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    Comment & analysis

    Conned with Corn

    Nnimmo Bassey

    2005-05-12, Issue 206

    http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/28103

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    The onslaught of the biotech industry is a modern day scramble for Africa, with genetically modified crops being promoted as the miracle cure to hunger and poverty with little analysis of their long term impact. The people of Africa and their governments must show solidarity, ask questions, and act.


    The scramble for Africa is getting hotter today than it may have been during the Berlin Conference at which she was partitioned. The partitioning of Africa sowed the seeds of discord and conflict that we are reaping today. Today, certain concepts have been painstakingly constructed and foisted on the continent. And this has been done in order to have Africa so compromised that she would simply just beg to be colonised once more. We are talking about the onslaught by the biotech industry on the innards of this continent.

    The siege is on. Many people imagine that the pressure on Africa to accept genetically modified grains or other crops as food aid ended with the widely known case with Zambia in 2002. That emblematic case rightly showed that every country has the sovereign right to determine what type of food to eat, irrespective of whether it is purchased in the market or is donated as aid. And it demonstrated to the world that the predicted catastrophe of Zambians starving never happened. The country thereafter recorded food surpluses, besides the fact that in the heat of the crisis the shortage was limited to sections of the country and there were supplies in other regions of traditional crops like cassava and millet that simply needed to be procured for the needy areas.

    Genetically engineered food has been presented as the ultimate weapon against hunger in Africa and the world. This is also seriously suggested in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), meaning that this may be the direction efforts will be concentrated in the years to come. African leaders have largely been co-opted into thinking this way because they are warned that since the so-called Green Revolution train left Africa standing at the station they should not miss the gene train. It has been noted that the Green Revolution required extensive chemical and equipment inputs and although food production increased in some areas, small scale farmers were marginalised, the environment took a beating and on the aggregate hunger was boosted in the world.

    The next major push has manifested in the presenting of Monsanto’s genetically engineered cotton (Bt Cotton) as the solution. This cotton variety, which has been engineered to withstand certain pests and to be suitable for use of certain herbicides, has been planted in India, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. The biotech industry touts these as huge successes, but there are many reported cases where farmers have recorded lower yields, and have gone into debt. The manifold cases of failure of Bt Cotton are so well documented that we may not need to go into details here. Suffice to say that industry’s underhand push and shove has been vividly illustrated in the bribery scandal that rocked Indonesia where a prominent biotech industry bribed as many as 144 serving and retired government officials in order to have approval for the commercial cultivation of the variety.

    Last year, some governments in West Africa pledged to embrace this same variety of cotton. The next point of call of the proponents of Bt Cotton is Tanzania. All these efforts have been made under the direction of the USAID, one of whose major goals is promoting the spread of GMOs in the world and pointedly working to "integrate GM into local food systems."

    The push into Tanzania gathered momentum in 2002 when USAID began meeting with Tanzanian scientists to describe the potential of engineered foods. Some of these USA advocates were also the architects of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Nigeria in 2004 for a biotech programme managed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria.

    The interesting thing about the Tanzanian case is that although cotton production was suspended in the southern part of Tanzania because of the spread of redball cotton disease in 1968, the country is currently experiencing cotton production surpluses. When this is coupled with the record low cotton price in the market, it becomes hard to see what arguments could be pushed for the genetically engineered variety of cotton.

    Barring a change of heart, the government of Tanzania has already buckled under intense pressure and the country is set to join Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Kenya in conducting confined field trials (CFT) for genetically modified crops. These so-called field tests will eventually open the nation’s doors to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

    As already noted, food aid is one of the main vehicles for putting GMOs on the platter of the world. Do we call that charity? Not so. One issue about some of these food aids is that citizens in the recipient country may not even know that their country receives food aid. In 2003 Nigeria received 11000.6 Metric Tons of soy meal as food aid from the United States, under the US title “Food for Progress”. Taking into account that around 60% of soybeans in the US is genetically modified we strongly suspect Nigeria has been receiving GM products without any prior information to the Government, and with our population completely uninformed on this. In 2004 the country was billed to receive 10,500 tons of rice.

    People around the world have been vocal is calling for caution in the introduction of genetic engineering in food crop propagation. The biotech industry with their powerful lobby has stoutly resisted compliance with the precautionary principle enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety. The precautionary principle as the name implies requires that countries apply caution when considering or opening doors to bringing GMOs into their environment. One of the reasons for this is that the safety of GMOs has not been unequivocally proven.

    The biotech industry thrives on subverting the ability of people to protect themselves and their environments. They do this through deliberate contamination and illegal release of genetically modified crops into the environment. In fact, when environments are acutely contaminated, nations have no option but to legalise the illegality. Many suspect that this may have been the case with Brazil. Also, many reports from North America show that when conventional and organic farms are contaminated by genetically modified neighbours, the innocent farmers are made liable and are forced to pay compensations to the polluter instead of the other way round. This is cowboy justice.

