The New Delhi based publication, Agriculture Today, has just published a slightly edited version of the following dialogue between Jonathan Matthews of GM Watch and Agriculture Today's editor, Dr Robin Stevens.
PROFILE: Jonathan Matthews is the founder and director of GM WATCH, which the internationally respected journalist and author, George Monbiot, describes as "a constant inspiration and a primary source of information for the movements opposing GM crops."
GM WATCH's online campaign includes two websites - www.gmwatch.org and www.lobbywatch.org - and 3 listservs, all of which have a significant focus on the promotion of GM crops in the global South.
GM WATCH also has a particular focus on the use of hype, propaganda and spin to promote this technology, and on exposing the role played by corporate-friendly scientists, industry front groups, PR companies, lobbyists, and political groups.
Matthews' investigative work has prompted many published items, some of which have caused a storm in the media. His exposure of a dirty tricks campaign waged by Monsanto and its Internet PR firm against the company's scientific and environmental critics, led to coverage in New Scientist, The Guardian (a series of three articles), and in programmes on BBC TV and radio, as well as other media items around the world.
George Monbiot says the effect of Matthews' research has been to transform "the environment movement's understanding of the world in which it operates." Devinder Sharma is another admirer, calling GM WATCH, "the real watchdog relentlessly exposing the machinations of the politician-industry-scientist nexus that is exploiting the hungry stomach for garnering more profits."
* Dr Robin Stevens: When I first came across GM Watch, you seemed to have all the possible stories, news clips and all the breaking news on GM. How did it all begin?
Jonathan Matthews: When we started out, seven years ago, our main concern was that while genetically engineered crops were rapidly going into farmers' fields and into our food supply, little or no information, other than that provided by the industry and its supporters, was getting to farmers and the public and we wanted to remedy that.
Our focus initially was local but this is a global issue and once we took our campaign online, it quickly became apparent that there was a great need for a news and research service that looked at the GM issue in terms of what was happening right around the world. So if you look at our website today, you'll find major sections like FOCUS ON AFRICA or FOCUS ON ASIA where you can track exactly what's happening in individual countries, like India.
* Dr Stevens: What is the mission and vision of GM Watch?
Jonathan: Well, to quote a scientist who works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "We are confronted with the most powerful technology the world has ever known, and it is being rapidly deployed with almost no thought whatsoever to its consequences." In those circumstances, it's vitally important to let people know exactly what's happening, to pose critical questions, to check the information available in terms of its source and accuracy, and above all to challenge corporate deception.
And one thing our work has shown us over and over again is that we're up against an aggressively deceptive industry that has achieved a high level of influence and even control over public sector scientists, over regulators and over politicians in other words, over the very people who should be looking out for our interests.
That's an alarming situation. If we just give in to that, then there are going to be extremely serious consequences at all levels for farmers, for consumers, for the environment and for how effectively we meet the needs of the poor. So our mission in a nutshell is to make sure people get to know what's really going on.
* Dr Stevens: How do you manage to get stories from all across the globe?
Jonathan: As the network of subscribers has built up in different countries and that network includes scientists, farmers, journalists as well as campaigners in all kinds of NGOs - so the number of people sending information has increased, and we also keep abreast of all the conventional news sources we can. It's an effective mix. So much so, that people sometimes ask how we get to hear so much about what the biotech industry is up to in their neck of the woods before they do!
* Dr Stevens: The industry feels that you reflect only one side of the story and there is another side of theirs which you have totally ignored? Is it true?
I think what they don't like is NOT that we don't pay attention to their side of the story. In fact, we pay a great deal of attention to their side of the story and where we discover that they're actually misleading people, we set out to publicise the fact; and when we discover that they are attacking and seeking to discredit scientists or other critics unfairly, we set out to publicise that too. And, that's what they don’t like.
So, in a sense it's very simple - they provide the momentum for what we do, and if they really want to take the wind out of our sails, all they have to do is stop trying to deceive people, and stop trying to force this technology down people's throats. And then we'll be left with no reason to publicise their behaviour.
* Dr Stevens: The industry feels that you are being funded a great deal. From where do the funds for such a project as this come from?
Jonathan: It's interesting that they think that, though I guess inevitable - their services and support are bought and paid for, so they assume that's the only way it can come about.
In fact, we exist on a shoe-string budget and we're always running out of money! Because, although the majority of the input to GM Watch is entirely voluntary, we do need money to pay for the technical side of an online campaign and for some of our research activities, for archiving and so on.
Fortunately, we have had lots of small contributions from individuals on our e-mail lists even though the lists are free to all. And we've also had support in the past from a philanthropic foundation plus small amounts from sympathetic NGOs. Interestingly enough, the largest amount in recent times has come from a group of Catholic missionaries who support environmental and justice campaigns.
* Dr Stevens: What is so distinct about your campaign from perhaps other such endeavours?
Jonathan: I think the key thing is the way we combine news coverage with our own in-depth research. This takes things to a different level in terms of putting a story into context, and it enables us to provide precise and detailed documentation on the corruption of science and the means by which the biotech industry manipulates public opinion and government policy. It has also enabled us to build the world's most comprehensive database on the impacts and the politics of genetically engineered crops.
* Dr Stevens: Why has your campaign focused very heavily on the industry's viewpoint? Does it not want to look into the unorganised (clandestine) sector, which comprises nearly 40% of the total trade in India?
Jonathan: The clandestine trade operates off the back of the industry's campaign. It's the industry that's the driving force propelling this technology forward word-wide. Even locally it's not black marketers who hire Bollywood stars, like Nana Patekar, to promote GM seeds, or who have tame scientists pumping out studies saying there are massive benefits from growing Bt cotton. They don't have big PR departments using the Ramayana to shape their advertising in South India or using Guru Nanak in the Punjab. The illegal trade sails in the wake of the biotech industry's deceptive PR push.
That's not to say that the clandestine sale of these seeds is not a real concern. The fact that the government backed away from tackling this illegal trade and is making no attempt to enforce the biosafety measures that farmers are supposed to follow is extremely disturbing.
Even in the US, where the industry has the US administration eating out of its hands, Bt cotton has only been introduced with controls and safeguards, like refuges to limit the build up of pest resistance, with which farmers are expected to comply. The Environmental Protection Agency has even been working together with the U.S. space agency NASA to find ways of detecting compliance with their regulations via satellites. That's because they are aware that if pest resistance suddenly sets in, it could trigger widespread crop failure and be a massive problem.
This is a risky technology to start with but playing it the way that the political leadership has in India is inviting disaster.
* Dr Stevens: How have the industry manufactured support in the South and why do you think they do so?
Jonathan: A few years back I wrote an article called The Fake Parade about a protest by poor Third World farmers in support of GMOs. A leading light of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation declared the march "a turning point" because "real, live, developing-world farmers", he said, had begun "speaking for themselves". The march got a huge amount of publicity. There was even an article in The (London) Times. But our research showed the whole thing was a charade.
The main "developing-world farmer" quoted by the man from BIO turned out never to have farmed in his life! The farmers' union he heads wants to become the operational arm of the trade association for the agrochemical companies. We even discovered that the "media contact" for the march was the daughter of a rich US lumber industrialist. She had worked out of various free market lobby groups in Washington and so on and had absolutely nothing to do with the developing world beyond helping to organise this march. Her specialty, it turned out, was getting lobbyists out on the streets in mimicry of popular protesters.
One of Monsanto's earliest attempts at this sort of thing was staged in Washington DC, where a street protest against genetic engineering was disrupted by a group of African-Americans bearing placards such as "Biotech saves children's lives." Unfortunately for Monsanto, the New York Times found out that a Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood had been paid by Monsanto's PR firm to bus in these counter-demonstrators!
This is part of a wider pattern of Monsanto trying to get its soap box behind a black man's face. So much so that we've got special sections on the website just tracking the activities of corporate lobbyists in Asia and Africa.
* Dr Stevens: Why is this happening?
Jonathan: When they failed to overcome consumer resistance in Europe, the biotech industry began playing the hunger card in order to exploit public guilt, saying even if you don't want them, GM crops are an absolute necessity for all the hungry millions. And, of course, there's no better way of seeming to validate that claim than having it made in the name of those from the South.
That's why when the US sued the European Union at the World Trade Organisation for not opening up its markets to American GM products, it filed its WTO case in the name of Africa! And at the press conference the US trade representative had a farmer from South Africa standing next to him ready to give a speech that sounded remarkably like a Monsanto press release.
That same farmer has also been taken to London and Brussels on promotional trips. He's billed as a "small farmer" leading a "hand-to-mouth existence", even though he's nothing of the sort. He is one of the largest farmers in his area of South Africa.
So, while Monsanto makes use of a rich Bollywood star to push its products to poor farmers in India, in Europe and America it uses "poor farmers" for its PR purposes. Of course, in a sense both are actors. And in both cases it's hard to know just how much they actually believe in their scripts!
* Dr Stevens: If we totally ban GM foods then what do your think are the possible alternatives?
Jonathan: One of the saddest things about what's been happening in India is the way in which scientists and policy makers have been swept up in the hype of a corporation operating out of St Louis, Missouri, when India is a country with an incredible heritage; it's a treasure-house of bio-resources; and it also has some of the most interesting projects in terms of alternatives to GM crops.
