GM Crops Irrelevant for Africa
Damning report concludes GM crops do not address the real causes of
poverty and hunger in Africa. Jonathan
Careful analysis of the evidence from the biotech industry’s flagship
projects in Africa shows that GM crops are irrelevant for Africa. The analysis
comes in a damning report from Aaron deGrassi, a researcher in the Institute of
Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The flagship projects
analyzed include Monsanto’s GM cotton in the Makhitini Flats in South Africa,
Syngenta Foundation’s GM maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with
GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto, the World Bank and USAID. All have been
showcased by the industry as huge successes for small-scale African farmers.
Significantly, deGrassi shows that the benefits from GM crops are much lower
than can be obtained "with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based
techniques" from just a tiny fraction of the investment in research.
The excitement over GM crops, the author shows, stems in reality from a PR
strategy by the biotech industry trying to give itself the public legitimacy to
help reduce "trade restrictions, biosaftey controls, and monopoly
DeGrassi’s analysis receives corroboration from a surprising quarter. An
Associated Press article in June profiling Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief
technology officer and Robert Horsch, its vice president of product and
technology cooperation, notes that Horsch manages a Monsanto program designed to
help farmers in developing nations improve their farming methods. Horsch is
reported to have said his mission is twofold: "create goodwill and help open
DeGrassi’s carefully referenced report details the GM lobby’s extensive PR
use of South African GM cotton farmers such as ‘Bt Buthelezi’
"Buthelezi was by Zoellick’s side when the Trade Secretary formally announced
a US WTO case against EU restrictions on GM imports. A month later, the
Administrator of USAID, Andrew Natsios, described Buthelezi before a
Congressional panel on plant biotechnology in Africa....The Council for
Biotechnology Information calls him a "small farmer", and others describe his
life as "hand-to-mouth existence". Administrator
Natsios described him as a
"small farmer struggling just at the subsistence level".
"However, independent reporters have revealed that, with two wives and more
than 66 acres, he is one of the largest farmers in Makhathini and chairs the
area’s farmers’ federation encompassing 48 farmers’ associations."
DeGrassi reports that for Monsanto, Buthelezi and his stories are part of the
firm's declared strategy of "gaining global acceptance of biotechnology". Just
before President Bush’s May 2003 speech claiming that Europe’s import
restrictions exacerbate African hunger, Monsanto flew four black South African
GM crop farmers to London, where they spoke at a private conference hosted by
the Commonwealth Business Council, before heading on to Denmark and Germany.
Like Buthelezi, these "representative farmers" read statements carefully
scripted by Monsanto and own dozens of acres of land. Several actually spend
most of their time working at their day jobs as school administrators.
Other pro-biotech campaigners have caught on: CropGen, an industry-funded
group of academic scientists in the UK, for instance, celebrates another South
African farmer, Mbongeni Nxumalo.
De Grassi states,
"These South African farmers - whom representatives of Monsanto and other
businesses call "basically representative farmers" and "representatives of the
African smallholding community" - are plucked from South Africa, wined and
dined, and given scripted statements about the benefits of GM. In an area where
most farmers cultivate just a few hectares, and only half the population can
read, Monsanto's "representative" farmers are school administrators and
agricultural college graduates, owning dozens of hectares of land. Monsanto has
been criticized for using these farmers as a part of a deliberate attempt to
distort public debate on biotechnology. Critics have coined the nickname "Bt
Buthelezi", to illustrate this farmer's unconditional support to Bt cotton:
during a trip to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Buthelezi was quoted as
saying, "I wouldn't care if it were from the devil himself.""
Meanwhile, conventional crop breeding methods, which cost much less and
produce better results, have failed to attract attention from both African
governments and biotech companies.
More alarming is the amount of money earmarked for these crop innovations,
when cotton and sweet potato are not even major crops in Africa and thus will
not in any way solve Africa’s poverty/hunger problems.
The report shows how the industry’s PR spin is often farcically inexact.
Here’s just one example 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
"In addition to conflicting data on the area and numbers of farmers, the
profits gained by switching to Bt cotton are unclear." DeGrassi writes. "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
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 have helped to saddle them with
debts of $1.2 million!
Despite that, CropGen claimed GM cotton has turned the area from one that
wasn’t viable for agriculture into "a thriving agricultural community". Monsanto
says, "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, that "small farmers are realizing huge economic benefits". A group of
academics in South Africa have even claimed that projecting the results across
the entire continent shows that "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, according to deGrassi who details the various claims in his
carefully referenced report, are apparently even more fantastical.
The report shows that GM cotton is, in truth, 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."
The other showcase project that deGrassi looks at in detail centers on GM
sweet potatoes in Kenya. Again deGrassi demonstrates the total gap between the
supposed ‘evidence’ and hyperbole – "Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan
Famine" - and the wholly unimpressive reality.
"The [GM] 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
DeGrassi also notes: "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."
Prakash issued a press release ahead of the Sacramento ministerial meeting in
June demanding that international leaders ignore the protesters and "let sound
science determine the future of agricultural technologies in developing
DeGrassi mercilessly exposes the kind of ‘sound science’ that has been used
to lobby leaders around the world and to mislead the rest of us. Read deGrassi’s
report. The truth is out!
Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan
Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence by Aaron diGrassi, published by Third
World Network, Africa
the section on the biotech industry's PR use of Africa: