Biotech Companies Up GMO Campaign in Africa


 by John Mbaira

 The East African

 May 31, 2008 

Unwitting African countries are being coaxed and coerced to cultivate and consume genetically modified crops in a campaign bankrolled by giant biotech multinationals and executed by cash-rich “scientific” organisations who extol technology as the panacea for the continent’s hunger and low agricultural productivity.

The big-bucks campaign has been picking up steam in East Africa in recent months with one announcement after another being made through compliant media outlets of grandiose initiatives aimed at helping the region’s countries to fight hunger.

The media reports on these initiatives rarely query the role of the global biotech giants nor do they examine the broader agenda behind the big pro-GMO push in African countries. Almost all the reports on the GMO initiatives either explicitly endorse them or end up reproducing without comment the glowingly positive picture painted by the GMO proponents.

As a result, the possible social, economic and health consequence of cultivating and consuming GM “Frankenfoods” are rarely covered. Observers say the uncritical attitude of the media means that it has unwittingly been incorporated into the campaign and has failed to inform millions of African smallholder farmers and their families about the entire truth on GMOs.

The safety aspects aside, this is likely to prove a fatal oversight in a region that has in the past few decades invested heavily in production for export of coffee, vegetables, flowers and other agricultural produce to Western markets — a growing proportion of it comprising organic or specialty items tailored to niche markets obsessed with purity and traceability of ingredients.

The European market in particular is increasingly hostile to genetically modified crops. In April 2007, according to the GMO-Free Europe website, at least 174 regions, over 4,500 municipalities and other local entities and tens of thousands of farmers and food producers in Europe have declared themselves “GMO-free,” expressing their commitment not to allow the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and food in their territories. 

On May 7 this year, the European Commission sent three controversial genetically modified crops back to its food safety agency in what activists described as “a huge vote of no-confidence in the EU’s approval system.”

The European Food Safety Authority was asked to review its previous opinion on the safety of a genetically modified potato in light of concerns raised by the World Health Organisation, the Institut Pasteur and the European Medicines Agency. The GM potato, produced by German chemicals company BASF, contains a gene which confers resistance to certain antibiotics considered “relevant” for human and animal health.

The food safety body was also asked to review its previous assessment of two GM maize varieties developed by the companies Syngenta and Pioneer/Dow, that are engineered to produce their own pesticide and which it had originally stated were safe. There is said to be growing scientific evidence showing that the insecticide could affect wildlife and may have knock-on effects on Europe’s biodiversity.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that the United States government is using the prevailing global food crisis to promote the use of genetically modified crops particularly in Africa. Recently, the paper said, US had proposed a $770 million package to ease the global crisis. However, Bush had subsequently directed the USAid to spend $150 million of the money “on development farming, which would include the use of GMO crops.” The paper also reported that the Bush administration has been trying to “persuade European nations to lift their objection to the use of GMO crops in Africa.”

In April, the paper reported, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had suggested at a Peace Corps conference that, “We need to look again at some of the issues concerning technology and food production. I know that GMOs are not popular around the world, but there are places that drought-resistant crops should be a part of the answer.”

The US had earlier tried to introduce GMO crops to Africa in 2002, with an offer of aid that included corn, some of which was genetically modified. Despite a severe drought, Zambia, under European Union pressurer rejected the aid altogether. Several other countries accepted the US corn, but only after it was milled. The Bush administration is reportedly working to persuade European nations to lift their objection to the use of GMO crops in Africa.

Not to be left behind, in its 2008 World Development Report, the World Bank urges rich countries to “sharply” raise financial support to countries willing to embrace genetic engineering in food production.

Perhaps taking its cue from the World Bank, Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) recently set up a $13 million fund to finance research on genetic engineering to control pests that ravage a number of staple crops in Kenya and Tanzania — bananas, rice, maize, sweet potatoes and coconuts.

Indeed, biotech multinationals appear to be designing GM-varieties specifically for particular African countries. For instance, on May 3, 2006, the head of Monsanto’s Kenyan subsidiary, Kinyua M’Mbijiwe, revealed that the US-based giant had developed a GM-maize variety for the Kenyan market.

Meanwhile, the latest major initiative was covered in this very paper. In The EastAfrican last week, it was announced that the Africa Bio-fortified Sorghum Project — a consortium of nine scientific bodies — is to launch a scheme to use genetic engineering in loading sorghum with additional nutritional contents. The $21 million initiative intends to “fortify” sorghum with vitamins A and E as well as iron and zinc, thus converting it into a more nutritious, easily digestible and attractive foodstuff.

It was claimed that when fully introduced, the GM-sorghum would solve a range of nutritional problems in sub-Saharan Africa, where “millions of people… suffer from health problems associated with vitamin and mineral deficiency.” And like similar reports on the potential benefits of GMOs for Africa, the report graphically replayed the plight of the poor in the continent. Arid climates and poor soils, the story stated, mean that 80 per cent of the children in the region “receive inadequate amounts of vitamin A (while) half the entire population suffers from iron deficiency and a third from zinc deficiency.”

Typically, once the news reports paint the African scenario in such heartrending terms, they proceed to predict almost magical scenarios in which the yet-to-be-tested GMOs eradicate such difficulties once and for all. In many cases, such self-declared GMO proponents as the head of Africa Harvest, Dr Florence Wambugu, are invited to make supporting arguments.