One of the most exciting is the Punukula village project in Andhra Pradesh where they have tackled the indiscriminate application of pesticides on cotton, and all the problems that go with that - acute poisoning, suicides by debt-ridden farmers, and all the rest of it. Through using Non-Pesticidal Management practices, they've got the pests under control indeed, the pests have more or less disappeared and they now use no pesticides at all and have no need for Bt cotton. They're economically better off and they don’t face the hazards of pesticide use or the risks of genetic engineering. And Punukula is not alone. In a series of countries across Asia, including India, farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides while actually increasing their yields.
The problem is, of course, that the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture show absolutely no interest in such projects. They are much more interested, it seems, in banging the drum for GM crops, than in promoting effective solutions that don't make millions for big corporations.
You can see the same thing in Kenya where a Monsanto sweet potato project was hyped as the answer to hunger and the way to massively increase sweet potato yields in Africa. But when the results of the 3-years of field trials were finally published, it emerged the whole thingwas a total flop. The GM crop didn't give the virus resistance it was supposed to and the yields were worse than those of the conventional sweet potatoes that it was supposed to replace. By contrast, a sweet potato project in Uganda used conventional means to breed a sweet potato that is virus resistant, that is popular with farmers and that actually doubles yields. But the Kenyan government is still promoting GM crops as the way forward.
There are some great projects out there which are already succeeding sometimes leading to doubled or even tripled yields - despite being massively under resourced. They involve low-tech ecologically-friendly farming systems that are suited to the needs and conditions of small-scale farmers. And these successes could be even bigger with more resources and the agricultural research stations getting behind them, yet all the world hears about is the hype about GM crops.
* Dr Stevens: Can GM crops end hunger by increasing agricultural yields?
Jonathan: Even if GM crops could do what was claimed for them, it's highly questionable whether that would bring an end to hunger. After all, a third of the word's hungry reside in India, yet India already produces big food surpluses.
But, the joke is that there's no convincing evidence that GM crops really can increase yields. Independent scientific studies just don't support that.
We've seen this time and again with Bt cotton. In Indonesia - the first country in Asia to go down the GM route and the one where Monsanto has been shown to have corrupted large numbers of officials in the process - the results were so bad that Monsanto had to pull out of the country.
In South Africa, a 5-year study has shown that farmer indebtedness has increased as a result of growing Bt cotton, and in south India there has also been strong evidence from a whole variety of sources of Bt Cotton yielding inferior crops and even not performing well in the matter of pest resistance.
A 3-year study in Andhra Pradesh showed that though Bt Cotton cost nearly 400% more to buy, the average yield was 30 percent less than from non-GM varieties. In fact, non-GM farmers earned some 60% more than their GM counterparts over the 3-year period.
Despite this, you get this herd mentality where, as the University of Illinois plant pathologist, Donald White has noted, everyone has to have a biotech programme evn if it doesn't actually work that well! A University of Iowa study found that while the majority of farmers in the study said increasing yields was their reason for planting a GM crop, the research showed they were actually getting lower yields!
Of course, that may not be a big deal to hugely-subsidized American farmers but for farmers in the developing world, getting it wrong with these expensive crops can mean disaster.
* Dr Stevens: Can GM help overcome 'micronutrient malnutrition'?
Jonathan: Do you remember when Manju Sharma, the Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, claimed the GM "protato" would soon be going into all Indian school children's lunch boxes in order to enhance the protein content of their diet. The food and trade policy analyst, Devinder Sharma, pointed out that if they were really serious about fighting malnutrition, the government should ensure that the 50 million tonnes of food grains that are rotting in the open are fed to the hungry. Not least, because over 25 million tonnes of those stocks are comprised of wheat, which contains four time more proteins than the GM potatoes!
There is no logic in this situation unless you look at it in terms of scientists seeking the cudos of a hi-tech fix, and politicians and the biotech industry seeking a poster child for GM crops.
Hans Herren, the winner of the World Food Prize, hit the nail on the head when he said that most of the problems that are to be addressed via Golden Rice and the like could actually be resolved in a matter of days, with the right political will.
* Dr Stevens: Is GM research and patents addressing poverty and hunger in southern countries?
Jonathan: It's Hans Herren again who has pointed out the irresponsibility of monopolising funding in agricultural development into a narrow set of risky technologies, to the detriment of more conventional and proven approaches that have been very successful and whose potential lies mostly unused in developing countries. And patents only add to the problem, ensuring greater concentration of ownership of agricultural resources and the domination of the multinationals. How does that help poor and marginalised farmers?
GM crops have become a massive and shameful distraction from the real task of addressing poverty and hunger and we have to stop the biotech industry and our supine politicians forcing us all up a GM cul-de-sac.