FOCUS ON AFRICA
1.The biotech take-over in Kenya
2.Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize
1.The biotech take-over in Kenya - the role of Monsanto, Syngenta and USAID
A number of reports in the past few months have highlighted the failure of the GM sweet potatoes trialled in Kenya. But this bad publicity is just an embarrassing blip in relation to the overall PR success of the project, which has been hailed for years with headlines such as 'Transgenic sweet potato could end Kenyan famine'. Nor should the project's failure mask the success of the industry's real agenda in Kenya, an agenda that is now being taken forward by Syngenta.
The GM sweet potato was field trialled by the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) but the project was initiated by Monsanto, and made possible by funding from Monsanto, USAID and the World Bank. It is one of two industry showcase projects in the country.
The other is that of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. The Foundation has as its declared goal 'contributing to sustainable food security for small-scale farmers'. Syngenta, the result of a merger incorporating Novartis, is the world's largest biotech company and Syngenta directors occupy 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation's board. Heinz Imhof, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Syngenta is the Foundation's President. Its Executive Director is Andrew Bennet, a controversial figure formerly with the UK government's Department for International Development (DFID). http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=175
According to a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, the Syngenta Foundation's activities have much more to do with PR than with delivering real benefits to poor farmers.
'The Syngenta Foundation,' he writes, 'has a poor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes, as illustrated by the Cinzana research station in Mali. The extent of damage by stem borers was repeatedly over-estimated based on ad hoc guesses. No rigorous assessments were done before the project was started of the extent of damage by stem borers, nor of whether farmers felt they were a significant problem. When the project did survey 30 villages throughout the country, none identified stem borers as the most pressing constraint upon maize production... project surveys found that many farmers were already using their own resistant varieties.' http://www.twnafrica.org/docs/GMCropsAfrica.pdf
The Syngenta Foundation's showcase project in Kenya is its 'Insect Resistant Maize for Africa - IRMA'. For this several maize varieties have been genetically engineered to protect against 3 types of stem borers. The project, as noted in the article from the Kenyan press belowis being jointly implemented by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, which is being funded by the Syngenta Foundation.
The Kenyan article holds out great hope for the project: 'Every year, Kenya loses Sh7.2 billion ($90 million) to a pesky insect that attacks maize stalks. The stem borer, which eats away 400,000 tonnes of maize - about 15 per cent of farmers’ annual harvests - has been on scientists’ minds for a long time. Now, a new project to develop insect resistant maize on the continent is likely to put farmers at rest.' ('Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize'),
However, accoring to Aaron deGrassi, the Syngenta project has failed to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya - the one which affects 80% of the country's maize crop. Moreover, deGrassi reports that in terms of alleviating poverty, which is the basis on which these projects are being promoted, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor. Of far greater importance are other agronomic constraints - such as 'droughts, low soil fertility, and the weed Stiga - as well as other socio-economic and political constraints - such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, poor transport, unequal land tenure, and political repression.'
In any case, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques that have already proven capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. DeGrassi points out that some of these methods, which have been shown to reduce borers to negligible levels, have been tested in farmers' fields and are already being adopted. These methods, unlike the use of the genetically engineered (Bt) maize, also do not face the likelihood of evolved pest resistance.
DeGrassi's over all conclusion on this Syngenta Foundation project, and others like it, is that 'while genetic modification may constitute a novel tool, in Africa it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one. Cash-strapped scientists working with poor farmers in Africa might well regard genetic modification as a waste of time and money.'
That's certainly been the case with the GM sweet potato project which wasted over 12 years of research and around $6 million. But deGrassi points out that despite their low suitability these projects manage to generate a great deal of interest, even excitement. Thus, while the 'maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques', they generate 'heavy publicity'. In particular, he notes, 'biotechnology firms have been eager to use philanthropic African projects for public relations purposes. Such public legitimacy may be needed by companies in their attempts to reduce trade restrictions, biosaftey controls, and monopoly regulations.'
And this takes us to the heart of the matter. The Monsanto-trained scientist Florence Wambugu, who did much to help the company realise the PR potential of the sweet potato project, now defends it in terms of it having laid a bridgehead for the continued introduction of GM crops into Kenya, and via Kenya into other countries in the region.
