from Claire Robinson, WEEKLY WATCH editor
Welcome to WW57 bringing you all the latest news in brief on the GM issue in the week the biotech industry suffered a devastating blow to its PR claims over feeding the world.
The Kenyan press has just reported that Monsanto's showcase project in Africa - the virus resistant GM sweet potato - has proved a total failure.
The project was originally launched by the US's special envoy to the UN, who came to Kenya specially for the occasion. It has managed to generate literally thousands of column inches of hype in the world's media, much of it spun by Monsanto's Kenyan figurehead for the project, Dr Florence Wambugu.
Wambugu appeared on American TV, authored pieces for the journal Nature and the New York Times, and was even declared one of the 15 people who are reinventing the future - all on the strength of the claimed success of the project in Kenya. She claimed in article after article that the GM sweet potato yielded far in excess of the typical non-GM sweet potato and that it demonstrated how GM was the answer to Africa's economic and social despair.
The figures variously given in media pieces about the project suggested yield gains of between 60 to 400%! But now Kenyan scientists, who have been running trials on the crop, have finally reported that, far from yielding spectacularly more, Monsanto's crop actually yields less than conventional sweet potatoes. It has also been found susceptible to viral damage - the very thing it was designed to stop.
While Monsanto/Wambugu's reinvention of the future via genetic engineering turns out to be a myth, a poorly resourced conventional breeding programme in Uganda has resulted in a highly popular virus-resistant sweet potato that is roughly doubling yields.
In other words, the industry's GM myth-making is both distracting attention and swallowing scarce resources that could be far better directed to bringing real change for some of the world's poorest farmers (SETBACKS).
SETBACKS TO THE GM LOBBY
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
HEADLINES OF THE WEEK
SETBACKS TO THE GM LOBBY
+ GM SWEET POTATO FAILS MISERABLY IN KENYA
Trials to develop a virus resistant sweet potato in Kenya through GM have failed. The trials of the GM sweet potato were launched by US special envoy, Dr Andrew Young. But investigations by Kari's Biotechnology Centre say the technology has failed to produce a virus resistant strain.
The project with the help of its highly vocal figurehead, Florence Wambugu, has generated headlines and claims in the world's media, such as:
*MILLIONS SERVED; FLORENCE WAMBUGU FEEDS COUNTRY WITH FOOD OTHERS HAVE THE LUXURY TO AVOID
*Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine
*Dr. Wambugu's modified sweet potato... can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes.
*Genetically modified crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World
However, the report by researchers Dr Francis Nang'ayo and Dr Ben Odhiambo says,"There is no demonstrated advantage arising from genetic transformation using the initial gene construct". According to a piece on the report in the Kenyan press, however, it is clear from the report that during the trials non-GM crops used as controls yielded far more tuber than the GM crop. http://www.nationaudio.com/News/DailyNation/Supplements/horizon/current/story290120041.htm
"The transgenic material did not quite withstand virus challenge in the field," says the report, suggesting that the gene expression was inadequate or it failed to address the diversity of virus in the region or that the gene construct was simply inappropriate.
The Kari results confirm the findings of the report "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence", by Aaron deGrassi, of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK, which had warned of the multiple shortcomings of the GM sweet potato and suggested it was actually a PR tool rather than a genuine attempt to assist poor farmers.
DeGrassi's study also pointed out that the GM sweet potato was being hyped on the basis of lies about the yield of non-GM equivalents, underestimating them by massive amounts to create an illusion of stagnation. He also pointed to the contrasting success of a conventional breeding project which produced a new, high-yielding virus resistant variety in just a few years at a small cost that raised yields by roughly 100%. This gives the lie to the claim that 'Conventional breeding research had proved powerless to develop varieties resistant to these viruses'.
DeGrassi's study also concluded that GM does not address the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa.
Monsanto, USAID and ISAAA have poured millions into the project which, with its results kept secret till now, has been a huge success for them in PR terms and in terms of encouraging Kenya and others to think of GM as the solution to Africa's agricultural problems.
