South Africa sprang a big surprise when it slapped a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) imports at the end of October. The country has been the biotech industrys main entry-point into Africa as the industry was being driven out of Europe. South Africa has a weak biosafety regime with biotech lobbyists acting in a regulatory capacity, and is the only country on the continent that has commercialised GM crops. This puts it seriously out of step with neighbouring Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which are among the dozen or so African countries that have imposed bans and restrictions on GM imports following Zambias outright rejection of GM food aid in 2002 (SiS 16, SiS 17).
The South African government has commissioned its Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to study the implications of GM imports on trade; and the moratorium is not likely to end before the DTI study is complete by the end of next year.
As a major food producer and exporter, South Africa is clearly worried about trade, especially in GM maize. GM maize accounts for 70 percent of maize traded on the global market. As very few countries want to import GM maize, there is a glut. So South Africa, a net maize-exporter, finds it cheaper to import GM maize from Argentina than to source it from within the country, with the result that 3.5 million tons of local non-GM maize could not be sold in 2005, leaving South African farmers devastated.
Meanwhile, Zambia is holding firm against GM food aid and imports despite projected food shortages due to drought, and amid intense pressure to accept GM crops from an international pro-GM lobby. It is opting instead for organic and other low input agriculture that are boosting yields and farm income, and most important of all, liberating farmers from decades of indebtedness and dependence on agrochemicals.
Whether intentional or not, South Africa and Zambia are both making wise moves towards food security for the same reason. High input/GM agriculture and cheap imports both depend on cheap oil, which is fast disappearing.
Petrol queues are increasingly common across the globe, and Zambia is no exception. Crude oil price keeps rising, while fuel production lags further and further behind consumption. On one occasion, I was trapped in my hotel room in Lusaka with no electricity for part of the day because the hotel had been shedded from the grid on a regular basis for weeks; and taxis were going nowhere because the petrol pumps were empty. Could the end of cheap oil signal the end of subsidised dumping as well as high input/GM agriculture?
If governments need more convincing to give up GM crops, they should look at the new damning scientific evidence.
GM crops are industrial monocultures only far worse. Two traits account for very nearly all the GM crops grown commercially worldwide: more than 75 percent are herbicide tolerant, nearly all to the herbicide glyphosate, or Roundup, Monsantos formulation; the rest are insect-resistant, due to a class of Bt-toxins from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis.
Evidence has been accumulating over the years that all is not well with both types of GM crops: yield drag, poor performance in the field, more pesticides used, reduced profit for farmers, and bad for health and biodiversity.
A spate of recent findings not only confirm what we already know, but also complete the debacle. Roundup resistant superweeds and Bt-resistant insect pests have now been documented, making both Roundup tolerant crops and Bt crops useless. The problems dont end there.
Bt crops express variable amounts of the toxins, often insufficient to kill target pests; but harm beneficial insects including predators, bees and soil decomposers. (Bt toxins are already known to be actual or potential allergens and can provoke strong immune reactions.)
Roundup herbicide causes sudden crop death. It is lethal to frogs, and highly toxic to human placental cells, even at one-tenth the recommended dosage. (It is already linked to cancers, neuro-defects and spontaneous abortions.)
Thats not all. A research team led by Dr Irina Ermakova of the Russian Academy of Sciences has just reported that 36 percent of rats born to GM-soya fed mothers were severely stunted compared with 6 percent of rats born to mothers fed non GM-soya. Within three weeks, 55.6 percent of the progeny of GM-soya fed rats died; the death rate was six to eight times that of progeny from rats fed non-GM soya, or a diet without added soya. This latest is perhaps the most dramatic in a string of revelations indicating that GM food is far from safe, which have been systematically dismissed, suppressed or not followed up.
It is sheer lunacy to expand the cultivation of GM crops like these across the world, as the pro-GM lobby is pushing for. It can lead nowhere else but towards global biodevastation, massive crop failures and global famine.
We need look no further than Latin America for the nightmare scenario. It is being destroyed by soya cultivation, especially with the arrival of GM soya (Argentinas GM woes, SiS 20; How Europe is recolonizing America, SiS 25). Soya is inextricably tied to the meat industry ever since agronomists discovered that adding soya to grain could improve the feed to meat conversion ratio up to two-fold. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay are driven to grow soya for foreign exchange, to repay foreign debt, and in response to demand from importing countries especially China, currently the worlds largest importer of soybean and soybean products. Soya fields have been spreading in Latin America like an ecological canker, eating up the pampas, the savannahs and the Amazonian forests; bringing with it massive infrastructure projects for transporting and processing soybean that obliterate natural habitats far beyond the areas cleared for soya cultivation. This is happening just when the integrity of the Amazonian forests is absolutely essential for stabilizing global climate against the increasingly frequent climatic catastrophes of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.
It is time to wipe GM crops off the planet. Governments in Latin America should put a halt to the spread of GM soya right away and reconvert monoculture soya fields back into forests or sustainable agro-forests with the help of the international community, under the provision of the Kyoto Protocol. The rest of us can contribute by rejecting not only GM soya, but also soya-fed beef in favour of organic grass-fed beef.
Unfortunately, a powerful pro-GM lobby has infiltrated every level of civil society from international aid agencies to governments, and academia; I have crossed paths with it all too often.
Monsanto and other biotech corporations have been funding university scientists to do their research cheaply, yes; but also to do propaganda and to debate with scientists like me. We are defamed and libelled at public conferences, in the popular media and pages of the learned journals. This happens worldwide. In Lusaka recently, I came up against a scientist from the University of Zambia leading an aggressive disinformation campaign against his countrys rejection of GM crops, and exploiting the most horrendous image of a starving African child to make his case. Following him, a scientist from Kenya used the same image and told the exact same story.
Scientists like us risk losing research grants and jobs, even those relatively high up in the academic echelon.
Fred Kirschenmann was director of the Leopold Center in Iowa State University for the past five years, until he was suddenly and involuntarily made distinguished fellow. His sins? He argued once too often that there is an urgent need for a more intelligent, diversified farming system. Genetic modification, he said, is simply another tool to make the monoculture work a little longer in the face of the pests and diseases that monocultures encourage.
For his parting shot, Kirschenmann said Iowa States College of Agriculture draws agribusiness cash the way a penned-up pig wallowing in its own waste draws flies.
If its any comfort, I have found it refreshing and liberating to work outside academia since I was strongly encouraged to retire early in 2000, for speaking out on the risks of genetic modification.
There is nothing to stop us independent scientists from telling the truth and making science work for a sustainable and equitable world. To do just that, we are organizing a weekend workshop with living legend Professor George Chan of Dream farm fame (SiS 27), plus other luminaries (see backcover). Do apply early, as places are strictly limited.
Article first published 20/11/05
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