ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

16 August 2002


1.Africa is Merely a Pawn
2.Genetically Modified Company
3.Earth summit "anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western"


1. Africa is Merely a Pawn

Saliem Fakir
Mail & Guardian, Letter to the Editor, August 15, 2002

The garb of educated commentary offered by Jason Lott ("We need more reasoned public debate over GM food", August 8) is vacuous and appalling given his credentials as an ethicist.

Lott misses the larger issue. He does not ask why the United States is choosing the food crisis in Southern Africa to promote its imperial agenda of spreading a mode of food production that supports its biotech industry, which in the end is about profits and not people who are starving.

He seems oblivious of the ethics of such a policy agenda, and instead diverts our attention away from the US's questionable ethical food aid policy by parading Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's position and that of other governments in the region as being demonic.

Lott does not seem to think that one should be suspicious of this manoeuvre on the part of the US. The current context in Southern Africa, given the crises in Zimbabwe and the sale of food stock by the Malawian government, has led to an unwitting moral trap. The US is taking advantage of this, and is forcing governments in the region to make a drastic policy decision: mass starvation versus breaking their policy on genetically modified (GM) food.

There is a larger strategy behind this. It has to do with the US's attempt to break the European Union's position on GM foods.

Africa is merely a pawn in this global game of chess. By forcing Southern African governments to take a decision on GM foods, a precedent will be set. The next time round, US corporations will roll out their grand plan for agricultural rejuvenation in Africa founded on GM-based production. African governments will be hard-pressed to resist given that they have subverted their own policies in the face of a food crisis.

If sufficient regions adopt this mode of production, the US will have created a group of like-minded countries to help it lobby against EU policies at trade negotiations. The US is interested in the EU market because this is where money is to be made, not in Africa.

The strategy also goes beyond GM food. A platform will be created where new biotech products can find their way into the world markets. Biotechnology is regarded as the US's strategic industry for the 21st century. The game now is to ensure that markets are opened so that investment in the industry over the past 30 years can begin to reap benefits.

Lott also fails to address why there is a food shortage in the region. The role of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should not go without criticism. The SADC should play a better coordinating and monitoring role to ensure the region does not become dependent on foreign food aid. As the current debate demonstrates, this forces countries to accept food assistance at the expense of their policies.

Food aid from a power with imperial intentions does not come without a foreign policy agenda. Regional food security is an obligation of all SADC member states, and to blame individual states is to abscond from this responsibility.

The lessons from this saga need to inform the manner in which we coordinate aid assistance under the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

-- Saliem Fakir, director, IUCN (World Conservation Union) South Africa office
see also: War on the peasantry by George Monbiot,3604,773596,00.html


2. Genetically Modified Company

The Economist, August 15, 2002

Sceptics abound.  Has Monsanto learned its lesson since causing a stir in the late 1990s?

"AS A man sows, so shall he reap," is a biblical lesson that really means something in the agricultural chemical and seed business, where profits critically depend on timely plantings and rich harvests. One firm, however, knows far better than most what it is to reap the whirlwind: Monsanto, a leading purveyor of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Two years ago, Monsanto was arguably the world's most controversial company, praised by those who see a future of environmentally friendly farming and healthier diets in high-tech crops, and damned by others who consider them promoters of ecological destruction and corporate control of the global food supply. Under siege from anti-GM protestors and heavily indebted after a $5.3 billion acquisition spree, Monsanto found temporary shelter under the roof of Pharmacia, an American drug company that bought the embattled firm for its successful pharmaceutical division, Searle.

In 2000, Pharmacia floated 15% of Monsanto on the stockmarket and announced plans to spin off the rest by the end of this year. Last month, Pharmacia itself was snapped up by Pfizer, an American rival, and the Monsanto sale was pushed forward. This week, Pharmacia handed its remaining stake to its shareholders, to keep or to sell as they wish.

