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Are GM crops the new colonialism?

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- As I discussed in an earlier column, the biotech industry is struggling mightily to get genetically modified food crops accepted around the world. For giant agriculture-chemical companies like Monsanto, it is a win some/lose some kind of battle. Monsanto appeared to win recently when the Brazilian government announced it would allow the planting of GM soybeans - an already widespread practice due to seed smuggled from Argentina. On the other hand, the GM industry took a hit in Britain when crop trials were declared invalid and will now require another three years to complete.

Farmers and researchers around the world have questioned many of the claims made for GM crops. While the propaganda surrounding these crops often portrays them as magic bullets, and they are sometimes widely adopted by farmers, the reality is that they have yet to save agriculture anywhere, and they certainly face consumer resistance in major importing countries.

The image of companies promoting GM crops has been tarnished in some eyes in recent years. There are many reasons for this. Heavy-handed enforcement of plant patents has engendered sympathy for some of the farmers targeted. GM crops have created some very difficult problems. Herbicide resistant weeds are one. Contamination of conventional crops is another. For example, recent research has confirmed that many of Mexico's traditional corn varieties are contaminated with GM genes. Since Mexico is the ancestral home of corn, and hence home to the largest corn gene pool, this could be disastrous.

This bad image is a major concern for companies like Monsanto. The corporate giant recently declared that income from its patent rights now exceeds income from chemical sales. Clearly, Monsanto has found the goose that lays its golden eggs, and is intent on feathering this nest further.

A clear propaganda wins for GM promoters would occur if they could convince the public that GM crops (and by implication, the companies that generate them) were performing the noble task of relieving world hunger. To further that image, GM companies have gone to that bastion of hunger, Africa, and come back with spokespersons to trumpet their cause.

One of the latest is Dr. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist who recently toured North America promoting GM foods as the answer to the problem of hunger in Africa. Wambugu wears her credentials as a once-poor black African proudly. Her main claim to fame is involvement with a project to genetically engineer a sweet potato to make it resistant to Sweet Potato Feather Mottle Virus, a common sweet potato disease. This project originated with Monsanto, and has been largely funded by the company. Wambugu and Monsanto have made some fantastic claims about the benefits of resistance to this disease. Massive production increases, the end to the Kenyan famine and greater food security for some of Africa's poorest are but a few of these.

But do the claims stand up to the test of reality? Some researchers think not. In speaking on hunger in Uganda, for instance, the World Bank said the need was not for new technology, but rather for better communication between agriculture extension workers and farmers so that farmers could both drive agriculture research and benefit from the research already done.

Promoters of the GM sweet potato hyped it by declaring several years ago that it could "end famine in Kenya". The problem with that grandiose statement was that the Kenyan famine was not due to sweet potato disease. The famine was centered among livestock farmers who did not even grow or eat sweet potatoes. It resulted from cumulative livestock losses, falling livestock prices and sharply rising cereal prices. In fact, sweet potatoes are a very minor crop in Kenya, and cannot be considered a staple.

Sweet potatoes are staples in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, but the Food and Agriculture Organization declared that agricultural production here has been severely limited not by viral diseases, but rather by war, massive displacement of farmers, and international struggles over diamonds and precious metals.

Perhaps most unfortunate of all is the amount of money Monsanto and the American government have spent producing the single variety of GM sweet potato. Over $6 million has been consumed to produce a single variety - from one that the Kenya agency involved in the project admitted was not very popular. Had the researchers bothered to asked Ugandan and Tanzanian farmers, they would have found out that 75 percent of them already had access to non-GM varieties resistant to the Sweet Potato Feather Mottle Virus. Promoting the farmer-to-farmer exchange of these resistant varieties would have done much to solve any problems created by the disease. Of course, this would not have given Monsanto a propaganda victory.

The World Bank identified Kenya's problems this way: "The Kenyan system lacks a focus on farmer empowerment. It is based on a traditional top-down supply-driven approach that provides little or no voice to the farmer." GM crops will only make this situation worse. Even in Kenya, and other poor African countries, the solution to hunger does not necessarily involve producing more food. Rather, it is ensuring that the ability to obtain food is equally held by all. When transnational countries decide what the problems of the Third World are and how to solve them, it is simply another form of colonialism. That didn't save Africa first time around.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net