“Malnutrition remains a leading direct and indirect cause of the rise in many non-communicable diseases in Africa,” Dr Wambugu told The EastAfrican last week, adding that lack of micronutrients brings about impaired immune systems, blindness, low birth weight and so on.

In most cases, such stories conclude at that point. Rarely is any effort made to answer such questions as who is behind the funding of the GM research or who will end up getting the patents for such improved crop varieties. “There is a lot of manipulation going on and Unwitting African countries are being coaxed and coerced to cultivate and consume genetically modified crops in a campaign bankrolled by giant biotech multinationals and executed by cash-rich “scientific” organisations who extol technology as the panacea for the continent’s hunger and low agricultural productivity.

Mr Ngonyo said East Africans are not only provided little or no information about the health consequences of consuming GM-crop varieties but are also left in the dark about the implications of cultivating them in the poor and/or fragile soils prevailing in the region.

“The way the GMO story is told is like a fairy goddess has come to us, eager to give Africa all it ever needed,” he added.

Local oversight institutions mandated to police the proliferation of plant materials also appear oddly complacent. In a report carried in our sister paper, The Sunday Nation, in late March, this writer cited evidence that Kenyans have unwittingly been growing and consuming genetically modified maize.

The variety in question — PHB30V53 — is a hybrid that has its origins in the US and is patented by Dupont, one of the world’s leading biotech companies. It is imported into Kenya from South Africa ,where it is multiplied and packaged for the African market.

A determined effort by a group of 45 farmer organisations and non-governmental organisations operating under the auspices of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KBioC) led to the finding that PHB30V53 is contaminated with traces of the genetically modified organism Mon810, which is patented by Monsanto. KBioC had sought the help of Greenpeace scientists who took 42 samples of maize seeds from agrovet shops in Kibwezi, Machakos, Thika, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kitale towns. The samples were of maize seed varieties owned and marketed by local and international seed companies.

After sampling, the scientists ground the seeds into flour and after preliminary testing, 19 of the samples were found to be suspect and shipped to the laboratories of the Germany-based Eurofins GeneScan GmbH for further tests.

“Eurofins isolated PHB30V53, a variety that is owned and patented by Pioneer, a South African company,” Dr Daniel Maingi, a scientist with KBioC, told this writer.

 The sampling and testing took place late last year. Several South African and European publications covered the saga, with South Africa’s Business Day quoting the director of the African Centre for Biosafety, Mariam Mayet, on March 20 as saying, “The maize seeds are contaminated with a genetically engineered variety, Mon810, belonging to Monsanto, that has not been approved in Kenya.”

She added that maize laced with Mon810 contains a novel gene that is considered unsafe and is banned in several European countries. When the matter became public in Kenya, the Kenya government temporarily banned the marketing of the variety, only to lift the ban following an announcement by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) that its own analysis had established that the GMO traces in PHB30V53 were insignificant.

The organisation’s director, Chagema Kedera, criticised KBioC for going public over the matter before getting the signed certificate from Eurofins. This writer then managed — through the assistance of GreenPeace officials — to secure a signed certificate from Eurofins. It also emerged that the Kephis tests of the maize variety could only have been “preliminary” since the organisation does not have the necessary equipment to do a proper GMO test.

Later, Jan van Aken, of Greepeace’s Sustainable Agriculture Campaign, told The EastAfrican that though Eurofins had detected a mere 0.1 per cent contamination, this did not mean that the contaminated PHB30V53 variety is safe to grow and consume or that it has no negative effects on the environment.

“Even at 0.1 per cent, it could be disastrous in the long run,” he said, further arguing that even if it is assumed the Pioneer maize variety were planted on a mere 1,000 hectares in the country, this would mean a total of 80 million plants — in other words, 0.1 per cent of the 80 million plants amounts to 80,000 genetically modified plants “growing, pollinating and seeding” in Kenya this year alone.

In mid June last year, officials from the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition sampled 10 food items sold in some of Nairobi’s key supermarkets. They then sought assistance from Greenpeace International in screening the items for GMOs. KBioC released the results at a press conference on October 15, 2007, in which they announced that genetically modified foods had actually infiltrated the Kenyan market without being labelled as such.

The findings flew in the face of government officials repeated denials that GM foods are on sale in the country.

With the billions of dollars they generate each year, the giant biotech multinatinals have a great deal of clout when it comes to pushing for their interests with governments in industrialised countries, let alone Africa. In Death of Bees: GMO Crops and the Decline of Bee Colonies in North America, Brit Amos says that the power wielded by biotech conglomerates is enough to “manipulate government agricultural policy with a view to supporting their agenda of dominance in the agricultural industry.” 

He alleges that such American conglomerates as Monsanto, Pioneer HiBred and others, have created “seeds that reproduce only under certain conditions, often linked to the use of their own brands of fertiliser and/or insecticide.”

This power may now be translating into decisive influence not only over East African agricultural policies but also law-making processes in Kenya and other countries.

Observers cite the saga surrounding the yet-to-be enacted Biosafety Bill in Kenya that played out publicly over much of last year.

Although there was ample evidence that the Bill was weak in many respects, top politicians and a number of officials in Kenya’s Agriculture Ministry gave the nod to the Bill.