GM crops touted to fight poverty
It is based around the statements of a "leading African biotechnology expert" who tells the paper, "Investment and research into genetically enhanced crops, such as corn and sweet potatoes, could create a "green gene" revolution that pulls the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair, said Dr. Florence Wambugu".
And the article gives the impression that this "green gene revolution" is very much an African affair, "Dr. Wambugu worked with Kenyan scientists and government agencies throughout the 1990s to develop the country's first genetically modified sweet potato plant".
What we are not told - and what deGrassi's report makes clear - is that Monsanto are at the very heart of this project.
Indeed, they always have been. It was Monsanto who brought Wambugu into *their* GM sweet potato project - a project Wambugu has admitted "has no commercial value to Monsanto, except as PR."
Another article this weekend - profiling one of the men behind the project, Monsanto's Robert Horsch - makes a remarkably similar point, 'his mission is twofold: "create goodwill and help open future markets".'
The sweet potato project was the brain child of three American men: Robert Horsch and a colleague at Monsanto and Joel Cohen from USAID. The three Americans later recruited Wambugu, using USAID money to pay for a three-year post-doctoral position for her with Monsanto.
Over the years Wambugu has more than repaid their investment, doing much to publicize the GM sweet potato project and securing a career as an influential advocate for the biotech industry in the process.
Wambugu's gift for PR is well-illustrated in the article below, according to which:
"Dr. Wambugu, who continues to act as an advisor on the project, said the modified sweet potato seeds should be able to produce 10 tonnes of vegetables per hectare compared with a natural Kenyan crop that yields four tonnes per hectare."
At 10 tonnes per hectare, Wambugu's GM crop appears to be yielding 250% more than a typical non-GM crop, which she says yields just 4 tonnes. This is certainly a very impressive yield gain. The only problem for Dr Wambugu is that Aaron deGrassi has meticulously examined all the available data for his report:
"Accounts of the transgenic sweet potato have used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation. An early article stated 6 tons per hectare - without mentioning the data source - which was then reproduced in subsequent analyses. However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4."
So Dr Wambugu's claim of "four tonnes per hectare" for non-GM sweet potatoes actually knocks a further third off a figure (6 tonnes) that was already a serious understatement of average yields (of about 10 tonnes), ie she understates the typical yield by 60%!
This in turn means that her figure on the performance of the GM sweet potato - "10 tonnes of vegetables per hectare" - far from being the 250% increase on normal yields it appears, is more or less the same as that which the FAO and Kenya's official statistics give for the average yield for non-GM sweet potatoes. In other words, an apparent 250% gain turns out to be no gain at all.
And that, of course, is when we are comparing just with the average. High performing non-GM varieties would be likely to produce very much more than ten tonnes per hectare.
This is indeed the case. Aaron deGrassi found that "a conventional breeding program in Uganda was able to produce a new, high-yielding resistant variety in just a few years at a small cost that... **raised yields by roughly 100%.**" [emphasis added]
That's a 100% increase through conventional breeding as against a 0% increase with GM!
Believe it or not, the situation as regards the performance of the GM sweet potato might even be worse than these figures suggest, as we have little more than Wambugu's claims to go on, and as we have seen Wambugu is hardly prone to understate benefits from GM! As deGrassi notes:
"At the farm level, there is currently no evidence about the performance of transgenic sweet potatoes. The most recent account, published in January of this year, makes no mention of the state of the trials. KARI researchers have refused to state how the trials, now in their third year, have performed."
Some unsystematic data suggests the yield gain with the GM variety *may* be 18% - compare that to the 100% for the new non-GM high-yielding and resistant variety.
According to the National Post article, "In Kenya, the company is developing communication and technical programs to help convince the country's farmers to accept engineered crops. "Many are very reluctant to risk and to change," Dr. Wambugu said."
The tragedy in all this, as deGrassi notes, is that "the excitement over certain genetic engineering procedures can divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers."
Finally, here are two contrasting quotes from articles published this weekend - the first from the article below.
"Genetically modified crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World, says a leading African biotechnology expert."
"Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger." - Tony Combes, Monsanto UK's director of corporate affairs
GM crops touted to fight poverty
Sweet potatoes, corn
National Post, June 28, 2003
Genetically modified crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World, says a leading African biotechnology expert. Investment and research into genetically enhanced crops, such as corn and sweet potatoes, could create a "green gene" revolution that pulls the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair, said Dr. Florence Wambugu, CEO of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International, a non-profit organization that advocates using agricultural biotechnology as a tool for aiding the poor.
"I see technology as a tool -- my goal is to look for solutions to help Africans in need," she explained. "With genetically modified crops, the technical and delivery systems are both packaged in a seed."
Dr. Wambugu worked with Kenyan scientists and government agencies throughout the 1990s to develop the country's first genetically modified sweet potato plant -- one resistant to a virus that commonly plagues Kenya's crop.
The engineered plant will go through a final phase of testing this year before it can be cleared for market production. Dr. Wambugu, who continues to act as an advisor on the project, said the modified sweet potato seeds should be able to produce 10 tonnes of vegetables per hectare compared with a natural Kenyan crop that yields four tonnes per hectare.
A Harvest Biotech also lobbies African businesses and political leaders, as well as the international community, to invest in the biotechnology field as a solution to poverty, as well as a profitable enterprise. "We need to start looking at the private sector as a strategic partner and not some kind of enemy," she said. "There are things we agree on, so let's use those to help our people."
In Kenya, the company is developing communication and technical programs to help convince the country's farmers to accept engineered crops. "Many are very reluctant to risk and to change," Dr. Wambugu said.
Dr. James Heller, a professor and biotechnology expert at the University of Toronto, said biotechnology has the potential to help the Third World in food production, but also offers a mixed blessing. "A country could lose a lot of control of its own domestic industry because its beholden to an off-shore seed manufacturer ... or a variety of traditional, indigenous crops could be minimized.
"We also automatically assume we can project our safety standards on these countries and those standards just aren't often there."
In terms of genetically modified foods acting as a detriment to health or a danger to the environment, Dr. Wambugu said no data exist to prove the case for either. "Nobody can stand up and say that as a fact -- that being said, we must continue to monitor," she added.
SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND? REPORT OF THE WEEK:
Aaron deGrassis's "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence" Readable and revelatory - download the full report:
Read the press release:
For the section on the biotech industry's PR use of Africa: