ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

6 August 200


An edited version of this article appeared in the South African Mail and Guardian this week.

US to force GE food onto the WSSD agenda
By Glenn Ashton.

Ten years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Genetically Engineered (GE) food was not even on the radar screen. At the Johannesburg Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), it remains off the agenda, yet it will be one of the hottest topics in town.

This summit takes place in the shadow of drought and famine in southern Africa. This famine has many causes, none of them technical, yet a technical quick fix is being touted as the saviour of Africa. Drought is cynically and contemptuously used as a marketing tool for GE.

Much of the food aid destined for drought stricken regions is sourced from the USA, where GE and conventional grain is mixed. US AID, the main donor has bluntly informed recipients that it is not the time to quibble when lives are at stake. This may have relevance on the moral level but is ethically questionable. Surely countries have the right to choose what seed they wish to import? The threat to African agriculture and its exports to Europe will be directly impacted by the presence of GE crops in areas that were previously clean.

Genetic Engineering is not even mentioned in the main negotiating text for the WSSD, yet it bubbles below, disguised under the sobriquet of biotechnology. Biotechnology includes GE but the two are as a sparrow is to a vulture.

Biotechnology is yoghurt, beer, cheese, bread, drugs and remediation, and has been with us for millenia. Biotechnology is fine. GE is the artificial insertion of foreign genes into unrelated species+ADs- it is a far cry from our understanding of biotechnology. GE food includes genes from bacteria, viruses, antibiotics, and now fish and pharmaceutical structures being blasted into our daily fare.

The equation of GE with biotechnology is the first semantic flick-flack in a game of smoke and mirrors. The prize is control of the global food supply. It is critical that this issue receives attention at any summit dealing with sustainable development. After all, no development without food is possible. But does sustainable development have to come with these risks and costs?

If the majority of civil society coming to Johannesburg had their way, GE food would be rejected. However a narrow interest group led by the US Government, Monsanto and other corporations together with a powerful and effective international lobby group are coming to town to sell GE food as an urgent humanitarian need.

The 10 years since Rio has seen the phenomenal growth of a GE industry. The fuse was lit in 1994 with the world’s first GE crop, the Flavr-Savr tomato going on sale in the USA. Today, two thirds of the soy and one third of the maize grown in the USA is GE. The US leads the world in GE crops and around 90% of this production emanates from one corporation, Monsanto.

Monsanto has morphed over the years from a chemical company that produced delightful products such as Agent Orange, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and agricultural chemicals, to the world’s biggest promoter of GE crops. Its leading agricultural chemical is a herbicide called Roundup, for which the patent expired in 2000.

Monsanto, now contractually links the use of this chemical to the purchase of their GE soy, canola and other herbicide resistant crops. Ordinarily, this market would have been lost to Monsanto but is now secure.

In Africa Monsanto has friends in high places. Florence Wambugu, the poster girl of the African GE cheerleaders' society, has a historical relationship with Monsanto, while shamelessly posing as an independent voice of Africa. Kele Lekoape was formerly the South African Assistant Director Genetics at the National Department of Agriculture and was instrumental in drafting the South African GMO Act. This Act has been condemned as ineffective and ambiguous and it has been claimed that it could have been drafted by the industry. It may as well have been - Monsanto now employs Lekoape in their public relations division. Monsanto has also recently bought two large agricultural seed companies, Carnia and Sensako, consolidating control of the food chain locally.

Monsanto has a strong influence on a powerful lobby group known as AfricaBio, a section 21 company. Africabio has unabashedly posed as the voice of African civil society in international fora. Lekoape been spokesperson for AfricaBio at several international congresses, calling for free international trade in GE commodities and increased international acceptance of GE crops.

AfricaBio is developing almost schizoid characteristics. As a non-profit, industry support group, they term themselves an NGO. They have even gone so far as to join SANGOCO, the South African NGO coalition and used their membership to actively undermine democratically agreed positions within SANGOCO, established for the WSSD. SANGOCO canvassed a wide range of opinion for these positions, yet AfricaBio has shown no compunction in attempting to undermine the democratic voice of civil society at one of the few global conferences in which civil society has a meaningful voice.

The question begs itself as to whether this corporate-driven NGO, can legitimately assume a place amongst civil society. This is greenwash of the first order, albeit a schizoid, novel, mutant type eminently suited to its originators. Is nothing sacred? The AfricaBio stance appears to be little more than a high-pressure sale of snake oil to a bunch of palookas.

The US is already coming out with all guns blazing to promote GE food as a major tool in the fight against global hunger. Tommy Thompson let us know the US will push it at the WSSD. Ann Veneman crushed due process at the UNFAO forum in Rome by dangling a $100 Million transgenic carrot. There will be more of the same at Johannesburg, unless civil society makes its voice heard.

President Bush said shortly after his inauguration that America will feed the world. By either flooding international markets with subsidised food, distributing aid or by exporting patented food crops, America will profit from global hunger. In a world where corporate power has clearly run amok, we now see it pushing at the highest level to control the global food supply.

It is not only Monsanto pushing - it is also Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, two massive food commodity handlers for whom segregation of GE and non GE crops become a liability. It is the US Department of Agriculture that directly supports GE research and has an interest in a patent on terminator technology, where sterile crops are grown, ensuring dependence. It is everything that is inimical to African food security and independence and runs counter to sustainability, to self sufficiency, to the right and ability to save, store and exchange seed. By introducing GE seed into Africa the threat of a new kind of biological serfdom beckons wide.

Are there alternatives to this scenario? Remember Bob Geldof playing for the starving Africans at the Band Aid concerts? That was ten years ago. Ethiopia, at the centre of that terrible drought, has for the past 7 years produced a surplus of food and has surplus food stocks. Small farmers produce this food using traditional methods, saving and sharing their own seeds. No GE crops and limited fertiliser are used. Where those photos of devastation were taken, the land and ecosystems have been regenerated by following best agricultural practice. Ethiopia has concentrated on self-sufficiency and independent food production for its people. Minimal input farming is practised together with sound conservation policies.

The use of GE crops is quite the opposite of this model. High input costs, seed that may not saved, coupled to high capital, intensive chemical and infrastructural inputs is a crazy response to hunger. This expects Africa to cope with being boosted from an agricultural basket case, with a complete absence of political, economic and infrastructure capacity, to a capital intensive, high-risk, high-input free-market dogfight.

The agricultural best practice debate will burn hot in Johannesburg. The first shots have been fired by the US, AfricaBio and their African compradors such as Florence Wambugu and Kele Lekoape. The ability of African to produce its own food, free of external constraints, stands threatened by the biological imperialists of the North. Their lure - the wealth of African biodiversity as collateral for their African investment. In the genetic revolution, this is the capital of the future.

Remember those starving people when this debate gets hurled at you. Do we cast them before the vagaries of the market system, dependent on aid of uncertain provenance when the system fails yet again? Or do we do we establish suitable conditions to build our own agricultural independence, as Ethiopia has so ably shown us?

What is at stake here is the clash of two largely incompatible systems. The real challenge is to come out of Johannesburg with a future for Africa that is not indentured to international capital and resources. Africa has paid long enough - we cannot buy snake oil from the smoothest operator in town.

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