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Trevor Wells writes of his problems with AfricaBio's opposition to consumers knowing what they are eating and its attempts to manipulate farmers' views.

I would like to raise a concern I have about SAPA's (South African Press Association) article 'GM [genetically modified] potato rejected', which was published on the Business News webpage on 12 Thursday November 2009. My concern is with the superficial coverage the article provides and what I would see as clear public relations manipulation of the SAPA journalist.

The article is based overwhelmingly around the views and comments of GM industry lobbyist Jocelyn Webster, who is employed by AfricaBio.

The article quotes AfricaBio's website which claims it is a 'non-profit biotechnology organisation, aimed at promoting safe, ethical and responsible research, development and application of biotechnology and its products', the implication being that AfricaBio is not related to profit-motivated organisations.

However, according to AfricaBio's Section 21 Company constitution, business members have five votes, while research organisations and non-business members have, respectively, two votes and one vote. From this it is clear that AfricaBio is dominated by the industry. In fact, the seed giant Monsanto – South Africa has considerably more than five deciding votes as it has South African subsidiary companies as members too.

It is also clear from their continued lobbying to prevent the labelling of GM food that AfricaBio is opposed to consumers knowing what they are eating.

The article implied that Webster was reacting to 'anti-GMO activists' who claimed that the GM potato was rejected only on safety grounds. The media release from the 'activists' the African Centre for Biosafety clearly lists the 11 reasons listed in the minutes of the Executive Council for the rejection. The majority of these reasons were directly related to safety issues, both to health and the environment.

The article further implied that the tuber moth was a major concern to farmers and quoted Webster as saying that GM potatoes would lead to significant cost savings for farmers and, to a large extent, eliminate insecticide spraying. The Department of Agriculture however concluded that commercial farmers do not anticipate this event to present a significant lowering of inputs as the same spraying regime is required to manage other pests which the GM potato does not target. It further concluded that rodents were more of a pest than the tuber moth.

As far back as 2005 the Executive Director of the Chamber of Milling Jannie de Villiers complained: 'The export situation in South Africa is complicated by a "cocktail" of non-GM and GM maize. Some countries want GM maize, others do not.' 'But', added de Villiers, 'South Africa's system does not cater for differentiation, making it even more difficult to dispose of a surplus.' It is significant that the potato farmers themselves requested the department to reject the GM potato because the 'segregation of GM from non-GM potatoes would require an identity preservation system which is currently not in place'.

The article states that Webster said the improved potato was developed and tested with public funding for the benefit of all farmers. This would lead the average South African reader to erroneously conclude that South African taxpayers paid for the development of this potato to benefit South African farmers. Webster fails to put this into its true context.

For example, this particular GM potato project was a Trojan-horse strategy of the Southern Africa Regional Biosafety (SARB) programme. SARB is a sub-unit of a much larger USAID-funded project, the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP), managed originally by Michigan State University and more recently by Cornell (ABSP II). ABSP’s private sector partners have included Asgrow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and DNA Plant Technology (DNAP). USAID states that SARB’s objective is to provide the 'regulatory foundation to support field testing of genetically engineered products'.

Prior to the South African project the ABSP financed the testing of the same Spunta GM potato in Egypt for 8 years. In 1998 independent tests carried out by the Egyptian University revealed that rats fed GM potatoes developed lesions in their small intestines. Although this potato was not the ABSP Spunta potato, it contained a similar Bt gene. The Egyptian government subsequently refused approval. ABSP then set their sites on the South African regulatory system and used their SARB employee Muffy Koch to guide their application through the regulatory system. Koch applied privately on behalf of the Agricultural Research Council, using her company name Golden Genetics. There was much criticism of this in the local newspapers at the time. Not only was it strange that she was employed by SARB but she had also served on the advisory committee of the South African GMO (genetically modified organism) regulatory authority. The strategy was to use the Agricultural Research Council as the applicant to overcome public resistance to large American-owned seed companies. In July 2008 industry press agent Hans Lombard even tried to pass this off as 'Africa's first GM crop' 'developed by South Africans' using an unwitting or corrupt IOL journalist. If this project was accepted it would open the flood gates for these big seed companies to bring more and more GM products into Africa.

Hence the continued play on the words 'public-funded' by the plotters of this deception.

Webster further attempts to achieve SARB's objective to apply pressure to the regulators through this false statement: 'By denying the application at this stage, the South African regulators have effectively decided on behalf of farmers and circumvented the farmers' access to an evaluation of the improved potato.' Once more another untruth even more blatant than the disproved estimates which Webster claims farmers suffer. To the credit of the ARC, Potato South Africa, representing both commercial and small-scale farmers, have been participating all along in this process and have been kept fully informed of all evaluations. It is the farmers who have opposed this GM potato.


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