The uproar in Ireland over horsemeat, the narrow defeat of Proposition 37 in California which would have made it mandatory to label all food containing GMOs – reveal that Africans must now join the rest of the world in resisting GMO foods and biotechnology, no matter how effectively packaged
Recent literature suggests that the Tanzania’s leadership is opposed to restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and bio-technology. Indeed in March this year, President Jakaya Kikwete is said to have personally blamed GMO critics as an uninformed lot that needs self-education. Could it be the case that it is he who is ‘under-informed’ about global food safety trends?
On November 6, 2012, Californians voted on Proposition 37, a statewide initiative. Had it succeeded, it would have made it a requirement to label all foods containing GMOs, the first time in US history. The initiative was narrowly defeated at the polls, but it cost the big anti-labeling agri-businesses a whopping $47 million to defeat it. The California vote was a huge issue but it was overshadowed by the bigger national election that took place concurrently. Most African observers probably did not pay attention to Prop 37; they were preoccupied with whether or not Barack Obama would win a second presidential term.
KENYA BANS GMO PRODUCTS
On 8 November, 2012, two days after the California vote, the Government of Kenya banned importation of genetically-engineered foods until their safety to human health was scientifically confirmed. Presumably, the burden of proof regarding safety was thrown at the GMO-advocates. Well-funded pro-GMO forces in Kenya were up in arms against the importation ban; but it is still in force.
In mid-January 2013, another food-related outcry erupted, this time in Europe. Probably prodded into action by the public GMO controversy, Irish food inspectors had uncovered almost 30 percent horsemeat in beef burgers intended for human consumption. Further tests revealed that burger products elsewhere in the country had traces of horse and pig DNA.
The horsemeat issue in Britain triggered considerable public agitation in South Africa, an importer of food from the UK. However, the crisis slowly subsided when SA’s food companies issued public assurances that they were not implicated in the British food scandal as they did not import any of the involved products.
Thousands of kilometers away from Kenya, Britain, SA, and the USA, the Catholic Medical Association of Nigeria (CMAN) was busy nagging Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, not to sign into law a proposed bill that would have allowed GMOs to be imported into the country.
According to the Association, such a move would have the potential of destroying lives of Nigerians. The Association thus advised the Nigerian Federal Authorities not to allow introduction of GMO products into the country because, overall, uncertainties about their benefits had led to their rejection in Europe.
What is the linking thread between these stories? Put simply, it is that people worldwide have become increasingly conscious and protective of what they ingest. Hence the uproar in Ireland over horsemeat in their foods, public outcry in SA regarding the British meat contamination, Kenya’s ban on GMO importation, and Nigeria’s reluctance to allow influx of GMOs. And, lest it is forgotten, there was California’s Prop 37, on food-labeling.
I once negotiated with a progressive journal about becoming its contributor as a writer. Its only condition was that my writing promoted Afro-optimism: positive aspects of contemporary Africa. In my view, it is the best news of the 21st century that Africans have now joined the rest of the world in resisting GMO foods and biotechnology, no matter how effectively packaged.
Today, public-interest news media worldwide is locked in the never-ending debate over gun control. Those against unrestricted possession of firearms insist that background checks must be conducted on all applicants for gun ownership. Presumably, if an applicant has a criminal record, he is of suspicious character and, therefore, disqualifies from owning a firearm. In short, what you do today will haunt you tomorrow.
Why isn’t the same logic applied to businesses, especially the multinational corporations that touch upon human lives around the world? Should the global community not ensure that previous business offenders are restrained from roaming the world ravaging mankind? Some anti-GMO activists now think in those terms regarding the US-based Monsanto Company.
THE MENACING TENTACLES OF MONSANTO
Monsanto is the world’s biggest food-engineering and genetically modified seed company. In addition to being the leader of the contemporary agri-businesses, it also has the dubious distinction of owning the most repulsive history, a long and checkered past.
‘Monsanto’s history is one steeped with controversial products, deadly consequences; massive cover-ups political sleight of hand, and culminates as a modern day plague on humanity, a plague that is about to peak to biblical proportions.’The American author of this statement goes on to chronicle Monsanto’s history of anti-social activities which include contribution to the initial building of the atomic bomb. But that is another story.