    The argument usually put forward as a response to the insistence on caution is that GMOs have not harmed anyone. But how can we know that GMOs have not harmed anyone if there are no serious studies on the populations consuming it? How do we prove damage to human health when there is little or no serious research over the toxicological, long term impacts of GM food? How do we know whether an allergy is caused by a GM crop where adequate tests have not been developed to prove the link between the GMO and the allergy? The large number of questions existing over the risks of GM crops clearly show that the world is not ready for its release until the questions are properly answered.

    An example of this need is the attitude of the European Commission, which is about to start new studies to examine the potential “cumulative long-term effects” genetically modified (GMO) crops might have on human and animal health in the longer term. This is coming eight years after the EU first allowed biotech crops. If the European Commission is now commissioning such studies, it shows that we still have a lot to learn from the risks of GMOs. And if that is the approach taken by Europeans, we have every reason to pause and think.

    But, the biotech industry is like a bull set loose in a china shop and needs all the controls possible. Recent reports of contamination of food supplies with illegal varieties should worry everyone. We refer to the case of Latin America where corn varieties with StarLink which are not authorised for human consumption have been found in food aid sent there in 2002 and also in 2005. Where they cannot deny the presence of the illegal grain the response of the biotech industry has been that the illegal corn is okay for consumption. No apologies.

    Africa received huge quantities of corn from the USA as food aid. From reports Africa was the top worldwide recipient of US corn as food aid in 2004. Three African countries, Angola (62.400 MT), Tanzania and Burundi (28.000 MT) were among the top five. Other African countries included Uganda (20.900 MT), and Kenya (13,600 MT). We recall here that after the refusal of GMO grains by Zambia and Zimbabwe the shipments of food aid to these countries in 2003 and 2004 dropped to zero.

    The push continues even though proponents like the USAID recognises that GM corn sent to Africa as food aid “would be expected to perform poorly in African growing conditions” and is “not well suited for planting” . Despite this, the maize keeps coming to Africa. If one country rejects it, it is channelled to another.

    We have many reasons to worry. Another reason is that the industry does not have GMOs under control and the risks to health and environment are unknown. A few weeks ago it became public that an untested experimental crop, from Swiss agrochemicals multinational group, Syngenta, called Bt10, has been illegally planted from 2001 until 2004 in the USA. This illegal variety contains antibiotic resistance marker genes, which the British Medical Association recommended not to commercialise due to the potential risks for human health. The EU, Japan and South Korea have already protested against this and are taking measures to test the grains in order to isolate and destroy the illegal variety. All Syngenta could say is that their 1000 tons of Bt10 food entered the EU accidentally. Initially Syngenta had claimed that Bt10 and Bt11 (an already commercialised variety of GM cron) were virtually identical, and therefore there were no risks, but later on it was verified as false since Bt10 contained antibiotic resistant marker genes, while that was not the case with the Bt11 type. What other areas have confused the biotech industry?

    What measures are taken by our Governments in Africa? Africa continues to be the biggest corn food aid recipient, not only of grain, but also corn soy blend and cornmeal. Are we going to continue to let our population be at risk and consume these GM products?

    Genetic pollution is not comparable to oil or other environmental pollution. Chemical pollution may finally dissipate after a thousand or so years, but genetic pollution on the other hand grows exponentially with time. They simply do not diminish. The problem expands.

    With the huge contamination of the world’s corn and soya stock and the risk that it may become irreversible, the biotech industry is now seriously working on commercialising GM wheat and rice. Indeed it is reported that China may release GM rice into the market in the next year. With the bulk of rice in Nigeria coming from Asia, it is a matter of time before GM rice from China floods our supply lines. This is inevitable, unless something is done, and quickly too.

    Just to think about all this makes us feel really scared about the food that is placed on our plates, and the seeds that we may be planting. If we blindly follow the biotech agri-business path we are bound to find that all traditional food crops will be genetically engineered in no time and as we have seen already, when the plague hits, the chance of recovery will be slim.

    This is the time for everyone, Nigerian, Tanzanian, Togolese, Camerounian, or Swazi to stand up and defend our collective right to live in dignity and to choose what seeds to plant and what foods to eat. We cannot afford to place our future in the hand of an industry that has lost control of its Frankenstein. Our governments, if they represent us, must begin now to ask questions, and to act. Tomorrow will be too late.

    * Nnimmo Bassey is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Africa GMO campaign co-ordinator. An ERA/TWN African Conference was held 21-23 March 2005 on Genetically Modified Organisms in Lagos, Nigeria and drew the attendance of over 50 participants from 16 countries. It focussed on the enormous and unrelenting assault and the real threat of a GMOs invasion of Africa. The conference brought together civil society groups, government representatives, scientists and academia from Nigeria, Africa, and from Asia.

    * Please send comments to [email protected]

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