24 April 2003
"Sudden generosity" of multinationals towards African farmers
Consumers International unconvinced by the sudden generosity of the multinationals towards African farmers
HARARE, 17 April 2003 - The Washington Post of 11 March 2003 reported that "Monsanto Co. and three of the world's largest agricultural companies have agreed to share their technology free with African scientists in a broad new attempt to increase food production on that continent, where mass starvation is a recurring threat". The companies: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences have pledged to donate patent rights, seed varieties, laboratory know-how and other aid to help African agricultural scientists through a new organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation based in Kenya. The question is why are the multinationals, not famed for their altruism, doing this now?
A SURVIVAL STRATEGY TO FACE CONSUMER DISTRUST
Consumers International is sceptical about the motives behind this move given the immense public distrust of GM technology and its perceived benefits. Justin Gillis writes in the Washington Post article: "The companies say they plan to support the foundation for noble reasons, while acknowledging that in the long run, they also hope to create new markets in Africa". This seemingly innocent sentence gets right to the core of the matter! The global production of transgenic crops has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the seven-year period from 1996 to 2002, global acreage of transgenic crops increased 35-fold, from 1.7 million hectares, in 1996 to 58.7 million hectares, in 2002. Four principal countries grew 99% of the global transgenic crop acreage in 2002. The USA grew 39.0 million hectares, (66% of global total), followed by Argentina with 13.5 million hectare, Canada 3.5 million hectares and China 2.1 million hectares. (http://www.isaaa.org/).
Four major transnationals, the so-called 'Gene giants', are collectively responsible for virtually 95 percent of the global acreage in transgenic crops: Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and Bayer. Most of these large transnational seed corporations are the result of mergers and some of them also have pesticide or pharmaceutical interests.
While acreage is on the rise and mergers are taking place for control of the seed and biotechnology companies, consumption of GM crops across the globe does not seem to follow the same trend. In the USA, Latin America, Asia and Europe the public has proved to be very wary of genetic science and all its promises.
Sharing patents and seeds (i.e. their livelihoods) may actually turn out to be another way for GM multinationals to hinder African farmers' and African countries' ability to fight for food security and sustainability of their agricultural systems.
The Discovery Channel recently commissioned the first global poll to assess attitudes about DNA and genetics around the world. The survey aimed to show how people perceive the impact of genetics on their lives, and how informed they are of current progress. The survey was conducted in eight countries, namely: United Kingdom, Denmark, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United States. Overall, 58% of the respondents polled were unwilling to eat genetically modified (GM) food. (For more details, see http://highmarkfunds.stockpoint.com/highmarkfunds/ newspaper.asp?Mode=genetics&Story=20030331/090p4727.xml.)
The market is oversupplied. The volume of GM crops produced far outstrips the demand. As potential markets in other continents are disappearing, GM multinationals are having to move fast to find new markets for their surpluses in order to survive and avoid an economic slump. Africa is the next stop in the multinationals' journey to create a market for these crops by whichever means necessary! Particularly when the same survey reveals that 55% of the respondents believe that it is acceptable to send GM food to countries in need.
GE WILL NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF HUNGER IN AFRICA.
"Gordon Conway ecologist and President of the Rockefeller Foundation does not expect technology to be a magic bullet for Africa's deep agricultural problems", reports the Washington Post. It carries on: "Technologies are available to provide a partial solution to these [hunger-related] problems". He is right. Consumers International believes hunger has a dozen of fathers and disputes the idea that biotechnology can be a panacea for hunger in Africa.
Donating patent rights, seed varieties and laboratory know-how will not solve the problem of hunger either. This is particularly true in an area where a truly participatory approach is the key to sustainability and long-term food security. "This requires those involved in farming systems work to acknowledge that the rural community is a source of knowledge and their participation is essential to success" (M. Hansen, 1999).
WHAT ARE THE REAL ISSUES?
One of the key concerns for Consumers International is biodiversity. The Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) "mentions potential negative effects on the environment that have been raised. Some of these are that genes can end up in unexpected places or mutate; "sleeper" genes could be accidentally switched on and active genes could become "silent"; interaction with wild and native populations; and impact on birds, insects and soil biota. The FAO also refers to potential negative effects on human health and potential socio-economic effects. The latter includes loss of farmers' access to plant material" (http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp).
Donating patents rights, seed varieties and laboratory know-how may have a place after a proper response has been provided to these concerns and not before. Not dealing with these issues means simply transferring problems to African countries which may not have the economic muscle to refuse. The potential implications for African agriculture are huge - jeopardizing future production capacity, destroying local varieties through contamination and reinforcing African small-scale farmers' dependence upon the seeds, pesticides and herbicides of the same multinationals that are today so kindly offering to donate the patents, the seeds and know-how. (Read article "Malawi: Government Officials Uproot GM Maize Plants" at http://allafrica.com/stories/200301100562.html).
The strategy pursued by the GM multinationals seems to be: "Contaminate then Regulate". A policy of fait accompli where the market and dependence is created and there is no turning back.
