In the light of Bill Gates recent millions to a consortium headed by Florence Wambugu, not to mention the science journal Nature positioning her as one of the voices from Africa the G8 should be listening to in determineing the future strategic development of the continent, we though it might be timely to rerun, 'How to WAMBUZLE the world!'

GM Watch's Jonathan Matthews had this to say about Wambugu in an interview:

Q: Your last Pants on Fire award celebrated one of those [corporate lobbyists active in Asia and Africa].

Yes, we gave the award to the Kenyan scientist, Florence Wambugu, who typifies the kind of thing that's going on. She's a Monsanto protege and, if you read the citation, it almost defies belief that somebody could be so shameless in the way she's promoted this technology.

Wambugu claims GM will literally solve all the problems of Africa. She said somewhere that GM crops would lift the whole "African continent out of decades of economic and social despair".

Her career as a propagandist has been built out of a Monsanto GM sweet potato project that she was recruited for. For year's she's hyped that project around the world's media as the answer to hunger and as the way to massively increase sweet potato yields in Africa. She wears traditional African dress and speaks in such evangelical terms that some journalists have even assumed that the project must already be working out in the fields, that Kenyan farmers are already reaping the benefits and that it's already helping to feed the hungry. But when the results of the 3-years of field trials were finally published, it emerged the whole thing was 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.

Yet despite this disaster, Wambugu's still going around proclaiming the project a success! And she's had all kinds of awards and honours bestowed on her by the industry and their pals, as if she had achieved something quite remarkable. So we thought she should be given the one award that she really deserved - the Pants on Fire award.

Wham, Bam Boozle!
[for pics and links]
How to WAMBUZLE the world!
Wambugu's Whoppers earn her Smouldering (not so!) Smalls award

'Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger,' ventured Tony Combes, Monsanto UK's director of Corporate Affairs. But the same weekend his comment was published, Kenyan scientist Dr Florence Wambugu claimed in the Canadian press that GM crops were 'the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World.'

Pantie pyrotechnics

This kind of inflammatory claim is far from a one-off. Media-friendly Flo told New Scientist, 'In Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty'. In the journal Nature she claimed it could not just solve 'poverty' but could take care of 'famine' and 'environmental degradation' too. Warming to her theme, Flo told a Canadian newspaper GM was not just the answer to hunger but could pull 'the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair'.

High-flying Flo - the industry's HOT SHOT!

'If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not,' the former head of Novartis Seeds in the UK once remarked. But nobody from the biotech industry has tried telling that to Flo. Indeed, far from being embarrassed by the Monsanto-trained scientist's extravagant vapour trail, Flo is considered one of the industry's hottest properties.

'I wish we could clone her,' says Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation. Fiery Flo has certainly not gone unrewarded. A two-time winner of the coveted Monsanto Company Outstanding Performance Award, Flo is also a luminary of DuPont's Biotech Advisory Panel. She has also been appointed to the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative .

The US magazine Forbes went so far as to name Flo one of fifteen people around the globe who will 'reinvent the future', telling us, 'While the West debates the ethics of GM food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country'. ('Millions served; Florence Wambugu feeds her country with food others have the luxury to avoid' ).

Wham, Yam -- thank you Ma'am...

Spinning the spud as a stud!

Wambugu's meteoric career has been built around a Monsanto-initiated project to create a genetically engineered virus-resistant sweet potato -- a showcase product intended to hype GM as the saviour of Africa.

Trialled in Kenya, the results of sub-Saharan Africa's first GM crop were 'astonishing', according to the article in Forbes magazine. Yields were 'double that of the regular plant', with 'potatoes bigger and richer in colour', indicating they'd retained more nutritional value. For hungry Africa, we were told, 'Wambugu’s modified sweet potato offers tangible hope'.

Better yet, a piece in the Toronto Globe & Mail in July 2003 claimed that the yields were actually more that doubled: 'Dr Wambugu’s modified sweet potato”¦ can increase yields from 4 tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes.'

In May 2004 the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN listed the sweet potato project in its section 'Examples of successful technology development' in its report AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY: MEETING THE NEEDS OF THE POOR? (p.97).

In a report published in January 2004, the Nuffield Council on Bio-ethics said of the project that 'it is expected that yields will increase by 18-25%' and, where sold, 'the increased income will be between 28-39%' (p.39). Overall, the report said, Wambugu's project showed 'the use of GM virus-resistant sweet potatoes could prevent dramatic and frequent reductions in yield of one of the major food crops of many poor people in Africa.' (p.43) ('The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries: a follow up discussion paper')

Not so sweet potato

Contrast such claims with the actual results of the 3-year trials -- quietly published at the end of January 2004. Under the headline 'GM technology fails local potatoes', Kenya's Daily Nation reported, 'Trials to develop a virus resistant sweet potato through biotechnology have failed. US biotechnology, imported three years ago, has failed to improve Kenya's sweet potato'.

In fact, far from dramatically out-yielding the non-GM sweet potatoes, the exact opposite was the case: 'The report indicates that during the trials non-transgenic crops used as a control yielded much more tuber compared to the transgenic'. The GM crop was also found to be susceptible to viral attack -- the very thing it had been created to resist.

New Scientist also reported the GM crop's failure (Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails - Vol 181, 7 Feb 2004), as did an article in the British daily paper, The Guardian. But then in mid-March, some two months after the original report first appeared, Wambugu suddenly issued a puzzling press release.

Flo flames the critics

All the adverse publicity was based on a foolish misunderstanding, according to Fiery Flo. Far from Flo's spud being a dud, she claimed her hot potato was 'a resounding scientific success'. The 3 years of field trials weren't really testing the GM sweet potato at all, Flo explained - they were merely a way of testing the extent of the problems faced at a very early stage in the project. Of course!

Strange though that Kenyan farmers were originally promised a finished GM sweet potato by 2002. Equally curious is the fact that neither the wily Wambugu, Monsanto, nor anyone else, ever challenged the New Scientist, Guardian or Kenyan articles at the time they were published.

And Fiery Flo's determination to correct any misconceptions over her super-spud has somehow never extended to correcting any of those previous tall tales of yields more than doubled, of GM 'potatoes bigger and richer in colour', and of heroic Flo already using the dud spud to feed millions of Africans.

Take care! Beware! Flo's underwear!

Even before the real results were announced, Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies had set off the smoke detectors on a couple more Wambugu whoppers. DeGrassi drew attention to the contrast between the the unproven GM sweet potato variety and a successful conventional breeding programme in Uganda which had already produced a new high-yielding variety which was virus-resistant and 'raised yields by roughly 100%'.

Yet Smoky Flo had claimed, 'Conventional breeding research had proved powerless to develop varieties resistant to these viruses'. She had also claimed, 'the time and money spent actually developing GM varieties are less than for conventional varieties'. The Ugandan project achieved success at a small cost and in just a few years. By contrast, in its over-12-years-in-the-making, Smoky Flo's GM Spud-u-don't-like has so-far consumed funding from Monsanto, the World Bank and USAID to the tune of 6 million dollars.

If the pants fit...

Smoky Flo has been hailed as an African heroine on the strength of her potato porkies. Pants on Fire Chief, Jean de Bris commented on the award, 'The lingerie conflagration set off by this pyrotechnic sweet potato project has not only fueled Wambugu's own career but generated biotech PR worth its weight in gold. Yet far from "reshaping the future" or "serving millions", as is claimed, Wambugu's project has actually wasted millions and helped feed precisely nobody! Flo's blazing bloomers have been a gigantic and shameful distraction from the real task of assisting the poor and hungry in Africa.'

For a profile of Florence Wambugu