For more on the failure of the project:
Oddly, one voice missing from reports of the sweet potato failure has been Florence Wambugu, the Monsanto-trained scientist who has till now been extremely vocal in extolling the supposed virtues of this wonder-crop. GMWATCH's expose of the Wambugu hype is at http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=131
+ UK SUPERMARKETS TO STAY GM-FREE
Consumer hostility towards GM products in the UK means that British supermarkets are queuing up to pledge to stay firmly GM-free in 2004, according to an annual survey of retailers carried out by www.gmfoodnews.com.
The survey results show that opposition to GM foods is as strong as it was in 1999, when supermarkets first removed GM foods and ingredients from their shelves. Just as in 1999, no UK supermarket includes GM food or ingredients in its own-label products and supermarkets are also increasingly specifying GM-free feed for animals producing their meat, milk and eggs.
The UK government is apparently looking to take a more open approach to GM crops this year - it has made no secret of the fact that it would like to begin full-scale production - but there will be few - if any - opportunities for any British-grown GM crops on supermarket shelves, according to the survey. For the GM policies of British supermarkets, see below. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2476
+ SUPERMARKET GM POLICIES
CO-OP: "The Co-op will not be introducing any GM products in the coming year." - Alan Davies, customer relations, Co-Op
ICELAND: "As we were the first retailer to ban GM foods in May 1998, I can confirm that we will continue with the decision that we made then." Pauline Chapman, Iceland
SAINSBURY'S: "In response to overwhelming customer concern and demand for non-GM foods, Sainsbury's was the first major supermarket to eliminate GM ingredients from all own brand products. All of our own brand food, pet food and dietary supplements are clearly labelled and do not contain any GM ingredients. We continue to offer our customers the quality food and choice they expect from Sainsbury's." - Kate O'Sullivan, Sainsbury's
WAITROSE: "Since the end of March 1999, no Waitrose own label product has contained any GM ingredients as defined by law. Food safety is of paramount importance to both Waitrose and its customers.
"The debate about growing GM crops and the foods produced from them has elevated concerns about food, environmental and consumer safety issues. These include the possible effects on wildlife and their environment, and the transfer of 'inserted' characteristics to other crops or native plants.
"We aim to keep on top of any developing methods, concerns and issues that are raised, and will operate an 'authenticity' programme to ensure that all consignments of goods are free of GMOs. This programme uses a system of traceability from seed to supplier, known as an 'Identity Preserved' system that we require in our Technical Policy." - Lucy Taylor, Waitrose http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2476
+ CHILL GATHERS OVER GM WHEAT
Two articles on the reluctance of farmers and grain industry bodies to accept Monsanto's GM wheat, and the company's plans to dump its existing stores of GM wheat on South Africa, are at http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2439
Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which tracks the industry, said a rejection of GM wheat by American farmers could have a chilling effect on the overall biotech industry because companies would be reluctant to invest in other plants. "I think that wheat is really the bellwether of where the technology is going to go," Rodemeyer said. "The real question is whether the market is going to accept biotechnology in another food crop."
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK
+ EU COMMISSION APPROVES GM MAIZE
These are dark days for democracy. On 28 January, the unelected European Commission approved Syngenta's GM Bt-11 maize for commercialisation, giving EU ministers three months to consider the issue and reach a final decision. The EU has not allowed the experimental or commercial growth of any new gene crops since October 1998, or the imports of new GM-based food products. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2478
Green MEP Caroline Lucas said, "Today's decision is a disaster for democracy and flies in the face of the clearly expressed wishes of the majority of UK consumers - it will also lead to lengthy and costly court battles over liability for the environmental and health impacts of the decision," she said.
Commission chief Romano Prodi claimed the EU already had a "clear, transparent and stringent system" for the regulation of GM food, feed and plants. But Dr Lucas said his claims were untrue as there had been no agreement on legislation on the issues of co-existence, GM-free regions and civil liability in cases of environmental or health damage caused by GMOs.
