Of 'sound science' and fairytales
As an example of what they should be focusing on, Prakash pointed them to how, 'The benefits of biotechnology improved crops are already being realized' in developing countries.
One of the developing countries where much has been made of work, part-funded by Monsanto, USAID and the World Bank, with GM sweet potatoes, is Kenya. But just how much 'sound science' has to do with it is quite another matter according to the new and timely report on the performance of GM crops in Africa from Aaron deGrassi at the Institute of Development studies, University of Sussex:
'Another surprising example of advocacy trumping facts is C.S. Prakash, the influential biotechnology advocate who has advised the US Trade Representative. Prakash has repeatedly cited sweet potatoes as a positive example of the benefits of GM for African countries, but has confessed to having no knowledge of the results of scientific trials in Kenya.'
With GM crops, evidence is not a requirement! And even where that evidence exists, the report shows it is often farcically inexact. Here's jusy one example from the report in relation to GM cotton in South Africa:
'ISAAA implies that small farmers have been using the technology on a hundred thousand hectares. Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe - an industry coalition - suggests 5,000 ha of "smallholder cotton." The survey team suggests 3,000 ha.
'In addition to conflicting data on the area and numbers of farmers, the profits gained by switching to Bt cotton are unclear. CropGen says farmers gain $113 per hectare. Monsanto says farmers gain an extra $90. ISAAA argues that switching to Bt allows farmers make an extra $50 per hectare. University researchers calculate $35, whilst the survey team found farmers gained only $18 in the second year, but in the first year "Bt cotton *nonadopters* were actually $1 per hectare better off." ' [emphasis added]
In other words, the claimed profitability for GM cotton in the area ranges from $1 down per hectare to $113 up, amongst a group of small holders who, apparently, range in number from 100,000 to as few as 3,000. You get the picture.
Meanwhile, the very crop that has been reported to be giving small farmers an easier and more affluent life, turns out to have not only failed to solve Makhathini farmers' existing problems with debt, but to have actually deepened and widened indebtedness. The expensive crop has saddled them in difficult growing conditions with debts of $1.2 million!
Despite which CropGen has claimed GM cotton has turned the area from one that wasn't viable for agriculture into 'a thriving agricultural community'. According to Monsanto, 'The region has become an example to the world of how plant biotechnology can help the smallholder farmers of Africa'. Not to be outdone, Steven Smith, Chairman of the UK's Agricultural Biotechnology Council, has said of the project, 'small farmers are realizing huge economic benefits.' A group of academics have even claimed that projecting the results across the entire continent, shows 'it could generate additional incomes of about six billion Rand, or US$600 million, for some of the world's poorest farmers.' ISAAA's claims are even more fantastical.
In reality, the report shows, GM cotton is at best irrelevant to poverty in the area, and at worst 'is lowering wages and job prospects for agricultural laborers, who are some of the most impoverished people in South Africa.'
In addition, to the imprecise nature of the evidence underlying the fairytale claims, there's a total failure to compare like with like. Take for instance Prakash's 'positive' GM sweet potatoes about which it's even been claimed 'Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine':
'The sweet potato project [which may increase production by as much as 18%] is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists (16 with PhDs) and an estimated $6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield gains of nearly 100%.'
Yet it has been claimed that the virus in question 'is a classic example of a problem that cannot be solved through conventional breeding,' and that 'the time and money spent actually developing GM varieties are less than for conventional varieties.'
This is the kind of 'sound science' that has been used to lobby leaders around the world. And this is why the new report, 'Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence' is so important. It meticulously analyses the evidence out of which some of the GM lobby's key fairytales have been built.
It concludes, 'If most analysts now agree that biotechnology is not a panacea, nor a "magic bullet" that will on its own solve hunger, the next question we must ask is, "how effective a tool is it?" The evidence compiled in this report shows 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. The evidence assembled here supports the view of a South African commentator: "There are better ways to feed Africa than GM crops." '
The following are *excerpts only* from the new report. It needs to be read in full, not least because the excerpts below are taken both from the executive summary and the full text so the sequence is not always the same as that of the report and the report also contains the hundreds of references that back its statements up.
The excerpts are intended only to give you a sense of the report's significance.
THIS IS A "MUST READ" AND CIRCULATE DOCUMENT.
