Saskatchewan, Canada, October 13, 2003: As I discussed
in an earlier column, the biotech industry is struggling mightily
to get genetically modified food crops accepted around the
world. For giant agriculture-chemical companies like Monsanto,
it is a win some/lose some kind of battle. Monsanto appeared
to win recently when the Brazilian government announced it
would allow the planting of GM soybeans – an already
widespread practice due to seeds smuggled from Argentina.
On the other hand, the GM industry took a hit in Britain when
crop trials were declared invalid and will now require another
three years to complete.
Farmers and researchers around the world have questioned
many of the claims made for GM crops. While the propaganda
surrounding these crops often portrays them as magic bullets,
and they are sometimes widely adopted by farmers, the reality
is that they have yet to save agriculture anywhere, and they
certainly face consumer resistance in major importing countries.
The image of companies promoting GM crops has been tarnished
in some eyes in recent years. There are many reasons for this.
Heavy-handed enforcement of plant patents has engendered sympathy
for some of the farmers targeted. GM crops have created some
very difficult problems. Herbicide resistant weeds are one.
Contamination of conventional crops is another. For example,
recent research has confirmed that many of Mexico's traditional
corn varieties are contaminated with GM genes. Since Mexico
is the ancestral home of corn, and hence home to the largest
corn gene pool, this could be disastrous.
This bad image is a major concern for companies like Monsanto.
The corporate giant recently declared that income from its
patent rights now exceeds income from chemical sales. Clearly,
Monsanto has found the goose that lays its golden eggs, and
is intent on feathering this nest further.
A clear propaganda win for GM promoters would occur if they
could convince the public that GM crops (and by implication,
the companies that generate them) were performing the noble
task of relieving world hunger. To further that image, GM
companies have gone to that bastion of hunger, Africa, and
come back with spokespersons to trumpet their cause.
One of the latest is Dr. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist
who recently toured North America promoting GM foods as the
answer to the problem of hunger in Africa. Wambugu wears her
credentials as a once-poor black African proudly. Her main
claim to fame is involvement with a project to genetically
engineer a sweet potato to make it resistant to Sweet Potato
Feather Mottle Virus, a common sweet potato disease. This
project originated with Monsanto, and has been largely funded
by the company. Wambugu and Monsanto have made some fantastic
claims about the benefits of resistance to this disease. Massive
production increases, the end to the Kenyan famine and greater
food security for some of Africa's poorest are but a few of
But do the claims stand up to the test of reality? Some researchers
think not. In speaking on hunger in Uganda, for instance,
the World Bank said the need was not for new technology, but
rather for better communication between agriculture extension
workers and farmers so that farmers could both drive agriculture
research and benefit from the research already done.
Promoters of the GM sweet potato hyped it by declaring several
years ago that it could "end famine in Kenya". The
problem with that grandiose statement was that the Kenyan
famine was not due to sweet potato disease. The famine was
centered among livestock farmers who did not even grow or
eat sweet potatoes. It resulted from cumulative livestock
losses, falling livestock prices and sharply rising cereal
prices. In fact, sweet potatoes are a very minor crop in Kenya,
and cannot be considered a staple.
Sweet potatoes are staples in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda,
but the Food and Agriculture Organization declared that agricultural
production here has been severely limited not by viral diseases,
but rather by war, massive displacement of farmers, and international
struggles over diamonds and precious metals.
Perhaps most unfortunate of all is the amount of money Monsanto
and the American government have spent producing the single
variety of GM sweet potato. Over $6 million has been consumed
to produce a single variety – from one that the Kenya
agency involved in the project admitted was not very popular.
Had the researchers bothered to asked Ugandan and Tanzanian
farmers, they would have found out that 75 percent of them
already had access to non-GM varieties resistant to the Sweet
Potato Feather Mottle Virus. Promoting the farmer-to-farmer
exchange of these resistant varieties would have done much
to solve any problems created by the disease. Of course, this
would not have given Monsanto a propaganda victory.
The World Bank identified Kenya's problems this way: "The
Kenyan system lacks a focus on farmer empowerment. It is based
on a traditional top-down supply-driven approach that provides
little or no voice to the farmer." GM crops will only
make this situation worse.
Even in Kenya -- and other poor African countries -- the
solution to hunger does not necessarily involve producing
more food. Rather, it is ensuring that the ability to obtain
food is equally held by all. When transnational companies
decide what the problems of the Third World are and how to
solve them, it is simply another form of colonialism.
That didn't save Africa the first time around, either.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.