These are the revealing points Wambugu makes:
*Many Kenyan scientists were trained via the GM sweet potato project. "It is this human capacity that has enabled the country define its nature of support to the GM technology."
*Kenya now has a "bio-transformation" lab where other crops other than the sweet potato can be researched in future. "The lab puts Kenya in a position to form vital collaborations with countries such as South Africa which may be conducting related scientific work." It also enables it to take on other GM crops such as Syngenta Foundation's Bt maize project.
*Kenya is now in a position to run GM field trials.
*"The GM Sweet Potato Project also helped the development of national biosafety regulatory framework." And this sets a model for other African countries to follow.
These "spin-offs" from the project mean, according to Wambugu, that Kenya is now "well equipped with necessary expertise to serve the needs of [biotech-related] organizations". This, she says, includes "private sector companies wishing to commercialize GM crops".
Kenya is now, according to Wambugu, "a beacon of light in the region with regard to biosafety and GM technologies." And the Syngenta Foundation project will, of course, reinforce that status.
The man behind the GM sweet potato project, Robert Horsch of Monsanto, has said his role in the company is to 'create goodwill and help open future markets'. Constructing a bridgehead for the introduction of GM crops into the region certainly fulfils that purpose.
2. Kenya prepares to grow genetically modified maize
By Carole Kimutai
Sunday standard, Sunday, May 30, 2004
Every year, Kenya loses Sh7.2 billion ($90 million) to a pesky insect that attacks maize stalks.
The stem borer, which eats away 400,000 tonnes of maize ”” about 15 per cent of farmers’ annual harvests ”” has been on scientists’ minds for a long time.
Now, a new project to develop insect resistant maize on the continent is likely to put farmers at rest.
The Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project uses Biotechnology to develop varieties of the crop that are resistant to insects, and in particular the stem borer.
Already, a Sh10 million ($128,205.12) Biosafety Level II Green House for Genetically Modified maize has been constructed at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Biotechnology Research Centre complex.
The BGH will be the first in East Africa, making Kenya the only other country ”” other than South Africa ”” to have a greenhouse for maize on the continent. Construction work on the BGH began in March 2003.
The IRMA project is a being jointly implemented by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), which is funded by Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.
Plants from Bt maize seed that are infested with insect pests will be grown and evaluated for resistance. Seed increase of Bt maize inbred lines and crosses will also be made between Bt maize and other locally adapted maize germplasm to develop locally adapted maize types.
There will also be other research to confirm the efficacy of the technology and refine its utility.
Kenyan scientists will not be looking for new genes, but investigating the effectiveness of Bt genes (cry1Ab and cry1Ba) against Kenya stem borers or stalk borers that damage maize plants in most parts of Kenya.
Dr Stephen Mugo, a maize breeder from CIMMYT and Dr Ben Odhiambo, a plant pathologist from Kari, will head the project team.
Mugo says a green house allows plant growth during times when the normal external environment cannot allow it at the desired speed.
"When using greenhouses, crops can grow in winter with extra lighting, heat and water supplied. Likewise, in the tropics, supplying extra humidity, as well as disease and pest control, can enable the growth of high value crops," explains Mugo.
The greenhouse has a head house capable of serving eight greenhouse units.
Mugo says: "This particular green house is designed to allow containment of genetically modified plants to grow. It is designed to have bio-safety features to ensure restricted access by humans, livestock as well as pests, and contains whole plants, seeds and other tissue from the genetically modified plants."
That is why its called a Bio-safety Level II Green House Complex.
Mugo says all necessary bio-safety design requirements for growing GM maize have been followed.
Dr Diego Gonzalez de Leon, a consultant on the IRMA project, designed the green house, and a local contractor undertook construction work under the consultant’s supervision.
The BGH complex currently has three green houses. Green House I and II contain immature maize plants while Green House III is for mature plants. Notable characteristics of the rectangular shaped green house are the bio-safety features that have focused on security, emergency situations, personnel, sanitation, pollen management and material disposal. All these are in accordance with Kenya’s regulations and guidelines on bio-safety.
Catherine Taracha and Murenga Mwimali, both scientists from Kari who underwent a six-month on-the-job training in CIMMYT, Mexico, have specialised in biosafety, green house operations, and molecular analysis. Regina Tende, a masters student in entomology using biotechnology, is also in the team.
One enters the biotechnology green house through a corridor that connects it to the Biotechnology Research Centre, with the permission of an authorised member of staff. The main entry to the BGH uses a secret code and an electronic card to open.
All the green houses have a double door system, a clearly labelled set of rules, type of experiment taking place and telephone numbers of three persons to be contacted in case of an emergency.
Emergency precautions include extra glass windows in case of a breakage. All personnel working at the BGH have been taught how to make a replacement. In case of a high-magnitude earthquake, all materials in the BGH are to be destroyed. Fire fighting equipment and an emergency push bar exit door connected to an alarm system has also been installed.
To ensure effective management of pollen, all spaces on the doors have been sealed with rubber and every green house fitted with a 50-microns wire mesh to avoid pollen leaving the green house; maize has 80 microns.
Dr Odhiambo says when researching on transgenic material, certain specific safety guidelines are mandatrory: "We will be very careful when it comes to pollen dispersion and that is why we had to fit in the wire mesh."
All members of staff, including security officers, have been trained on handling material in the BGH, including use of white lab coats inside the green house, red coats while inside specific green house rooms, and blue coats while potting plants. While potting, soil will be mixed in the ratio of 1:1:1 Sand: Soil: Cocopit. The soil is stored in special containers and a passage connects it to the sterilising room.
The BGH has a sterilisation system in place. Sterilising involves wetting all material coming in specifically soil and any going out which also includes plant material.
The steriliser has iron metal bars that heat up and rotate when the machine is switched on.
When the hot metals come into contact with the wet material, steam is produced at very high temperatures. The material stays in the steriliser for four to five hours.
All green houses have red bio-hazardous bins where all destroyed plant materials and used soil is disposed.
Material is then taken to the sterilising room before being put in the gas incinerator, 10 metres from the greenhouse, where it is burned. The ash is then buried in a trench dug near the incinerator.
The final phase of the experiment will be green house III where the mature maize plants will be located. After they have produced combs, the seeds will be put in a seed store and the maize stalks destroyed. The seed store operates under a two-lock system.
That is, a metallic door and a seed cabinet. There is a cabinet specifically for storing transgenic seeds.
The seeds will be put in envelopes clearly labelled with the number of seeds and date of harvest. This is a way of keeping records of seeds that come in and go out.
Odhiambo says it is a way of monitoring so that the researchers can tell from the mature plants that survive the infestation stage and grow on to maturity and the number of combs that are produced.
Operations in the green house have, technically, already begun. "We have grown maize for mock trials while training staff on its operations. However, growing of Bt maize will only commence when seeds are available in Kenya," says Mugo.
Bt maize is an effective way of controlling insect pests compared to using poisonous insecticides. Bt maize is an environmentally friendly way of controlling pests because it specifically targets the stem borer without affecting other (non-target) organisms that are part of soil diversity.
Farmers have been using Bt insecticides for 60 years. The first crop incorporating the Bt technology first went on sale in 1996, in the form of cotton protected against a caterpillar pest.
Bt technology is available for cotton, fodder, maize and sweet corn crops as well as potatoes.
As soon as the Kenya Standing Technical Committee on Imports and Exports (KSTCIE) headed by Kenya Plant Health Inspection Services (KEPHIS) inspects the green house on the authority of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC), Bt maize can be grown. An application requesting for inspection has already been sent to the chairman of the committee. Approval to introduce Bt maize seeds and carrying out the specified research in the greenhouse has already been granted by the NBC. The project is now waiting for KEPHIS to issue a permit before Kenya’s first GM maize can be grown.
The Ministry of Agriculture and the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST) are putting up modalities for the introduction and use of GMOs in the country. The final implementation of the GMOs policy blueprint will be undertaken by KEPHIS.
According to the International Service for Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications by December 17, 2002, countries growing GM foods included the US, South Africa, Australia and India, among others. It is reported that other countries are also likely to be using GM ingredients in processed foods.
In Africa, Uganda has allowed the importation of GMOs while Zimbabwe and Zambia have rejected GM food aid.