Download the full report as a pdf from here:
The global debate over genetically modification is particularly heated, and even more so when it comes to the potential for gain or harm in Africa. This paper seeks to contribute to grounding this debate in empirical evidence, rather than proclamations or speculations. There is a great wealth of experience from which all interested parties can learn - few people, for instance, are aware that transgenic sweet potato research has been conducted for the past 13 years. I recast the debate by focusing less on hypothetical health and ecological risks..., with more of an emphasis on examining the current potential of those genetically modified crops that, according to proponents of genetic engineering, hold the most promise for alleviating hunger, poverty and environmental degradation in sub-Saharan Africa. I evaluate how "appropriate" each technology is for sustainable poverty alleviation, using six criteria: demand led, site specific, poverty focused, cost effective, and environmentally and institutionally sustainable.
It is important to evaluate the appropriateness of different technologies for poverty alleviation in Africa. Simply because technologies exist is not sufficient reason to utilize them-criteria are needed to select which technologies are best to develop and disseminate. An analogy might clarify the point: one would not use lasers to cut tomatoes, simply because lasers seem more "advanced" or "scientific," when a good-quality knife would do the job much better, and at a fraction of the cost. The crucial point is not to choose between "science" or "superstition," or between "new technology" versus "old tools." Rather, this report addresses some crucial questions that all involved need to ask: Which type of science? Which type of new technologies? Who decides? And how?
[The]... five widely accepted criteria for evaluating conventional crop breeding [are applied] to three heavily publicized genetically modified crops either currently grown or nearing release: stem borer-resistant Bt maize, weevil resistant Bt cotton, and virus resistant sweet potato.
Virus resistant sweet potatoes are being developed jointly by the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and Monsanto, with additional funding from USAID and the World Bank. The initiative was not the result of farmers priorities or preferences, but, rather, resulted from pressure and existing technology of Monsanto and American scientists. This inattention is understandable given the poor links between researchers, extensionists, and farmers in Kenya. Indeed, many farmers already have virus-resistant sweet potatoes, and for many others, different problems, such as weevils, are more important.
To date, one unpopular variety has been genetically modified with a protein protecting against an American strain of the virus. The variety has not been tailored to meet farmers numerous site-specific preferences for sweet potatoes (there are more than 89 different sweet potato varieties in Africa).
Sweet potatoes are an important food security crop, particularly for women, and are grown predominantly in East Africa (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania). Poverty in these areas, however, does not result from inadequate sweet potato varieties, but rather from corruption, HIV/AIDS, declining migrant incomes, declining commodity prices, armed conflict, and large inequalities in land, wealth and income. Kenya, for instances, reportedly loses 180 times more money to corruption than to sweet potato viral diseas. In the face of these constraints, the benefits of the new sweet potato are relatively insignificant.
While econometric evaluations forecast a significant rate of return on the project (using a maximum projected yield gain of 18%), it did not consider opportunity costs. The sweet potato project is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists (16 with PhDs) and an estimated $6 million. In contrast, conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able in just a few years to develop with a small budget a well-liked virus-resistant variety with yield gains of nearly 100%.
In terms of environmental sustainability, as with the examples below, GM-resistance in sweet potatoes is conferred by one gene, and hence one would expect, according to the principles of evolutionary ecology, that new resistant pests would evolve. Evolution of pest resistance will depend however on the extent of selection pressures (which depends partly on how widely distributed the Bt varieties become).
The dependence on Monsanto for funding lowers the institutional sustainability of the project. The project has resulted in considerable training of KARI scientists in biotechnology transformation methods, and in bio-safety testing. However, such discipline-specific capacity building in biotechnology may produce a 'lock-in' affect diverting resources from other potentially productive issues and methods.
Perhaps the most ambitious claim about sweet potatoes was made several years ago: 'Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine.' 70 However, this is a gross misrepresentation. The famine, according to FAO, mainly afflicted pastoralists who do not grow or even eat sweet potatoes. Furthermore, the food crisis was in no way caused by SPVD, but rather, as FAO notes, was "the result of a combination of cumulative livestock losses, falling livestock prices and sharply rising cereal prices."71 GM sweet potatoes have little potential to help the three countries currently hardest hit by the famine in southern Africa - Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe - since the crop is not widely grown there and SPFMV is rare. Famine, in each of these countries, is much more a product of corrupt and autocratic government, as predicted by Amartya Sen, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Exaggerations such as this are surprisingly common.
