Africa Must Resist Pressure Over GMOs (1/8/2006)

EXCERPT: There are huge risks to the smallholder rural African farmers if they adopt GM-crops.

Experience highlights the danger of dependency and monopoly control over GM seed by multinationals.

Africa Must Resist Pressure Over GMOs
By Sifelani Tsiko
The Herald (Harare), 24 July 2006

AFRICA must resist pressure from multinational corporations that continue flooding the agro-business sector with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) until Africans understand the implications of genetic engineering on biodiversity, the environment, farmers as well as consumers.

It is worrying that the majority of people in Africa have become consumers of foods that they have no knowledge of how they were produced and manufactured.

A conference on food security and the challenge of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which was held last week at Silveira House, about 23km east of Harare raised stakes in the debate.

Participants at this conference which was organised by Environment Africa and the Catholic-run Silveira House, who were drawn from South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe raised pertinent questions on the need for African governments to set clear guidelines on GMOs when it comes to food aid as well as the general consumption of other GMO products.

Andrew Mushita, the director of Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT) said African governments should develop food aid policies so that they adopt specific measures to guard against the dumping of GMO food donations in their countries.

Delegates agreed that the adoption of GMO technology and food aid was not the panacea to hunger in Africa.

"So far there is no technology to decontaminate GM seed. Food security is fundamental for many people. Most of these technologies are not focused on increasing food security and production but maybe disease resistance," Mushita said.

There are huge risks to the smallholder rural African farmers if they adopt GM-crops.

Experience highlights the danger of dependency and monopoly control over GM seed by multinationals.

Large multinationals, Mushita said, have monopoly through their country agents, subsidiaries and joint-venture exercises on the price of the GM seed eroding the rights of the poor farmers to other alternatives.

Kevin Roussel, an anti-GMO campaigner of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, said new genetically engineered seed known as "suicide" or "terminator" seeds which were engineered to be sterile forced poor farmers to repurchase seed each year from the multinationals who have patented these 'genetic use restriction technologies."

These GM seeds, he said, included "junkie plants" that were dependent on chemicals sold by multinationals to flower, seed or sprout.

He said all farmers using GM crops in South Africa had to sign contracts with Monsanto, a giant GMO corporation, where they agree not to share their seed, only use Monsanto chemicals, buy new seed the following year and agree to set aside 25 percent of their land as a "refuge" area to control diseases.

Participants felt that GM seed would increase the dependency and indebtedness of smallholder farmers to multinationals eroding the communal rights, which entitled them to traditional crop varieties, which they would share freely without added costs.

The multinational giants include Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and Syngenta (a merger of Astra Zeneca and Novartis) which dominate the global agro-chemical business as well as genetic engineering technologies.

It is estimated that between them, they account for nearly two-thirds of the $31 billion global pesticide market, one quarter of the $30 billion commercial seed market and virtually the entire GM seed market.

To push for further global control, these "Gene Giants" are merging with the $300 billion pharmaceutical industry as plants are being used to produce penicillin and insulin amongst other chemical and bacterial agents.

The major actors in the GMO debate are the United States, which supports it, and the European Union, which has largely opposed the wholesale spread of the GMOs.

The US has tightened its law on GMOs but surprisingly still continues to encourage use of the technology throughout the world.

"Both these blocs have tried to dictate their positions on other countries in the absence of either side being able to convince the other," said Roussel.

Resource poor farmers will never be able to afford technology fees and the chemicals to grow the GM seeds.

Experts say about 1,4 billion people depend on saved seed for their survival.

Worldwide hectarage of GM crops grew from 1,7 million in 1996 to an estimated 60,7 million in 2002, showing the strength of the growing influence of transnational corporations.

Roussel and Mushita said genetic engineering in its present form and thrust cannot form part of the solution to the food crisis in Africa.

They said it merely worsens the problem and reduced smallholder farmers to beggars and highly indebted people. They said it took away the communal farmers' right to be able to save, sell and exchange seed freely.

Muyatwa Sitali of Zambia said there was need to mobilise mass campaigns to educate the poor rural farmers about the perceived dangers of GMOs to human health and the environment.

