'Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger,' Monsanto UK's director of corporate affairs, Tony Combes, told the Sunday Herald newspaper in June 2003. But that same weekend Canada's National Post reported, 'Genetically modified crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World, says a leading African biotechnology expert.'
That expert is Dr Florence Wambugu and such comments are far from an embarrassment to companies like Monsanto. In fact, Val Giddings, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, has said, 'I wish we could clone her.'
The industry has certainly done everything it can to help her project her unambiguous message. 'In Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty', she told New Scientist. In the journal Nature she wrote that biotechnology was urgently needed to counter 'famine, environmental degradation and poverty'. Resistance to GM, she put down to a 'strong anti-biotechnology lobby that actively promotes misinformation'. 'Africa must enthusiastically join the biotechnology revolution,' she says. Such a revolution, she told a Canadian newspaper in 2003, could pull 'the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair'.
Dominic Glover of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex sees such arguments as simplistic. They imply GM can magic away the problems facing poor farmers 'without addressing the complex and intractable issues of poverty, land rights, lack of access to credit and weak extension services.' The Director-General of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, has added to the list, saying irrigation and road-building are more urgent priorities in improving Africa's agriculture than encouraging the introduction of GM crops. (African farmers need water not GM crops)
Glover writes, 'Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu has asserted that GM crops are ideally suited to poor farmers because "the technology is in the seed". In fact, however, the transgenic crops that are actually on the market all require a package of expensive inputs and special management practices, which pose special challenges and risks for poor farmers. They also tend to be crops and traits designed for industrialised, capital-intensive, temperate farming. This is primarily because they have been developed by private firms for wealthy northern markets'. (IDS Briefing 10)
Whatever the limitations of her prescription for Africa's 'economic and social despair', Florence Wambugu is a rising star. As well as writing for Nature, she has written for The New York Times, and appeared on CNN as well as several American TV shows. In an issue of Forbes magazine in December 2001, she was named one of fifteen people from around the globe who will 'reinvent the future.' In 2002 she was appointed to the Science Board of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative. She is also a DuPont Biotech Advisory Panelist, a two-times Monsanto Company Outstanding Performance Award winner, and author and publisher of the book Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology Can Benefit the Poor and Hungry: A Case Study from Kenya .
Florence Wambugu began her career studying zoology and botany at the University of Nairobi. She continued her education in the United States, graduating with a master's degree at North Dakota State University before obtaining a doctorate at the University of Bath in England (1991). She was then picked and trained by Monsanto for its GM virus-resistant sweet potato project. It is around this project that Wambugu has built her reputation, capturing massive positive publicity for GM crops in the process.
Post-Monsanto Wambugu became the first Director of the AfriCentre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in her native-country, Kenya. ISAAA is a U.S.-centered, GM promotion and technology transfer agency funded by AgrEvo, Bayer, Cargill, Dow, Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, Syngenta, in addition to foundations and Western governmental funding agencies, including the BBSRC. Its Board of Directors has contained leading biotech industry executives from both Monsanto and Novartis (now Syngenta).
The AfriCentre's focus was projects that assisted the introduction of GM into Sub-Saharan Africa. As part of their mission, Wambugu and ISAAA spun off a number of innocuously named pro-GM fronts, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), of which she is the Vice Chair, and the African Biotechnology Trust.