GMOs, food security and misplaced aid
By Martha Baskin
Seattle Post, 10 May 2010
In conjunction with KBCS, we're posting a transcript of Martha Baskin's latest story. Listen to her radio story here.
Organic foods aren't only the preference of countries in the so-called developed North. Forty thousand tons of genetically engineered maize was recently rejected in Kenya. Protesters are making sure it remains stuck in the port city of Mombassa. Jos Ngonyo, with Kenya's Biodiversity Coalition, spoke to Green Acre Radio in a recent visit to Seattle. Ngonyo talked about why small-scale farmers reject the Green Revolution in Africa and "dysfunctional aid." The Gates Foundation helped launch the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa four years ago.
Narration: There's a tradition in Kenya. When maize, the locally grown corn eaten at every meal is harvested, farmers select the best seeds.
Jos Ngonyo, of Kenya's Biodiversity Coalition, explains the procedure on a rare visit to Washington state.
Ngonyo: "They would actually put it above the fireplace so that the fire will continually heat the seeds. They would plant those seeds and indeed the crop would be a fine crop."
A farmer without seeds, says Ngono, would borrow from other farmers. Today the tradition is under threat. Genetically modified seeds have been introduced.
Ngonyo: "Now we're having seeds from Monsanto, the biotech seeds that are patented. You cannot replant. You cannot harvest and store them before replanting. You're totally dependent on Monsanto."
Genetically modified corn, says Ngonyo, contaminates indigenous maize, because of cross pollination. Kenya’s Agriculture Research Institute used to concentrate on seeds good for the environment, says Ngonyo, but now their focus is biotech seeds.
Ngonyo: "This is a big threat to farmers livelihoods and as you know this is not the way forward."
But it appears to be the way forward for AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Four years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to launch AGRA. Their strategy was explained in the report, "Africa's Turn: The New Green Revolution for the 21st Century." The report emphasized hybrid and genetically engineered seeds [a.k.a. GMOs or GE seeds], chemical fertilizers, training agricultural scientists for crop improvements and agricultural reforms.
Jos Ngonyo, recipient of the Eastern Africa Environmental Leadership Award, wasn't scheduled to meet with the Gates Foundation during his visit. He says he would have welcomed the opportunity to explain why he thinks AGRA is a bad idea.
Ngonyo: "AGRA didn’t involve the people in Africa. This was an idea pushed to Africa and that does not work. It’s not about us without us."
Ngonyo says people are so aware in the world that "you can't just bring an ideology from outside and push. They'll only take it for sometime and then rebel against it."
In early April, protestors, lead by Kenya's Biodiversity Coalition, rejected 40,000 tons of genetically modified maize grown in South Africa. The maize remains blocked at the port city of Mombassa. Protesters say the maize is a springboard to contaminate non-GMO crops.
Ngonyo: "We blocked the consignment that was coming in from South Africa. Actually it's illegal to bring to Kenya because we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with that."
Kenya, explains Ngonyo, has no way to protect indigenous crops from GMO crops. Health impacts are also of concern. "Peer reviewed surveys and research has shown that maize suppresses the immune system, causes cancers and high blood pressure. Another impact is infertility," he says.
Kenya should follow the European Union and proceed cautiously, urges Ngonyo. "In some places they've been banned like in France."
The title of Jos Ngonyo's talk during his visit was "Dysfunctional Aid and Misplaced Philanthropy: African Farmers Respond to the Green Revolution in Africa." He gave the following example: Africa's Agriculture Technology Foundation received $43 million from the Gates Foundation to develop genetically engineered "water efficient maize."
Ngonyo: "We have water efficient maize that did really well. It's called katumani. It was grown in dry areas and it takes only three months and people have food to eat."
But katumani was gradually abandoned when Kenya's Agricultural Research Association switched its focus to GMO seeds. "So we need to look at what works, which seeds are best for which seasons and encourage those and Bill Gates Foundation can put money there," Ngonyo says.
People in Africa welcome aid from the Gates Foundation, says Ngonyo. "They may be well meaning but they're misdirected. If they knew the truth and had meetings with farmers on the ground they would probably put their money where its needed most and make an impact that would be positive to small scale farmers."
Ninety-fiver percent of Kenyans are small-scale farmers.
A 2008 UN-sponsored report, The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, called for urgent changes in the way food is produced. Soaring food prices are at risk of driving millions into poverty. Four hundred experts spent three years researching the report.
Ngonyo: "That report ruled out GMOs and strongly recommended organic agriculture as the way to go to ensure food security."
Jos Ngonyo's visit to Washington state was sponsored by AGRA Watch, a non-profit that supports farmers' self-determination and food sovereignty. For more information see seattleglobaljustice.org/agrawatch.