More recently, Monsanto has been involved in manufacturing other hazardous chemicals including DDT, the pesticide that was banned in the US in 1972. Subsequently, the same Monsanto got into the act of manufacturing Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant herbicide used in the Vietnam War to kill jungle growth and destroy growing crops, including food. Contact with the defoliant substance contaminated Vietnamese people and US troops indiscriminately, earning itself the nickname, the Merchant of Death.
POISONING, INJURING AND KILLING FOR PROFITS
In the early 1980s, US victims of Agent Orange and their families brought a class-action suit against the producers of the lethal herbicides, companies that supplied the chemical substance for the Vietnam War. The applicants sought compensation for injuries suffered from exposure to toxic Agent Orange. An out-of-court settlement of $180 million was reached in May 1984. Monsanto was a defendant in the case but continued to deny culpability even after the settlement.
Remarkably, Monsanto’s reputation as a danger to life and environment is not a new phenomenon; it goes back to its early beginnings. From the late 1920s to the early 1970s, the company manufactured PCBs in Anniston, Alabama, and left a gory trail.
PCBs are man-made chemicals once used to prevent fire explosions in electrical equipments and other industrial applications. Originally, PCBs were considered a life-saver but, ultimately, they turned out to be more: highly toxic products, causing birth defects and potentially carcinogenic.
In the four decades that Monsanto manufactured PCBs (1929 - 1971), it had a monopoly in the US and made hefty profits. Yet, it routinely dumped dangerous toxic wastes into a creek and oozing open-pit landfills around Anniston. As part of Monsanto’s long and checkered past, the dangers of those chemicals were withheld from the town’s residents.
The consequences of PCBs to the Anniston community were devastating. Over time, thousands of children developed cancer, cerebral palsy and other health complications directly linked to exposure to PCBs. When these health damages initially surfaced, there was even a specter of an explosive political reaction when innuendos of racism were floated. Rumors had it that Monsanto’s intentions were genocidal because west Anniston was primarily a black community.
Genocidal claims were unsustainable. However, the health dangers associated with Monsanto’s toxic activities in Anniston were obvious and undeniable. And most disconcerting, those dangers were known to Monsanto’s officialdom.
Back in 1966, Monsanto’s officials actually knew that “fish turned belly-up in ten seconds” when submerged in Anniston’s creek water, spurting blood and shedding skin as if they were dunked in boiling water. In due course, Monsanto’s files were unveiled clearly marked, ‘CONFIDENTIAL: Read, Learn and Destroy.’
Against this background a rhetorical question has arisen:
If Monsanto hid what it knew about its toxic pollution for decades, what is the company hiding from the public now? This question seems particularly important to us as this powerful company asks the world to trust it with a worldwide, high-stakes gamble with environmental and human health consequences of its genetically modified foods.
‘IT’S TIME TO TAKE DOWN THE BIOTECH BEHEMOTH’
Today, Monsanto has tentacles spread around the world, preaching the gospel of saving mankind from starvation. Yet, a quick background check reveals that the same company is a repeat offender against humanity everywhere. Critics are indeed justified in categorizing Monsanto as evil, unethical, poisonous and a killer. No wonder it has been dubbed a Modern Day Plague.
A question for Tanzania’s President: Are our peace-loving brothers and sisters in Tanzania entitled to Monsanto’s records of background checks? Better still, perhaps they should hear the words of Monsanto’s fellow American who is convinced that there is no room for negotiations, the company must be destroyed.
‘Living in a Monsanto nation, there can be no such a thing as ‘co-existence.’ It is impossible to co-exist with a reckless industry that endangers public health, bribes public officials, corrupts scientists, manipulates the media, destroys biodiversity, kills the soil, pollutes the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically enslaves the world's 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers. It's time to take down the Biotech Behemoth, before the living web of biodiversity is terminated.’
Such ‘powerful’ words would be easy to dismiss were they the ranting and raving of some deranged US critic from Iran, Iraq or Pakistan. The issue becomes immensely more complicated however, because they are words of Ronnie Commins. Other than having a profound aversion to GMOs and their peddlers, he is a mainstream American citizen, a devout political activist, who believes firmly that America is capable of self-reform.
If the words above reflect a case of genuine American self-criticism, they are an important warning that Africans pay attention to them. And it is incumbent upon African leaders to take them twice as seriously. We ignore them at our own peril.
*James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations, an independent write and a private consultant. He is a Kenyan based in South Africa.
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