Based in South Africa, AfricaBio lobbies for GM crops in Africa and beyond. Jocelyn Webster is AfricaBio's Executive Director. AfricaBio's board includes Jennifer Thomson, a Professor at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town who is also an advisor to the biotech-industry funded Council for Biotechnology Information in the US, a Board Member of the biotech-industry backed ISAAA and Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which receives backing from the industry and USAID to introduce GM crops into Africa. Thomson recently had a book (Genes in Africa) published which promotes the benefits of GM crops for the developing world.
Thompon was also involved in the drafting of the South African Biotechnology Strategy and was Chair of SAGENE, South Africa's orginal regulatory body for GM crops. She is also a member of South Africa's current Advisory Committee, which provides expert technical advice on regulatory decisions. Other members of the Advisory Committee are also said to be members of AfricaBio or to be closely connected to members.
Muffy Koch is a leading member of AfricaBio who is on a sub-committee of the Advisory Committee. Like Thomson she was also once part of SAGENE. Koch is in charge of education issues at AfricaBio. She chairs the AfricaBio Education and Training working group and is also the editor of BioLines, AfricaBio's news service. She also has her own 'biosafety' consultancy firm, Golden Genomics.
AfricaBio is vague about who it respresents and coy about its finances and its main financial backers. This contrasts with other similar bodies - bodies with which AfricaBio is formally aligned. For instance, EuropaBio proclaims itself 'the voice of the European biotech industry'. Similarly, BIO - the Washington DC-based Biotechnology Industry Organization - presents itself simply as the industry's major trade association.
AfricaBio, by contrast, seeks to present itself not as a corporate lobby but as part of civil society - 'The NGO taking biotechnology to the people of Africa'. The word 'trade' is notably absent in AfricaBio's description of itself as 'a non-political, non-profit biotechnology association'. It even goes so far as to claim to represent, 'All sectors within South Africa involved with, or with an interest in food, feed and fibre'. However, in one of its press releases it frankly stated that it was intended to 'provide one strong voice for lobbying the government on biotechnology and ensuring that unjustified trade barriers are not established which restrict its members'. (Africabio, 2000).
Despite the vagueness in which it sometimes cloaks its agenda, Monsanto is known to be among AfricaBio's backers and Delta and Pine, Novartis and Pioneer Hi Breed are also reported to have been part of the consortium. AfricaBio, though, claims to represent a 'wide spectrum' of support. This is evident, it says, from its founding members who, it claims, include scientists, students and academic institutions as well as biotechnology companies, seed companies, farmer organizations, grain traders, food manufacturers, and food retailers. However, under AfricaBio's membership and voting rights , business members have 5 votes, while research organisations and non-business members have, respectively, 2 votes and 1 vote. It is clear from the list of AfricaBio's backers that in reality industry organisiations dominate AfricaBio. In fact, a company like Monsanto SA would has considerably more than 5 deciding votes as it has South African subsidary companies which are also members.
The corporate alignment, as well as backing, of this pro-GM lobby group are fairly apparent. According to an article in the science journal Nature, 'AfricaBio, along with agribiotech companies and other pro-biotech campaigners, is now fighting tooth and nail, often by somewhat controversial methods, to spread the word about GM crops... the idea is to improve GM's image.'
The article also says of AfricaBio, 'the group's methods would be considered in some countries to be blatant media manipulation. Webster [AfricaBio's Executive Director] talks about training journalists how to report GM stories, telling them that the term genetically improved is more accurate than genetically modified.'
Although Africa, and particularly South Africa, is its primary battleground, AfricaBio pursues its PR war on a global stage. In January 2003, EuropaBio brought AfricaBio's Executive Director, Jocelyn Webster, over to Europe as part of a team of ten 'representatives' from developing countries to deliver their favorable perspective on GM crops to the EU, the FAO and the Vatican.