of international importance and relevance'.

In December Functional Plant Biology published a piece entitled 'Is the European Attitude to GM Products Suffocating African Development?'. This article and its abstract have been widely circulated via pro-GM lists, such as AgBioView, and via industry websites, such as Monsanto's.

The article claims to examine 'the background and reasons behind the condemnation of GM crops by southern African nations', and to consider whether 'the lack of support of agricultural biotechnology by European nations has contributed to this situation'.

Its author, Greg Bodulovic, concludes that it has. He argues that the rejection of GM crops by countries like Zambia stemmed essentially from, on the one hand, disinformation put into circulation by European NGOs and, on the other, from concerns about loss of access to European markets. Bodulovic also blames disinformation for the fact that European markets became closed to GM foods in the first place.

It is, therefore, more than ironic that this article, which identifies disinformation as a key driving force behind GM rejection in both Africa and Europe, is itself a good example of what he complains about! For instance, Bodulovic traces opposition to GMOs within the EU back to European media coverage of the research findings of Pusztai and Ewen, which showed that rats suffered adverse effects from consuming GM potatoes. According to Bodulovic, 'These adverse effects were unable to be repeated, despite numerous attempts (Appell 2003)'. When, however, one follows up Bodulovic's source for this (Appell 2003), it turns out to be a Wired News article!

Still more bizarrely, the Wired News piece has not a word to say about Pusztai and Ewen's research, let alone about the claimed multiple attempts at replication that failed. Bodulovic appears to have cited a source that simply bears no reference to his claim. (Why GM food could start a trade war)

Bodulovic then goes on to ascribe the EU's de facto moratorium on GM foods of September 1998 to consumer concerns created by the critical media coverage of GM and the outbreaks of BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease 'which had already raised the issue of food safety'. In fact, the Foot and Mouth outbreak did not occur until 2001 - some 3 years after the start of the moratorium!

This kind of factual inaccuracy bedevils the article. For instance, when Bodulovic turns to Africa, and in particular southern Africa, he describes the GM crops in commercial production in South Africa as glyphosate-resistant cotton, soya and corn. Glyphosate-resistant cotton, in fact, only constitutes a tiny fraction of the GM cotton being grown in South Africa - 85% of which is Bt cotton. Although this is a mere detail, it is yet another indication of Bodulovic's surprising lack of concern about accuracy.

When it comes to considering why the Zambians rejected GM food aid, this cavalier approach to the facts seems less incidental than wilful. While Bodulovic acknowledges that the decision not to accept GM food aid was made only after a delegation of Zambian scientists had obtained information and advice from various experts in Europe and the United States, he only lists 'Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and several other groups fundamantally opposed to agricultural biology (Wilson 2002)'. Bodulovic then focuses on the advice of a little known group - Farming and Livestock UK - 'which is reported to have told the delegation that the virus used in the creation of most GM crop varieties could cause a retrovirus which in turn could cause symptoms similar to HIV (Wilson 2002)'. Bodulovic concludes, 'Given unsubstantiated and clearly misleading information such as this about health effects, it is unsurprising that the delegation's report took a negative view of agricultural biotechnology'.

There are a number of problems with this. The first and most obvious is that the Zambian delegation took advice from a whole range of interested parties, including pro-GM scientists, regulators and other experts. So just why does Bodulovic only list 'groups fundamantally opposed to agricultural biology (Wilson 2002)'?

Bodulovic's source (Wilson 2002) is this time a piece in the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing British newspaper with a strongly pro-GM editorial outlook that is clearly reflected in the article. Interestingly, even this press piece turns out to be less cavalier with the facts than Bodulovic. The article mentions, for instance, that the Zambian delegation took advice from Prof David KIng, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, as well as from the government's pro-GM Department for International Development (DfID).

It is also clear from the Telegraph article that the claims about what Farming and Livestock UK said are actually based on yet another newspaper report (the Zambian Daily Mail). Irrespective of whether their comments have been reliably reported, it is revealing that Bodulovic would use as a source a newspaper report of a newspaper report!

The Telegraph piece also notes that the leader of the Zambian delegation - Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika, a biochemist at Zambia's National Institute for Science and Technology - had 2 science degrees from American universites and had spent five years specialising in biosafety. Given this, it is reasonable to ask why Bodulovic assumes that it is 'unsurprising' that the conclusions of this delegation of Zambian experts would be determined by 'unsubstantiated and clearly misleading information'.

Bodulovic's attitude is something more than just patronising. The sub-text here is straightforwardly racist: it would be unsurprising if a delegation of African scientists were to be taken in by unsubstantiated and misleading information (particularly perhaps if given to them by Europeans).

This assumption of African ignorance and gullibility is actually spelt out later in the article:

'the reluctance to accept this technology [in southern Africa], even in the form of food aid, despite over a decade of safe consumption of the same varieties, can be attributed to two major factors, namely fear and lack of knowledge.'

You will note that no source is given for the claim of 'safe consumption' - unsurprisingly, as there has been no scientific research on whether that consumption has been safe or not. It might also be noted, in relation to Bodulovic's chronic disregard for factual accuracy, that no varieties of Bt corn (maize) were introduced before the 1996 growing season, when it was cultivated on only a very small number of acres, so there has not been 'over a decade' of consumption, safe or otherwise.

The kind of concern Bodulovic assumes will have turned Dr Lewanika and his delegation against GMOs fails to tally with the terms in which Dr Lewanika has expressed Zambian concern over the GM food aid issue. He, and others, have pointed to the lack of national biosafety regulations and to Zambia's lack of adequate capacity to carry out reliable risk assessments, in the absence of evidence of safety to human health.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the publication of Bodulovic's piece in Functional Plant Biology is to be found in the acknowledgements. Here Bodulovic thanks Professor Barry Rolfe, Professor John Gibson, Dr Michael Djordjevic, Dr Jeremy Weinman and Dr Charles Hocart for 'their critical readings of the manuscript'. He also expresses thanks for his Ph.d scholarship.

Are we really to believe, then, that this article, apparently connected to a doctoral thesis, and submitted to Functional Plant Biology in early March and only accepted five months later in August 2005, was really subjected to months of critical scrutiny by a whole series of fellow academics? And, is it reasonable to also assume, that none of them spotted any of Bodulovic's factual inaccuracies or his cherry-picking of questionable source material, let alone that his sources might not actually support claims made in the article?

While the disinformation at the heart of Bodulovic's thesis on Zambian and European decision-making turns out to be his own, the uncritical platform given to it by a 'highly cited international journal' of biology is truly depressing.

2.Is the European attitude to GM products suffocating African development?
Greg Bodulovic

Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Legume Research, Genomic Interactions Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University, PO Box 475, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia. [email protected]

Abstract: Currently, parts of Southern Africa are experiencing the third major drought in five years. The previous two droughts greatly affected food production, resulting in food shortages, which necessitated the provision of food aid to the region by developed nations. However, some of the food aid included genetically modified (GM) crops, the supply of which triggered hostile reactions by southern African governments, and in one case resulted in food aid being withheld from people on the verge of starvation.

This article will examine the background and reasons behind the condemnation of GM crops by southern African nations, and will consider whether the lack of support of agricultural biotechnology by European nations has contributed to this situation. Furthermore, the necessity of agricultural biotechnology in future African development will be considered.

Functional Plant Biology 32(12) 1069-1075
Submitted: 7 March 2005 Accepted: 4 August 2005 Published: 1 December 2005
Full text DOI: 10.1071/FP05049
© CSIRO 2005


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