Consumer choice is one the four basic consumer rights. That consumer choice is exercised through labelling. GM multinationals do not see it as such. No wonder: "Fifty-eight percent (58%) of the respondents to the global survey referred to above say that if they noticed GM ingredients listed on the label of a food product they would not buy the product". This is precisely what the "tug of war" was between the Zambian Government and the USA Government, the USAID and the WFP. The latter's initial position was: "either GM maize or starve". They claimed that they did not segregate between GM and non-GM maize in America and that they could not source non- GM maize from anywhere.
But then the Southern African sub region alone could provide 1.160 million metric tons of non-GM maize out of the 2 million metric tons needed for the whole sub-region, according to the FAO Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, August 2002. Finding dumping grounds for the American GM maize surpluses and the need for new markets for the US multinationals prevailed over the claim by starving people to the right to choose. This is what Consumers International's African members did not agree with and convened a meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, to deliberate on and called for more caution and mandatory labelling of GM food/crops in their final declaration. (For more on the African consumer leaders' conference on "Biotechnology and Food Security in Africa", visit: www.consumersinternational.org/roaf).
Donating patents, seeds and know-how will not replace labelling and would actually undermine the right to choice as "traditional crops varieties could become "polluted" with genes from the genetically engineered crops".
Finally, consumer health: According to the British Medical Association, one of the world's most prestigious bodies of doctors, "insufficient care has been taken over public health concerns. there has not yet been a robust and thorough search into the potentially harmful effects of GM foodstuffs on human health". This needs to be dealt with in a conclusive manner through the introduction of an appropriate regulatory framework which is based on precaution and protects consumer health, before GM seeds and patents are donated to Africa.
Despite the rhetoric of the multinationals, biotechnology is not the only solution to problems of hunger and food insecurity. Other options lie in a "holistic approach to rural development which focuses not just on a crop or cropping system, nor only on technical issues .but takes a broader approach that considers the ecological, social and economic environments". (M. Hansen, 1999)
Areas for the development of sustainable agriculture would then consider supporting research that is farmer-designed and farmer-led. This is what the story of the development of the New Rices for Africa (NERICA) from African/Asian rice hybrids, by the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA) teaches us. The process of developing the NERICA was totally participatory, where the rice farmers were actively involved in the early stages of the research, determining which traits were important to them and growing and selecting those traits themselves in a process called Participatory Variety Selection (PVS) that also involves community seed production.
The NERICA -developed through the use of some biotechnological techniques which do not include genetic engineering or the creation of transgenic varieties- have best traits of both African and Asian parents: better weed suppression, better drought tolerance, higher protein content and higher yields. (For more information on the NERICA varieties see: http://www.warda.cgiar.org/publications/Kbtext.pdf).
There is also the example of Striga, a weed that robs nearby plants of water, nutrients, and life in East Africa. In a badly infested field, Striga can destroy most of the harvest, perpetuating poverty and hunger. Instead of using herbicides (or a biotech-fix), a homegrown technique has been found. It involves planting leguminous tree crops-that is, tree species that are members of the legume family can be used. Plants in this family often have certain microbes on their roots that can "fix" nitrogen: the microbes withdraw elemental nitrogen from tiny air pockets in the soil, and bond it chemically to hydrogen, producing compounds that plants can metabolize. These nitrogen-fixing trees are grown as a fallow crop. The biotech fix would be costly for the farmer, would increase chemical use, would add no other benefits to the system and is not yet available. On the other hand, improved fallowing is extremely low-cost and confers all the benefits mentioned above and it is readily available. (For more information on the solution to Striga and pest control, visit: www.icipie.org and www.blauen-institut.ch).
This comes to confirm the statement by Hans Herren, the director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPIE) in Kenya, that there is need to take an approach combining both the agro-ecological approach and a look at the entire farming system.
Questions to be asked when considering the apparent generosity of the multinationals include:
Why is no attention given to the breeding breakthrough in Africa, whereby African and Asian rices were hybridised to produce varieties with multiple benefits to the very poor farmers of the region? Rather it is the GM rice that gets promoted. Are its seeds and patents among the ones that will be donated to the African scientists and farmers?
Why is no support given to the African governments' homegrown efforts for food production diversification: When the Government of Zambia decided to reject the US donated GM maize, it failed to get the requested support to promote the production and consumption of Cassava, which could be an accessible substitute to maize, the staple food of the country. Rather the response was "It is either GM maize or starvation" before they were eventually given non-GM maize because of the public outcry and pressure.
Consumers International urges extreme caution in how African scientists and governments respond to this offer from the biotechnology industry and calls for a holistic approach to solving the agricultural problems in Africa, which involves the participation of those that are the intended beneficiaries - the poor farmers themselves and the consumers.
* Amadou KANOUTE, Director Consumers International Office for Africa
* Guy Patrick MASSOLOKA, Communications Officer. CI-ROAF
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