...official Kenyan support for the sweet potato project formed one of the Moi Administration's well-documented attempts to divert attention away from its crippling political repression and economic subjugation of the western regions.93
Total spending on the 25-year project is estimated at nearly $6 million. Early descriptions overstated the potential gains to production. 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.118 However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4. 119
As for gains in production, an article at the launch of the trials reported that eradicating sweet potato virus would boost Kenyan output by up to 60%.120 Curiously, the same article also suggested farmers could reap yields of 56 tons per hectare, or 830% times the reported current national average of 6 tons per hectare. Another estimate puts yield increases at 40%.121 In fact, the only actual supported figures for potential increases are based on interviews (largely with project staff) and a single survey of several dozen farms.122 Maximum gains in national production from SPFMV resistance are estimated-on the basis of this unsystematic data - to be 18%.123
In contrast, 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 also raised yields by roughly 100%.124 Clearly, even the haphazard estimates of hypothetical yield gains are much lower than with conventional breeding.
This contradicts several important claims: that SPFMV "is a classic example of a problem that cannot be solved through conventional breeding," and that "the time and money spent actually developing GM varieties are less than for conventional varieties."125
Transgenic virus-resistant sweet potatoes have garnered enormous publicity for their potential to alleviate poverty in Africa, but further detailed examination shows they are inappropriate for that task. The project has suffered from, and possible exacerbated, the top-down nature of research and extension in Kenya. Consequently, the sweet potatoes are being engineered with traits that poor farmers did not rank as of great importance, and for which there are already effective existing varieties. Only one sweet potato variety has been transformed, but farmers require different varieties adapted their specific bio-physical and socio-economic conditions. The years of research, millions of dollars, and scientific attention focused on genetic modification have been extremely ineffective when compared with conventional crop research programs. Poverty in sweet potato producing areas stems from other agronomic constraints, as well as from overriding social and political maladies, such as corruption, conflict, hostile markets, and social inequality. Neither the technology, nor the institutional arrangements utilized in developing the technology appear sustainable. In sum, on each key criteria, transgenic sweet potatoes appear to be an inappropriate method of agricultural research for poverty alleviation.
Cotton differs somewhat from the other two crops because it was not developed in collaboration with a public agricultural research institute. Rather, Monsanto developed Bt cotton for American farmers, and then transferred the technology to large farmers in South Africa, and it has now reached the handful of smallholder cotton farmers in South Africa.
The agricultural research and extension system in South Africa has historically been biased towards large, commercial, white farms, and is only slowly being transformed. It remains heavily top-down, gender biased, unable to reach poor farmers with relevant messages or forums. Smallholder demand was insignificant in the development of the technology.
The Bt cotton used in Makhathini was not tailored to the area or poor farmers at all. The variety was simply transferred from the US, where it was developed for large farmers and their main pest, the American bollworm. In South Africa, however, the pink bollworm prevails. Also, the Bt cotton varieties had smooth leaves, in contrast to South African hairy leaf varieties, and are thus susceptible to damage from jassids. Other new pests, such as sting bud, have appeared on the Bt cotton.
Poverty in the area is not caused by poor cotton technology, and, in fact, the new technology may be impoverishing smallholders by contributing to over-production, and hence lower prices, in South Africa and worldwide. Since the introduction of Bt cotton in South Africa, prices have fallen by 40%, and more than 60,000 farmworkers in the cotton sector-one of the poorest segments of society-have lost their jobs. Flood-related cotton crop failures have left small farmers who adopted the expensive modified cotton with debts of $1.2 million.
However, poverty in Maputaland-the area where the Flats are located-results not from inadequate technology, but rather from seven factors related to the lack of political and economic power of poor rural South Africans: unequal land holdings and slow redistribution, authoritarian nature conservation, elitist tourism, declining off-farm wages, declining international commodity prices, HIV/AIDS, and undemocratic traditional authorities.
The effectiveness of the technology appears to have been over-rated. Proponents claim using Bt eliminates 9 sprayings, evidence shows it eliminates only 2-5. The amount of labor saved is also unclear. Alternative technologies, such as Integrated Pest Management, or agro-ecological measures, have not been explored to their full extent.
