Wambugu - a spin doctor's dream lobotomises the media
GM science can be blinding
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), July 30, 2003
I HAVE never met Florence Wambugu. But she certainly sounds like she is passionate about her cause and is probably a very nice person. But for all that, we should not swallow hook, line and sinker the message she is selling on GM foods. For those who have not heard, Mrs Wambugu has generated a lot of publicity as a Kenyan geneticist who works for Monsanto and was recently in Melbourne for an international genetics conference. She criticises Western anti-GM activists for opposing the introduction of GM crops in Africa and is also willing to criticise public distrust of the crops here. So, are well-fed Westerners denying poor Africans the chance to sustain themselves with dignity because of our objection to GM crops? No. If any option denies Africans choice it is that of relying on a couple of large chemical companies for their staple diet. Nor will the new strains save wilderness, as many GM crop proponents claim. Human nature tells us that if the Africans can grow more they will, just as we would, especially if there was the promise of selling a surplus. If everybody produces a surplus then of course prices will fall which means more will be grown, using more land. In the broader context there are problems with major companies owning the genetic blueprints of our food.
Because the creation of these is a race for market share, it could reach the point where we rely on a relatively small number of monoculture varieties to feed ourselves.
This represents a great biological opportunity for pests, weeds and bacteria and makes our food sources vulnerable to these. Hence the need for herbicides and pesticides, and now, we are told, GM crops, to keep all these threats at bay -- marketed of course by those who gave us these crop varieties in the first place. The whole process is one of major companies creating their own market. These business-driven monocultures exist not because they represent the most efficient way to feed humanity, but because they are profitable. In fact, no monoculture can equal the food-per-area productivity of a polyculture. Such gardens can grow all sorts of different food in the same area because they make use of all the land's characteristics, such as different soil depths, sunlight and so on. We have the know-how to create these self-sustaining food gardens -- gardens where disease is minimised because the variety of crops, pests and weeds compete and help keep each other in check. No buying of seed, everything sourced from and adapted to the local environment and controlled by the local people. In this scenario GM monocultures cannot compete. There are already groups teaching this method throughout the Third World and it is the perfect system for rural Africa except for one thing: there's no money in it. Much has been made of the fact that Mrs Wambugu grew up in an African village and that her mother sold the family cow to fund her education.
Regardless of her scientific bona fides, is it too cynical to suggest that having a black African as the face of a multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream? This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that was almost fawning. At one point Mrs Wambugu took the familiar tack that GM crops were no big deal because genetic modification had always occurred in the natural world. Yes, but in the natural world genetic modifications take place over many generations within closely related species. Modern GM can make a fundamental change virtually overnight by splicing a gene from a trout into a strawberry. It is this that makes its outcome and interactions difficult to predict.
SCIENCE is about dreams and betterment and politics, grants, status and money. The same well-intentioned motives that gave us antibiotics and cars also gave us nuclear weapons and acid rain. We are not all academically qualified but a lot of us can sense when something is being put over us, when the promises seem too good to be true.
There is no problem with everyone having an angle as long as we get a few different ones, and then, Mrs Wambugu, we'll make up our own minds.
RANKIN McKAY owns a farm at Beech Forest in the Victorian Otways