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P Blanchard

As a range of eminent scientists back genetically modified crops as the answer to food security in Africa, Khadija Sharife asks in Pambazuka News whether proponents of the ‘Green Revolution’ have the interests of the continent’s people and the environment at heart, or are more concerned with generating profits for the companies that control the technology.

Sir David King is the current director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University. His take on GM crops and food security in Africa is breathtaking. ‘The problem is that the Western world's move toward organic farming – a lifestyle choice for a community with surplus food – and against agricultural technology in general and GM in particular, has been adopted across the whole of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, with devastating consequences,’ he said at the BA Festival of Science in Liverpool.

‘The position taken by NGOs and international organisations,’ he continued, ‘is to support traditional agricultural technologies. These technologies will not deliver the food for the burgeoning population of Africa. Suffering within that continent is largely driven by attitudes in the West, which are anti-science and anti-technology. We have the technology to feed the population of the planet. Do we have the ability to understand what we have?’

Sir David even thinks that GM crops could help Africa mirror the substantial increases in crop production seen in India and China. 'What was demonstrated in India and China was that modern agricultural technologies can multiply crop production per hectare.' Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne had said in August that 'growing GM crops in the developing world represents the biggest environmental disaster of all time' and that multinational corporations who were encouraging the growth of GM crops were conducting 'a gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong'.

But as Daniel Howden, the Africa correspondent of UK newspaper the Independent, pointed out in a rebuttal of Sir David: ‘The root of the [food"> problem in almost every case [in Africa"> is political, not scientific. For agriculture in Africa, the real problems stem from a global trade system that favours richer countries and large corporations, chronic under-investment by governments, and the gross distortion of food prices caused in large part by the explosion of biofuels.

‘Trade inequality has seen rich countries dumping subsidised food onto African markets, while erecting barriers themselves ... The agribusiness giants who have developed and patented GM crops have long argued that their mission is to feed the world, rarely missing an opportunity to mention starving Africans. The mission is, in fact, to make a profit.’


But William Gaud, the former executive vice president of the International Finance Corporation and administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), does not agree. ‘These [GM technologies"> and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution,’ he says. ‘It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.’

And the leaders in this so-called revolution are the ‘Gene Giants’ – the life-science, biotech and agri-chemical corporations – who have fashioned patents and monopolies on the blueprints of flora and fauna: Human, animal, mammal and plant life, colonising and commodifying the structure and composition of life. And these days, these giants and their friends have their eyes on Africa.

The original ‘Green Revolution’ was implemented in the 1960s by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations in conjunction with big industry scientists such as Norman Borlaug, the former DuPont microbiologist. United, they formed the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which was co-opted into the World Bank in 1972. According to John Vidal, the acclaimed environmental journalist for the Guardian (UK), ‘there are reasons to believe that the [Bill"> Gates food agenda is now being shaped by US corporate and government interests’ –perhaps referring here to the CGIAR's decision to partner with US government institutions such as USAID and the Department of Agriculture. USAID is categorised as an independent government institution created to provide economic and humanitarian aid. Their website states: ‘The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programmes has always been the United States. Close to 80 per cent of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programmes have helped created major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports, and [have"> meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans.’

The primary aim of the GM giants, as one of them has already admitted, is to ‘integrate GM into local food systems’, and ensure ‘technology transfer’ to developing countries. Leaked minutes of a meeting between the aid agencies and USAID officials, documented by GM Watch, reveal the political muscling that constitutes aid: Agencies are told to immediately report to the local USAID mission receiving governments questioning the GM content of food aid shipments. USAID promises to take action that has been interpreted by African officials as sanctions of various hues extending to restrictions of lending by multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and IMF.

Food aid distributed by USAID is derived from subsidised corporations. Cumulatively, US and EU subsidies total over US$1bn per day, producing goods that are subsequently dumped on nascent industries in developing countries via WTO, IMF and World Bank trade mechanisms. Unfortunately for the GM multinationals, African farmers have never taken to GM seeds or agri-chemicals. After 30 years of the Green Revolution and prodding by GM enthusiasts, Africa's answer to GM crops remains a firm ‘NO’, save for South Africa, one of the six pivotal GM growers in the world. In 2002, even in the midst of a sweeping famine in Southern Africa, the Africans still rejected GM food aid, compelling the FAO director general, Jacques Diouf of Senegal, to almost commit sacrilege by asking the African countries attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002 to accept the GM food aid because it was safe for human consumption. Diouf said: ‘The FAO, together with the WHO and WFP takes the view, based on information from a variety of sources and current specific knowledge, that the food being offered to Southern African countries is not likely to present a human health risk and may be eaten.’ His plea didn’t convince a lot of governments and people in the then famine-hit Southern Africa.

Green Revolution solutions were initially composed of agrichemicals and corporate-controlled hybrids, but have since expanded to include GM (or genetically modified organisms) in concert with aggressive herbicides.