On the face of it, the new Monsanto is quite different from the old one. In 2000, Hendrik Verfaillie, a company veteran, replaced Robert Shapiro as boss. Mr Verfaillie is seen as more pragmatic than the missionary Mr Shapiro, who preached the gospel of the "life sciences" and the synergies from mixing farming, food and pharmaceuticals. Not only has Monsanto lost its drug-making arm, but it has also shed its NutraSweet business. Within agriculture, it has narrowed its interest to four key crops - soyabeans, maize, wheat and cotton.

Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chief operating officer, says that Pharmacia gave the firm much-needed breathing space, assuming most of its debt and leaving it to get on with cutting costs and integrating the many seed companies that it bought in the late 1990s. The upshot is that Monsanto is now liquid once more. By the end of this year, it expects to have free cash flow of at least $400m.

Monsanto is not the only company in the industry having to tighten its belt. Rivals such as Syngenta and DuPont have also been cutting costs in order to meet profit-margin targets. This is particularly true in the crop-protection business: global sales of chemical pesticides are expected to shrink by more than 10% to $11.8 billion by 2004.

As John Moten of Deutsche Bank points out, the agrochemical and seed industry is under pressure on several fronts, including persistently low commodity prices and industry consolidation. The second of these has created bigger competitors in crop chemicals. Another factor is the economic meltdown in Argentina, a big consumer of chemicals. In the second quarter of this year, Monsanto wrote off $154m of unpaid bills there. Like its rivals, the company has since reduced its Argentinian risk by refusing credit and taking payment for goods only in cash or grain.

Although crop chemicals still account for almost 70% of Monsanto's revenues, their prospects are dimming, because the firm's bestselling herbicide, called Roundup, has gone off-patent. Monsanto sees its future in fancy seeds and genomics. Though it may not trumpet this article of faith quite as loudly as before, the firm is backing it with plenty of money: last year, 83% of Monsanto's $550m investment in research and development went into seeds and biotechnology, compared with an industry average of 29%. The latest crop of products close to being commercialised include GM maize, which resists a nasty pest called rootworm, herbicide-tolerant wheat and more nutritious feed for livestock.

European distaste

In Europe, where public resistance to GM foods has been fiercest, leading to a de facto moratorium on commercial planting of GM crops, betting on "Frankenstein foods" might sound like asking for trouble. But Mr Verfaillie points to the rapid adoption of GM crops outside Europe as farmers plump for the savings on chemicals that the use of such crops can bring (see chart). Mr Grant reckons that the environmental benefits of lower pesticide use and other ecological advantages - all hotly contested by anti-GM activists - should help to win over European consumers.

At the end of the 1990s, Monsanto made the mistake of assuming that brilliant science will speak for itself, and that public concerns are not worth worrying about. Mr Verfaillie admits that the company was arrogant and secretive in its dealings with the outside world, and blinded by its own technical success. This time round, the firm is big on public dialogue, talking to its customers, transparency and technology-sharing - all of which is embodied in an earnest promise ("The New Monsanto Pledge") introduced by Mr Verfaillie two years ago. Mr Verfaillie is even mildly optimistic about the firm's long-term prospects in Europe. He is, after all, Belgian. That Monsanto is now talking to the public is good. But to win over the sceptics it will need to prove that it is listening as well.


3. Earth summit "anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western"
Aug 16 - Oil lobby dismisses Earth summit
by Anthony Browne, Environment Editor From today's Times
CONSERVATIVE lobbyists in the US funded by Esso have urged President Bush to derail the Earth summit in Johannesburg because it is "anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western". The lobbyists, funded by the oil company that was also a big donor to the President's election campaign, urged Mr Bush to make sure that global warming was kept off the agenda at the summit, which starts later this month. In a letter leaked to Friends of Earth in the US, the lobbyists tell Mr Bush: "We applaud your decision not to attend in person . . . the summit will provide a global media stage for many of the most irresponsible and destructive elements in critical economic and environmental issues. Your presence would only help publicise various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalisation and anti-Western agendas," it said.

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