"After analysing the issues at stake we realised that there was need to blow the whistle," he said. "Are we going to refuse forever? Are we not going to see any benefits coming with it? We have to educate rural farmers about the risks and challenges that GMOs pose."

Other experts say there is enough food for everyone but the main problem is the inequitable distribution process.

"Food aid comes as a result of the myth of hunger. Hunger in Africa is unevenly distributed and I must say that this is a result of inequitable economic systems which deny the poor access to food and land, not merely inadequate supplies of food," Raymond Bokor, an agro-ecologist wrote in a paper in 2003.

Most of the concerns which were raised by participants at Silveira House centred on the monopoly by multinationals, the need to buy GM seed for every new planting season to maintain high yield levels, dependency on new generation GM seeds, rising input costs and declining profits for smallholder farmers.

Of major concern was the possible loss of the existing robust crop varieties and technologies that may reduce diversity, flexibility and resilience in farming systems that could expose many to famine.

Additional concerns at the conference included the issue of the ongoing globalisation and liberalisation of markets changes in agricultural systems and how these were impacting on rural societies.

The US government, through the World Food Programme, has donated a lot of GMO food items to some food insecure African countries as food aid with no option for the recipients or governments to make any choices.

Mushita said the US must give such African countries other options like cash to buy alternative non-GM food the way the European Union was doing in some cases.

In 2000, Algeria banned the importation, distribution, commercialisation and cultivation of GM foods and raw materials. Egypt followed suit and banned the import of GM wheat and canned tuna packed in genetically modified soybean oil.

Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Angola have rejected GMO maize offered through the WFP as food aid, raising concern over the way hunger was being used to impose GM crops and food on developing countries.

The Zimbabwe Biosafety Board screens food aid before it comes in to safeguard the health of the people as well as protect the environment.

All GMO grain food aid is milled outside the country in periods of distress and the country has enacted laws to manage and control GMOs and biotechnological research.

Other countries in the region are in the process of enacting laws to govern and control GMOs.

South Africa has embraced genetic engineering and is now producing GM maize, milk, cotton, canola, wheat, apples, potatoes, sugar cane and soy products.

Critics say most South Africans are not aware that they are consuming GM foodstuffs due to lack of information, labelling and the monopolistic influences of the multinationals when it comes to media advertising, lobbying government and the funding of stooge NGOs which support the proliferation of GMOs for profit.

"Cross contamination in the region is also a possibility. With terminator seed technology this could be devastating for farmers," said Roussel. "The region could lose centuries of practice which will be a major loss of indigenous knowledge systems. We should be wary of making the same mistakes that formed in the Green Revolution."

Experts fear that genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to have adverse environmental impacts that may affect the ecological basis of food production. They say GM crops will stimulate the growth of "superweeds" and "superbugs" leading to the use of higher doses of chemicals making food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage.

Adoption of GM crops may lead to reduced genetic diversity resulting in fewer and fewer types of food crops. This, in turn, may increase the likelihood of pest and disease epidemics.

Mushita said there are great scientific uncertainties regarding the safety of GMOs and their potential risks to the environment, health, food and animal safety.

This, he said, calls for the precautionary principle in regulating international trade in living modified organisms.

The other ethical concern, he said, was that most developing countries had no biosafety regulations but were under pressure from GMO exporting countries to implement weak biosafety regulations and to accept GMOs through food aid.

"This calls for the region to develop collective regional policies on food aid that address the array of potential risks in all facets of the technology," Mushita said.

The food crisis in Africa is a result of droughts, floods, limited access to credit, poor infrastructure, unfavourable agricultural policies, trade policies that disadvantage poor farmers, lack of inputs, inappropriate technologies and lack of information and unsustainable farming practices.

There are 300 million people in Africa who are hungry and in many cases this is due to inequitable distribution of food.

Africa must be in the driving seat when it comes to introducing new technologies that aim to boost food security and reduce poverty.

All indicators from the Silveira House conference point to the need to strengthen the anti-GMO movements, regional and global network for information sharing to break the power of multinational firms and research institutions on the continent.

In light of the controversy and public concern over GMOs, Bokor concludes: "It is imperative that an immediate freeze on genetic engineering on food and farming is declared throughout Africa until we have assessed and understood all the implications for consumers, farmers and the environment."


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