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
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 these.
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
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
That didn't save Africa the first time around, either.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com . The author is
a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer
in Truax, Saskatchewan.