She said: " The Commission's GM strategy is hopelessly misguided and out of touch. Claims that GMOs pose no threat either to humans or the environment are absolutely false. Studies conducted both in the UK and US have demonstrated that GMOs threaten biodiversity as well as releasing potentially harmful contaminants into the environment.
Was it a coincidence that the Commission's announcement came the very day that the EU's most GM-sceptical country, the UK, was reeling from another major blow to democracy, the Hutton report on Dr David Kelly's death/the Iraq invasion, which delivered the message "government good, BBC bad"? Hutton certainly served to bury the GM maize scandal, which was minimally reported. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2480
+ EURO BLOW TO GM OILSEED RAPE
The commercial development of GM spring oilseed rape was dealt a heavy blow when Belgian GM advisors outlined serious concerns about its impact on the environment. The GM oilseed rape, which was found to damage farmland wildlife when grown in the UK Farm Scale Evaluations, is currently being assessed for commercial growing in Europe. Friends of the Earth says that the Belgian authorities now have little choice than to reject the application by biotech firm Bayer.
Bayer has applied to the Belgian authorities for a Europe-wide commercial licence, the first to be considered for growing since approvals were halted in 1998. If Belgium turns down the application, it effectively rejects it for the whole of Europe. If it approves the application, it is then considered by all member states. Both European and Belgian law outlaws GM crops that may cause damage to the environment. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2480
+ GM FREE FOOD IS A GARDEN OF EDEN FANTASY, SAYS FISCHLER
Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler has warned delegates at a conference on organic farming that food which is completely free of GMOs is a thing of the past. And when it comes to setting acceptable thresholds for the levels of GMOs in organic and conventional products, the Commissioner said that Europe must take guidance from scientists, rather than politicians.
"We have been banished from paradise. The idea of a zero per cent threshold was no doubt possible in the Garden of Eden, but not in the real world," said Dr Fischler.
If we've been "banished from paradise", then it was without our consent, circa 1996 - when the first GM crop was commercialised.
For more on the speech including links to the full text see:
+ NECESSARY EVIDENCE ON GM "SIMPLY DOES NOT EXIST"
An article in The Scotsman reports that the Westminster and Scottish parliaments are to make major policy announcements next month on whether to proceed with commercial growing of three GM crops tested in recent trials.
But Dr Ruth Levitt, a senior visiting research fellow at the Economic and Social Research Council, at the University of London, says the implications of the decision go way beyond the particular fate of the crops in question - GM oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize. She said: "The underlying question, what are the potential benefits of GM crops and foods, and the possible risks to human health and to the environment, cannot yet be answered 'factually', because the necessary evidence simply does not exist." http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2477
The Scotsman's erstwhile GM champion, Prof Tony Trewavas, who recently garnered much publicity by claiming he had had to withdraw from the GM debate because of intimidation - he mentioned unkind letters he'd received suggesting he might emigrate - has relinquished his purdah in order to enlighten us further.
"If you ask anyone in the drug industry," TT tells us, "they will tell you that no matter how many tests you conduct you have to, at some point, throw it out into the population and see what happens."
TT forgets to mention that not only are prescription drugs extensively tested, including on human volunteers, before they are "thrown out" into the general population, but doctors know who's chosen to take the drugs they prescribe and have a system for monitoring adverse effects. In this case, short of corpses piling up in the streets, we have no system to detect adverse effects.
+ PARAGUAY: POLICE KILL TWO IN CRACKDOWN ON GM PROTEST
In Paraguay, police killed two peasant farmers in a crackdown on a protest against what is described as "chemical fumigation of GM soya crops". The story, along with another damaging to the government, of the theft of war materials and the implication of the armed forces in that crime, was bumped off the front pages of the newspapers by reports of an alleged attempt to assassinate President Nicanor Duarte Frutos.
But some analysts think there may have been no assassination plot, just a desperate need to bury important news reports that damaged the image of the state security agencies. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2436
+ BIG FIRMS OVERSHADOW TRADE TALKS
Free trade agreement (FTA) talks between Thailand and the US are not negotiations between governments, but are actually being conducted on behalf of American conglomerates, a community-rights activist said. Vitoon Liumjamroon, director of the non-governmental organisation Biodiversity and Community Rights Action, Thailand, said that the biggest push from the US side for an FTA with Thailand, especially in the issue of intellectual property rights (IPRs), came from US multinational corporations, in particular Monsanto, which holds patents for 80 per cent GMO seeds in the market.