The FAO in face contradicts the proponents of the Green Revolution by stating that the world currently produces 1.5 times the food required to feed the planet – and this claim is in fact supported by a wealth of civil society and environmental watchdogs such as GRAIN. ‘Farmers across the world produced a record 2.3 billion tons of grain in 2007, up 4 per cent on the previous year,’ GRAIN asserts. ‘Since 1961, the world's cereal output has tripled, while the population has doubled. Today, roughly 70 per cent of all so-called developing countries are net importers of food. And of the estimated 845 million hungry people in the world, 80 per cent are small farmers.’

ECOWAS recently revealed that food production in West Africa had doubled during the past two decades. A leaked report issued by the World Bank attributes high grain prices to the crops-for-fuel initiatives instituted by biotech companies to accelerate growth and dependence on corn, soya, and other GM monocultures, forcing 100 million below the poverty line.

Paradoxically, Africa was self-sufficient in food in the early 1960s, complete with a billion dollar food surplus, and a net exporter of cereals, amongst other produce. Yet by 1990, Africa was a net importer of food, and in 2004, continental debt stood at US$165bn and a food deficit of US$11bn. As the former vice president of the World Bank, the economist Hollis Chenery, has stated: ‘The main objective of foreign assistance, as many other tools of foreign policy, is to produce the kind of political and economic environment in the world in which the US can best pursue its own goals.’ The business of biotechnology is intimately entwined with agri-chemicals; over 60 per cent of GM seeds are built to be pesticide and herbicide dependent. In 2005, global pesticide sales stood at US$5.4bn, mainly accrued by three companies.

The new Green Revolution is propagated as the revolution of small farmers, focusing on products such as maize as opposed to the four major GM cash crops that constitute 90 per cent of all GM seeds, soya, canola, wheat and corn. Yet, reading between the lines, the motive behind the biotech industry's collaboration with CGIAR is to access the globe's largest gene bank in an attempt to patent seeds.


In 1987, the US Patent Office granted applicants the right to patent or establish ownership over genetically modified organisms, effecting legal, accessible and exploitable vacuums via ‘finders keepers’ mechanisms, with ‘discoveries’ consequently patented as the property of corporations, irrespective of geography or circumstance. In an attempt to dismantle negative impressions of patents, Professor Karl Jorda stated: ‘The prevailing thought today, and the American Patent Code thus characterises it, is that a patent is a property-a property like a house or a car or a share of stock – and not a special privilege, a monopoly granted by the government.

Yet patents constitute monopolised commerce within the context of genetic colonialism, precisely because the act establishes and accords the exclusive right of DNA to a select few through monetary acquisition, excluding and marginalising indigenous owners from their natural, innate and inherited existence.

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Biotech Century says: ‘The only reason for excluding patents on humans is that the US Constitution [now"> forbids slavery. Living beings are no longer perceived as birds and bees but as bundles of genetic information. The laws of nature are being rewritten to conform with our latest manipulation of the natural world..."

Corporations involved in the biotechnology, agri-chemical and pharmaceutical industries have formulated cartels by industrialising the food chain via vertical integration, leading to dumped goods, resulting in plummeting prices of raw commodities, and destroying developing countries' agriculture and industries by unfair competition.

And of course, the Green Revolution does not occur in isolation: The WTO now demands reciprocal trade agreements, forcefully pitting debt-laden developing economies in direct competition with powerful, subsidised, industrialised economies.

In 2008, the US Farm Bill scuppered the DOHA Round (of WTO trade talks) by approving over US$40bn in subsidies for agricultural corporations in the US, in contravention of the already unjust WTO legislation.

In Europe, the proposed EU Economic Partnerships Agreements (EPA) have pressed for the same conclusion, demanding reciprocal non-preferential trade agreements for 80 per cent of EU goods in 77 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) nations. Cumulatively, EU and US subsidies amount to $1bn a day, channelled into the politically motivated mechanisms of tied aid, specifically food aid. According to FoodFirst, ‘in 2007, 99.3 per cent of US food aid was 'in-kind', that is, food procured in the US and shipped to recipient countries on corporate ships, rather than purchased with cash or coupons closer to recipients.’

FoodFirst also states that, by law, 75 per cent of food aid in the US must be purchased, processed, transported and distributed by US companies. Bilateral trade agreements control 50-90 per cent of global food aid, forcing recipient countries to accept GM grain controlled in large part (75 per cent) by two multinationals contracted by the US government to distribute 30 per cent of food-aid grains. In all, four companies control the logistics of global food aid.

Dr Henry Miller, a former official of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the primary regulating body in the US, said, ‘government agencies have done exactly what big agri business has asked them to do and told them to do’.


But is GM food safe for human consumption? Andrew Taynton of SAFEAGE, a South African consumer movement, told New African: ‘Natural breeding techniques select plants or animals with desirable traits and cross breed within a species to create better crops or animals. GMs are developed in laboratories by splicing genes from unrelated species into the host organism.

