NEW YORK, New York, December 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news --IPS news,
12/03/03: Even as an international debate rages over
the safety and wisdom of planting genetically modified (GM)
crops, they continue to spread like wildfire, particularly
in developing countries.
Farmland devoted to GM crops -- which are implanted with
foreign genes to boost production or other desirable traits
like pesticide resistance -- grew by 12 percent last year,
to 58.7 million hectares, according to the International Service
for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA),
an untiring biotechnology advocate.
In fact, more than one-fifth of the global crop of soybeans,
corn, cotton and canola is now biotech. By 2005, ISAAA predicts
the market value of GM crops will reach five billion dollars.
Much of this boom is in South Asia, Latin America and Africa,
where some proponents of sustainable agriculture -- as in
the North -- fear their concerns have been overridden by links
between the biotech industry and powerful development institutions
like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and World Bank.
For example, Eija Pehu, a senior scientist in the Bank's
department of agriculture and rural development (ARD), is
listed on the website of the ISAAA -- whose main funders include
biotech industry giants Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Crop
Science -- as a member of its board of directors.
According to the website, the board ”oversees programmatic,
organisational and policy strategies”.
The Bank says Pehu, a former president of Finnish biotech
company Unicrop Ltd., has not attended any board meetings,
and a decision by an internal Bank committee to approve her
position on the board is still pending.
Gabrielle Persley, an advisor to the Bank on biotechnology
issues, is also listed as director of ISAAA programmes.
With research centres in Africa, Asia and North America,
ISAAA describes its objective as ”the transfer and delivery
of appropriate biotechnology applications to developing countries”.
Its current projects include introducing GM sweet potatoes
and bananas in Kenya and Vietnam; it has pursued similar initiatives
in at least 10 other developing countries.
Robert Thompson, who headed the World Bank's ARD from 2000-2001,
is now chairman of the Washington-based International Food
and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC), a promoter of
biotechnology and trade liberalisation whose ”sustaining
sponsors” are Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill
Inc., Kraft Foods International and Syngenta Ag Company --
a veritable who's who of the top agri-business concerns in
Together, these firms -- and others like Dow AgroSciences
-- dominate the 31-billion-dollar pesticide market and the
30-billion-dollar agricultural seed market.
Another link between the World Bank and industry is the Bank's
staff exchange programme. In the past it has brought in representatives
from Dow, Aventis and Syngenta to work in the ARD, and dispatched
employees for stints at Rhone-Poulenc (since merged into Aventis)
and Novartis Agribusiness.
The programme has also included exchanges with academic institutions,
governments and United Nations development agencies.
”The influence of the biotech industry in these various
international institutions is consistent with their influence
at the national level, particularly here in the United States,”
said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade
Policy, a Minnesota-based non-profit group that advocates
”A lawyer who had previously represented Monsanto actually
wrote the primary U.S. regulation for biotech foods at the
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1992. He later went
to work for Monsanto after leaving the FDA,” Lilliston
said in an interview.
”The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is full
of former biotech industry employees -- including USDA Secretary
Ann Veneman, who served on the board of Calgene, which was
responsible for the biotech tomato and later bought up by
Monsanto,” he added.
World Bank staff have told civil society groups that industry
figures also have less visible but equally significant ways
of influencing Bank decisions, like daily phone calls and
visits to the Bank, or directing its staff to outside scientists
and researchers who are aligned with industry's agenda.
With nearly one-sixth of humanity chronically undernourished,
the conflict over biotechnology has also been framed as one
pitting wealthy northern consumers and environmentalists,
who can afford to reject the technology, against poor southern
farmers in desperate need of increasing production.
But that is not how biotech critics see the issue.
Michael Goldman, a professor at the University of Illinois
who has written and edited several books critical of the World
Bank, said in an interview the rejection of biotech foods
in Europe and elsewhere could mean the loss of crucial export
markets for southern countries that adopt the technology.
The European Union (EU) is nearing the end of a five-year
moratorium on GM crops, which has often put it at odds with
the U.S. embrace of biotech foods.
”Farmers all over the world have been forced to rethink
the latest biotech goods being sold to them,” added
Goldman. ”Without a European market, it may be too risky
for them to use GM seeds.”
According to Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at
the Pesticide Action Network, ”The World Bank's policies
are heavily steered by the United States, while the Europeans
are expressing concerns the Bank should take a more precautionary
approach (on biotech)”.
PAN, an umbrella group of more than 600 non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) worldwide working to phase out hazardous
pesticides, is funded largely by foundations and individual
At the World Bank -- which will spend some two billion dollars
on agricultural projects this year and next -- the countries
that give the most funding have the most votes, making the
United States its largest shareholder.
Washington has contributed a total of about 28 billion dollars
to the Bank's International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
and the International Finance Corporation, or 16.8 percent
and 24 percent respectively of the bodies' funding from governments.
”The question you're asking is: who does the bank listen
to for advice?” said Robert Watson, chief scientist
at the World Bank, in an interview. ”My personal view
is that we must hear from all stakeholders. And we try very
hard to get this balance.”
World Bank sources say that about 50 million dollars in bank
loans have been used for agricultural biotechnology projects,
but add that the money has gone to build capacity to regulate
and evaluate GM crops, rather than to actually do biotech
research, like open field trials.
The Bank also says that it no longer advocates pesticide
Critics point to past Bank loans for agricultural projects
to Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Senegal, which they
say were influenced by staff exchanges with AgrEvo and Rhone-Poulenc,
among other examples.
PAN is releasing a report this month that examines the Rhone-Poulenc
partnership with the World Bank in West Africa. In a press
release the pesticide company boasted the deal enabled it
”to break into the cocoa, coffee, rice and vegetable
markets, which account for around 40 percent of the crop protection
market in this region”.
The partnership followed on the heels of the exchange of
a World Bank staff member, Alassane Sow, to work a two-year
stint at Rhone-Poulenc.
Critics also contend that the real target of biotech companies
is not the small farmer in the South, but crops for industry
on a global scale.
”The particular concern about agricultural biotech
is that for all the discussion about drought-resistant sorghum
and pest-resistant millets, the interest of the industry --
Monsanto-Mahyco, Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, et al -- is
in that global market in bulk commodities,” said Charlie
Kronick, the chief GM policy advisor for Greenpeace in Britain.
”Crops grown for that market -- Soya, canola, cotton,
maize, which are used for either industrial-processed food
production or for animal feed in Europe and North America
-- have absolutely no application for the wide array of sustainable
agricultural solutions that are necessary in the developing
world,” Kronick said.
Others worry about the long-term environmental and health
impacts of the biotech revolution.
”The central challenge for those asking tough questions
about biotech crops has been to get independent information
and analysis,” Lilliston said. ”And because there
is so little governmental, industry or university research
on the risks of biotech, the NGO community has had to do it
on its own in many cases.”
”For example, two years ago an illegal variety of GM
corn was found in the food supply, called StarLink corn. This
was discovered by Friends of the Earth, not the industry and
In the StarLink case, a brand of GM corn that had only been
approved for animal feed somehow found its way into numerous
food products in the United States, including taco shells
and tortilla chips.
Allegations that StarLink caused allergic reactions in some
people prompted more than 300 product recalls and raised questions
about the efficacy of government regulation of GM products.