"The region has become an example to the world of how plant biotechnology can help the smallholder farmers of Africa," reads Monsanto's website.154 Steven Smith, Chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, an industry lobby group, has stated, "small farmers are realizing huge economic benefits."155 CropGen argues "The Makhathini Flats is a good example of how an area which was not agriculturally viable has been transformed into a thriving agricultural community through a government-backed project and the introduction of GM crops."156 Academics claim "If there was widespread use of the Bt variety across the continent, it could generate additional incomes of about six billion Rand, or US$600 million, for some of the world's poorest farmers."157 The strongest claims about the benefits of Bt cotton are assembled in a brochure produced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) - a non-governmental lobby group funded by Monsanto and a handful of other companies that dominate world seed markets.158
It is ironic that cotton farmers have become the cause célÃ¨bre of pro-poor biotechnology publicity because there are only a handful of small cotton farmers in the country (roughly 3,500 out of South Africa's 40 million people), and poor agricultural technology is a relatively minor factor contributing to poverty.174 95% of cotton is produced on large-scale plantations, and the entire cotton sector altogether only constitutes 1% of the national economy.175 Smallholder farmers using Bt cotton represent less than 5% of the District's population and their cotton farms constitute only 0.7% of the area of the Flats.
In South Africa, almost three fourths of the poor live in rural areas, and nearly all the population in Maputaland is rural, according to the 1991 Census (which missed substantial numbers of migrants).176 However, the case of the Makhathini Flats powerfully illustrates the fallacy of assuming that people in rural areas sustain their livelihoods through family-owned farms or through agriculture alone, and hence that agricultural technology is the root cause of poverty. In north-eastern KwaZulu Natal, where the Flats are located, agriculture contributes only 10% of the total value of economy.177
...poverty in Maputaland results from a combination of seven forces: a devastating dam and irrigation scheme, top-down planning favoring large-scale farms, elitist tourism, authoritarian conservation, persistent land inequality, declining employment and wages on - and off-farm, over-production, and HIV/AIDS. In this context, Bt cotton is irrelevant at best, and at worst is lowering wages and job prospects for agricultural laborers, who are some of the most impoverished people in South Africa.
Poverty in Maputaland is not an automatic result of harsh farming conditions and inadequate cotton technology. The Pongolapoort Dam and the Mjindi Irrigation Scheme have contributed to poverty by disrupting the water cycle and agro-ecology, dispossessing people of their land, and wasting scarce government revenue.
Cotton farmers have been bolstered politically by the coverage of Bt issue, and have used their leverage to time water releases to their benefit, but disrupting the planting/working/harvesting cycle of poorer and/or food-crop farmers.213 Conflict has been increasing between expanding emerging farmers and the majority dependent on numerous activities to sustain their livelihoods. Tensions over grazing land began in the 1980s.214 The expansion of commercial farmers onto environmentally fragile land (such as river banks, wetland pans) has endangered the resource-based livelihood activities of others in the area.
Bt cotton has changed balance of social power in the area and consequently planting patterns. Early planting varies due to varying rains, but generally around September. The late planting date is early December, or at worst, January. Farmers using mechanical ploughing may plant later if they cannot access ploughs. Cotton is then harvested 5-7 months later, from April to June - a cycle longer than the subsistence crops grown in the area. With the publicity the Bt cotton and development projects have garnered, the well-organized Ubombo Farmers Association, which grows most of the Bt cotton in the area, has been able to successfully pressure the government to release water early, thereby reducing water availability at crucial times for subsistence cropping previously set in consultation with small farmers to suit their food needs.215
Given the continuation of these enormously important constraints -devastating irrigation schemes, top down planning, elitist tourism, authoritarian conservation, persistent land inequality, declining wages, over-production, and HIV/AIDS - it is blatantly misleading to suggest that simply introducing GM cotton has transformed the impoverished areas of Maputland into a "thriving agricultural community," as CropGen suggests.270
All of the claims about Bt come from either from Monsanto or from a single, un-representative survey conducted from 1998/99 to 1999/2000. Rather than draw a random sample, researchers handpicked 100 respondents with the assistance of Monsanto. The unrepresentative nature of the survey is illustrated, for example, by the fact that it was composed of 42% women, whilst women actually make up about 54% of the population.
Furthermore, over 75% of the respondents were over 40 years old, but the area actually has many young people - 50% of the population is below 19. 271 Even this small set of data is contradictory however. For example, it is not clear exactly how many farmers are using Bt cotton, nor how the number is actually determined. A farmer association leader speculates there are 5,000 small farmers, ISAAA estimates 3,600 in Makhathini, university researchers say 3,000, and CropGen says 2,500. 272
The area planted to Bt cotton by smallholders is likewise disputed. ISAAA implies that small farmers have been using the technology on a hundred thousand hectares. Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe - an industry coalition - suggests 5,000 ha of "smallholder cotton." The survey team suggests 3,000 ha.273
In addition to conflicting data on the area and numbers of farmers, the profits gained by switching to Bt cotton are unclear. CropGen says farmers gain $113 per hectare.274 Monsanto says farmers gain an extra $90. ISAAA argues that switching to Bt allows farmers make an extra $50 per hectare. University researchers calculate $35, whilst the survey team found farmers gained only $18 in the second year, but in the first year "Bt cotton nonadopters were actually $1 per hectare better off."275 Claims about pesticide savings appear to be exaggerated.
