1.The biotech take-over in Kenya
2.Genes and a Hoe
The writer of the New York Times article (item 2 below) has swallowed biotech propaganda hook line and sinker. The article claims:
"Monsanto and Syngenta find no profit in recyclable seeds. They also have no incentive to create hardier versions of subsistence crops, like cassava and sweet potatoes, that agribusiness doesn't grow.
Kenya's corn project will move slowly. The research will take six more years and will cost $10 million, which will come from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, which is separate from the biotech company. Researchers must also persuade biotech companies, which hold the patents, to free up the technology."
The separation off of this project from the industry and the opposing interests of each, that the article claims, is complete garbage. This project origianted with the Syngenta Foundation - it's their baby but as with Monsanto and its sweet potato project in Kenya they have tried to disappear more into the background as the project has devloped.
In case anyone is in any doubt the Syngenta Foundation is funded by Syngenta. And as the first piece below points out, 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.
This project is, and always has been, a showcase project for the biotech industry.
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 [originally accompanying this commentary] 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.Genes and a Hoe
New York Times, June 15, 2005
Every year Kenya's corn farmers lose about 15 percent of their crop to the stem borer, an insect that drills into the corn stalk. Farmers who can afford it douse their corn repeatedly with pesticides, which poison the environment. The stem borer and its relatives steal the livelihood of millions of small corn farmers. Last year at least 125 Kenyans, most of them children, died from eating corn with toxins created by the stem borer.
Help may be on the way from genetic manipulation. Kenya has just begun trials of a corn identical to the local variety but carrying genes that increase its resistance to the stem borer. The project, carried out by the Kenyan national agricultural research program and the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, is a careful endeavor to test genetically modified crops and make them work for the small farmer.
A billion acres worldwide are planted with genetically modified crops. Yet virtually all the land belongs to agribusiness. That is because biotech companies create genetically modified seeds that can't be replanted; farmers who use them have to buy expensive patented seeds each year. Subsistence farmers need to be able to replant their own crop for seed, but companies like Monsanto and Syngenta find no profit in recyclable seeds. They also have no incentive to create hardier versions of subsistence crops, like cassava and sweet potatoes, that agribusiness doesn't grow.
Kenya's corn project will move slowly. The research will take six more years and will cost $10 million, which will come from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, which is separate from the biotech company. Researchers must also persuade biotech companies, which hold the patents, to free up the technology.
The Kenya project will likely get the needed financing and permissions. But similar studies will be needed elsewhere. Other farmers might, for example, want a drought-resistant corn. Since there is no market incentive, it won't happen without help from governments and foundations and cooperation from biotech concerns. The Kenya study is a model of how to do it and a warning about how difficult adapting this technology for poor farmers will be.