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2013 articles

Biotech ambassadors in Africa

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Mark Lynas Africa tour

Jonathan Matthews of GMWatch lifts the lid on the US-and-industry-backed lobbyists driving the latest wave of corporate colonialism in Africa.

Back in May 2013, a controversial PR operative headed for Africa. He even tweeted a picture of the hotel where he was staying in Dar es Salaam.

Credited with running some of Monsanto's most dubious PR operations, Jay Byrne was in Tanzania to attend a regional planning meeting of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB). The OFAB is a collaboration between two of the key lobby groups promoting GM in Africa - the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). 

And the AATF featured in another of Byrne's tweets from Africa:

Visiting with @aatfafrica working on #GMOs benefits for #africa good resource for @mark_lynas http://aatf-africa.org/ 

That a Monsanto spindoctor is collaborating with AATF tells us nothing we don't already know - that Africa is a high value target for the biotech industry, particularly given all the difficulties it's having elsewhere. A big part of the interest, of course, relates to Africa's PR value as a tool for undermining growing global opposition.

But why the reference to Lynas? That became clear in late July 2013, when Mark Lynas began a tour promoting GM in Africa, in which he has been the guest of the very lobbyists Byrne was meeting.

Mark Lynas flierAs ever, Lynas is being promoted with bogus credentials. In Dar es Salaam and elsewhere, OFAB proclaim him a 'former founder member of the global anti-GM movement', even though the claim that Lynas had any founding role in the movement has been repeatedly debunked, and condemned as 'not true' by a whole raft of well known environmentalists.

The Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity has also challenged Lynas over his claim not to be a GM ambassador for the corporate biotech lobby, asking: 'So Mark: Who is paying for your trip to Dar es Salaam? Could it possibly be AATF or OFAB whose logos appear on the flyer?'

OFAB, it will be remembered, is a partnership between AATF and ISAAA. Although AATF only list bodies like USAID and the Gates Foundation among its donors, there have also been persistent reports of direct biotech industry involvement and backing.

A 2002 State Department communication, for instance, describes AATF as 'a partnership between USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto, Dupont/Pioneer, Dow Agrosciences, Syngenta, and Aventis'.

In the case of ISAAA, there is no ambiguity at all about its industry backing. Funders past and present include Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont/Pioneer, as well as the USDA and USAID. And its high-profile board members have included Monsanto's Robert Fraley, Wally Beversdorf of Syngenta, and Gabrielle Persley of the AusBiotech Alliance. Needless to say, ISAAA has no representatives from farmer organizations in Africa. 

And there is also no doubt that ISAAA/OFAB have been providing platforms for Lynas on his African tour. In Kenya, for instance, according to Kwame Ogero, Program Assistant & OFAB Kenya Liaison Officer at the ISAAA AfriCenter, 'OFAB Kenya has invited Mr. Mark Lynas from Oxford to give a lecture on biotechnology perceptions at the University of Nairobi on 25 July 2013.' 

But the question of who is paying for all the various expenses of a lecture tour of Africa, such as airfares, transport, hotel rooms, etc., remains opaque. It would be natural to think that the USAID-and-industry-linked OFAB/ISAAA/AATF would be to the fore, but questions posed to Lynas about his funding have so far been ignored. 

When, however, the African Biodiversity Network suggested he had taken USAID and Monsanto money, Lynas responded sharply, calling such a claim 'libellous' and 'a lie', and demanding ABN issue an apology.

Lynas followed this up by demanding ABN publish details of their own funding, and when they pointed out this was already available on their website, he then attacked Comic Relieffor funding ABN, declaring 'I have donated to Comic Relief the last several years. Never again.' Ironically though, Lynas currently provides no details at all about his own funding onhis website beyond a fierce declaration that he has never taken the corporate shilling.

Those funding details are relevant, not just to the various aspects of his Africa trip, but to a whole series of GM-promoting engagements he has undertaken. When he spoke at the World Potato Congress, for instance, the diamond sponsor of that event was gene giant Bayer. And when he headlined a meeting at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, he was the guest of an institute launched with a $50-million gift from the Monsanto Fund, from which it has subsequently received many millions more. Monsanto also donated the 40-acre tract of land where the Center sits cheek by jowl with the multinational. In fact, the links are so close that the Center's been called Monsanto's 'NGO research and PR arm.' Yet in a BBC interview, Lynas described the Danforth Center simply as ‘publicly funded.'

The lack of transparency about his own funding, and his disingenuity about those who support him, is given added piquancy by his repeated attacks on the European funding of African groups who raise concerns about GM crops. How is their funding such an issue for Lynas but that of the groups funded to promote GMOs in Africa by the US and Monsanto isn't?

Of course, it is not only a question of who exactly is providing the new 'go to' boy of the GM lobby with all the platforms he speaks from, but how he uses those platforms. 

The texts of Lynas' speeches in Africa have not been made available, as yet at least, but we do know what he has been saying on Twitter about his Africa trip. In one instance, he promoted the importance of a virus-resistant GM cassava project in Tanzania by declaring: 'There are no conventional ways to achieve virus resistance.' But this is completely untrue. In reality, conventional (non-GM) plant breeding has been quietly producing virus resistant cassavas that are already making a remarkable difference in farmers' fields in Africa, even under drought conditions.

CartoonLynas making bogus claims about GM in Africa is nothing new. Earlier this year he told a UK audience, that, 'In Kenya if you develop a GM crop which has better nutrition or a higher yield to help poorer farmers then you will go to jail for 10 years.' But, in fact, there are no penalties for the act of creating a GMO, nutritious or otherwise. The 10 year jail sentence Lynas refers to is the maximum penalty for doing things that are not just illegal in Kenya but in many other countries, like releasing a GM crop into the environment without approval. And such approvals are not hard to come by under Kenya's biosafety law, which thanks to Wikileaks we now know was heavily driven by the US, as part of a push to aggressively promote Monsanto's interests across the developing world. 

Likewise, Lynas claimed in a speech in the States that western NGOs were responsible for thousands dying in Zambia when it refused GM food aid in 2002. This claim is also bogus. The Zambian Red Cross report that they 'didn't record a single death arising out of hunger' during that crisis. Claims to the contrary were put in circulation by corporate lobbyists, and are entirely without foundation. Yet Monsanto's spinmeister Jay Byrne called Lynas' speech'outstanding and insightful'.

Ruth Nyambura of the ABN sees things differently. For Nyambura it is highly revealing that Lynas not only mythologises the consequences of Zambia's decisions but portrays those decisions as dictated by western NGOs. She sees this as part of his dismissal of African opposition to GM as western inspired, while he happily promotes US-and-industry-backed front groups as the real voice of Africa. 

More widely, Nyambura sees Lynas' statements as reflecting an 'inability to understand and debate about the structural and systemic problems surrounding hunger in places like Africa'. And she sees his obsession with GMOs as 'just one more attempt at handing out top-down solutions designed in the west' and promoted by one more agent of corporate colonialism. 

But if Lynas is a GM ambassador in Africa, he insists he's an unpaid one. In a recent article in a Tanzanian paper, headlined 'Confessions of British Journalist', Lynas vehemently denied having been bribed, 'I have of course never taken a penny in funding from a single biotechnology company, and I never will.' In the absence of specifics though, some will continue to speculate about exactly who is arranging and paying for Lynas' many appearances, and just how much distance they really have from the industry that benefits.