He said the most worrying development since the collapse of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Cancun last September is the US decision to push for bilateral FTAs as a result of the failure of multilateral talks.
The US is trying to force Thailand to accept technology such as GMOs, which would have a direct impact on farmers and the agricultural sector, he said. "These two issues [IPRs and GMOs] are linked. If we allow US GMO plants to be grown in Thailand, our advantage in the agricultural sector of cheaper production costs will vanish, since we will have to depend on expensive GMO seeds from the US," said Vitoon. Big American conglomerates would also take control of plantations, he said, adding that the price of seeds in the market would be five to 10 times higher if Thailand allowed the US to have its way. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2438
+ EMPTY PROMISES BY BAYER ON CHILD LABOUR
German NGOs are campaigning to end exploitation of child labour by GM giant Bayer and its subsidiary ProAgro in India in the planting of cottonseeds. Bayer has committed itself to the abolition of child labour, for example by joining the UN Global Compact. But according to the NGOs, the company has not acted on its promises. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2440
This initiative follows on from the scandal exposed in 2003 of around 17,000 children being used by Monsanto, and their Indian subsidiary Mahyco, in hazardous forms of child labour in cottonseed production in India. Children were working 13 hours a day for less than 40 Eurocents (Rs. 20) while repeatedly being exposed to poisonous pesticides during their work. They were also getting no education.
More than 11,000 children were found to be working under similar conditions for the multinationals Syngenta (Swiss), Advanta (Dutch-British) and ProAgro. http://www.mindfully.org/Industry/2003/Monsanto-Unilever-Child-Labour17may03.htm
+ CAN OF GM WORMS FOR INDIA
DuPont and US soy company Bunge are to launch a new range of imported soy-based foods in India. It is now legal in the US to label any kind of soy product, GM or otherwise, as beneficial for reducing heart disease risk and illegal to label it as GM. India already has a law that bans imports of foods that contain GMOs, but critics fear that the government will not act to prevent GM-contaminated imports. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2479
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"To date, there is not a single human-subject study that demonstrates the safety of GM food, and the Mexican experience in which local varieties of maize were contaminated speaks to the need for caution. This whole affair isn't about science, though. The GM lobby know better than most that control over the food system is all about politics." - Dr Peter Rosset http://ngin.tripod.com/forcefeed.htm
"They [GM companies] are hoping there is enough contamination so that it is a fait accompli. But the liability will kill them. We are going to see lawsuits across the Farm Belt as conventional farmers and organic farmers find their product is contaminated." - Jeremy Rifkin, author and activist http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2479
HEADLINES OF THE WEEK: from the GMWATCH archive
29/1/2004 Monsanto's GM technology fails in Kenya - the hype falls apart!
29/1/2004 Monsanto's hype exposed - more on the GM sweet potato disaster
28/1/2004 "A disaster for democracy" / Euro blow to GM oilseed rape
28/1/2004 Alert - A Can of (GM) Worms For India
28/1/2004 Commission approves Syngenta's maize / Chronology of EU's ban on gene crops and foods
28/1/2004 The necessary evidence on GM "simply does not exist"
27/1/2004 Bayer's child labour challenged once again
27/1/2004 Biotech wheat pits farmer vs. farmer / US double talk?
27/1/2004 GM free food is a Garden of Eden fantasy, says Fischler
27/1/2004 Monsanto and other giants overshadow Thai trade talks
27/1/2004 Police kill 2 in crackdown on GM crop protest in Paraguay
27/1/2004 UK supermarkets to stay GM-free - opposition to GM foods is as strong as ever
23/1/2004 THE WEEKLY WATCH number 56
FOR THE COMPLETE GMWATCH ARCHIVE: http://www.gmwatch.org/archive.asp