If the results thus seem ambiguous, one is left the question of why roughly 90% of farmers are reported to have adopted Bt. Part of the reason is that farmers' main constraint is credit, and credit was, until very recently, only available through the local monopoly, Vunisa, which is heavily promoting Bt cotton.283 Vunisa's credit in turn comes from grants by the pro-biotech government administration. Further influencing farmers decisions is the storm of publicity around Bt cotton; reporters, photographers, and cameramen have been brought from around the country, Africa, and the world to the Makhathini by Monsanto to document Bt cotton-adopting farmers. In addition, political pressure to adopt was exerted through the farmers associations in the area. T.J. Buthelezi, chairman of a federation of farmers' associations, for instance, unconditionally embraced the technology: "I wouldn't care if it were from the devil himself," he remarked.
Where it has been adopted, there is now evidence that the Bt cotton has not only failed to solve Makhathini farmers' problems with debt, it has actually deepened and widened indebtedness.
The direct impacts of Bt cotton on small farmers are ambiguous, but the indirect impacts on rural poverty are overwhelmingly negative.
The Syngenta Foundation is supporting work at KARI with CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) to develop Bt maize that is resistant to the stem borer through the Insect Resistance Management in Africa (IRMA) project. Several varieties have been developed by CIMMYT in Mexico, and are awaiting bio-safety clearance to begin testing in Kenya.
Like the sweet-potato case, the deficiencies of the Kenyan RE system have impeded a demand-led approach. The Syngenta Foundation-a merger incorporating Novartis - 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. As with sweet potatoes, project surveys found that many farmers were already using their own resistant varieties.
Scientists have transformed several maize varieties with different Bt strains-developed initially by Novartis and CIMMYT-able to protect against 3 types of stem borers. However, they have yet to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya, which affects 80% of the country's maize crop. Rural surveys have identified potential suitable local varieties to transform, but due to biosafety procedures, none have been engineered yet. Farmers prioritize numerous different characteristics of maize, and to be acceptable, numerous different appropriate varieties will have to be identified and successfully transformed.
Maize is one of the most important crops in Africa, and is a basic staple for much of southern and eastern Africa, where stem borers predominate. However, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor to poverty in these areas. Of 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.
The cost effectiveness of the project is still based on ballpark projections. In contrast, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques and already proved capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. As early as two decades ago, conventional crop breeders had identified and were working to improve borer-resistant varieties. Farmers have long used their own techniques, such as disposing of crop residue, changing the time and type of crop planted, or adding soil, pepper, or ash into leaf whorls.
Biological control methods - supported by the Dutch government - have been used to control the Asian stem-borer by introducing a wasp that is its natural enemy from Asia. The International Center for Insect Protection and Ecology (ICIPE) coordinated this project and the Asian wasp has now established itself in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and several other countries, and is rapidly expanding. ICIPE has also developed economically viable 'push-pull' methods of intercropping using grasses that repel borers out of maize fields and pull them towards farm edges, and that have the added benefits of restoring soil fertility, reducing Striga, and providing livestock fodder. The methods-which have shown to reduce borers to negligible levels-have been tested in farmers' fields and are already being adopted.
There are serious concerns regarding the environmental sustainability of Bt-maize, given the likelihood of evolved pest resistance. The IRMA project is attempting gene stacking, as well as using conventionally developed resistance. Refuges may exist by default, but could disappear with widespread cross-pollination with Bt varieties. Another possibility is that the composition of stem borers may shift, so that African types (to which Bt maize is still susceptible) become more prevalent, as already observed in some areas.
If most analysts now agree that biotechnology is not a panacea, nor a "magic bullet" that will on its own solve hunger, the next question we must ask is, "how effective a tool is it?" The evidence compiled in this report shows 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. The evidence assembled here supports the view of a South African commentator: "There are better ways to feed Africa than GM crops."418
excerpts taken from: "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence", which can be downloaded as a pdf from here: http://allafrica.com/sustainable/resources/00010161.html