‘For example, bacteria or virus genes are spliced into food crops and then reproduced in each and every cell in the plant. This carries several risks as it is a random and imprecise process. It can scramble the genome, cause mutations, fragments and multiple copies or turn neighbouring genes on or off. The main concerns about eating GM food are the development of new allergies, new toxins, new diseases, antibiotic resistance, and changed nutritional value.’

Dr Arpad Pusztai agrees: ‘Genetic modification is not a science,’ he says, ‘it is an empirical method of gene splicing that produces a product that could be commercially sold.’

Dr Pusztai is the world's foremost expert on plant lectins (defensive proteins that kill insects and other invaders), and author of over 270 published peer-reviewed studies, and former senior research fellow at the Rowett Institute in Scotland. In 1995, he was selected to head a US$1.6m research project charged with developing a model of assessing the safety of GM crops. Three years later, in 1998, Pusztai was invited to air his views on the UK's Granada Television's World in Action programme, with the permission of his director. His two-and-a-half-minute interview cautioning consumers on the dangers of GM consumption, already present in the food chain two years prior to the study, shocked the world and led to an intensive smear campaign and a gag order against him. According to him: ‘It is impossible to direct the modification into the part of the genome that the spliced transgene is built in. Not even the number of the incorporated transgene constructs can be predicted nor can scientists forecast how many of the plant's own genes are disturbed. In traditional breeding, it is only the parents' genes that are mixed up in the offspring and no genes foreign to the species are found. The current method of transgene splicing is a radically new method in which a gene from any organism could be transferred into any other plant's genome.’

Basically, scientists have broken the barriers of evolution by transferring anti-freeze genes from fish to tomatoes, from pigs to rice and from daffodils to corn. ‘In that alien genetic environment, alternative splicing of the bacterial gene might give rise to multiple variants of the intended protein or even to proteins bearing little structural relationship to the original one, with unpredictable effects on ecosystems and human health,’ says Dr Barry Commoner, senior scientist at the US-based Centre for the Biology of Natural Systems, in an article entitled Unravelling the DNA myth. ‘The list of malfunctions gets little notice,’ Commoner continues. ‘Biotechnology companies are not in the habit of publicising studies that question the efficacy of their miraculous products.’

Dr Pusztai agrees: ‘Just ask any scientist how difficult it is to publish results that are not to the liking of the GM biotechnology industry.’ His words are echoed by another scientist of note, Dr Shiv Chopra, a distinguished microbiologist, formerly at Health Canada and another GM whistleblower. Chopra too was subjected to an intense smear campaign and eventually fired even though his study, Gaps analysis, led to the EU and Canada banning the carcinogenic GM hormone, Posilac.

Chopra says: ‘Selective breeding is not genetic modification because the first falls within the natural system and the second works against it. This kind of genetic crossing cannot survive by natural means, it will only result in sterility.’

Which brings us to ‘V-Gurts’ (Varietal Genetic Use Restriction Technologies), also known as suicide seeds or terminator technology. These seeds are instrumental in the GM Round-Up Ready system (or RR), ensuring a continuous dependent market from those farmers no longer capable of harvesting crops without buying RR seeds and accessories such as the herbicide, glysophate.

‘In terms of self-sufficiency, African countries are unfortunately in the worst position,’ says Chopra. ‘GM seeds are made to be herbicide and pesticide dependent for corporate profit only. No one can predict how proteins thus produced will behave or how the native and foreign DNA will interact, except that new seed may possess previously unknown traits such as RR canola or soya bean, etc. Antimicrobial resistance genes to human pathogens can cause infections that cannot be treated by relevant antibiotics.’ And Pusztai warns: ‘If and when gene coding for an antibiotic still used in human or veterinary medicine is taken up by bacteria, thus made antibiotic resistant, the danger is that our medicinal antibiotics will be made useless.’

The US Centres for Disease Control has been quoted as saying ‘at least 80 per cent of food-related illnesses are caused by viruses or pathogens that scientists cannot even identify.

‘And this correlates roughly to the same period in which humans have been made to unwittingly consume GM produce,’ says Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology.

According to Andrew Taynton: ‘The GM revolution aims to give global corporations control of our food supply so that they can extract maximum profits through the use of patents. Christian Aid has pointed out that this will put too much control in the hands of too few people.’ But, unfortunately, it is unlikely that consumers – exposed to the commercial media, interlocked at board levels with biotech and pesticide multinationals – will ever find out.

In an article, Suppressing dissent in science, Jonathan Matthews describes how funding accounts for 80-90 per cent of research in top British universities. He quotes the Institute for Professional Specialists which carried out a survey of scientists working in governments or public/private institutions as stating that 33 per cent had changed the results of their studies to suit the client's interest, whilst 10 per cent felt immense pressure to alter the outcome in order to secure the contract.

'There are no regulations, stringent or otherwise, to monitor the damage being done by the applications of GM seeds anywhere,’ says Chopra. ‘Such information remains in the private and confidential domain of corporations which are actually being helped to keep it that way by big governments.’


* This article first appeared in New African.
* Khadija Sharife is a journalist and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.