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Resisting moral blackmail

by Brewster Kneen
The Ram's Horn

(Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In a departure from our usual style, this issue is mainly devoted to one case study. Maybe it is a celebration of Cancun and the defeat of the US, the EU and the WTO at the hands of the Third World, or what some still call the ‘developing’ countries. In any case, we felt it is important to present the documentation, along with analysis, of the biotech industry’s propaganda campaign in Africa and around the world, trying to impress the public with its promise that biotech is the only way to feed the poor starving Africans. The focus is on Kenya, USAID, Monsanto, and an agent named Florence Wambugu. While we have been accumulating articles and reports about the biotech lobby and Wambugu for at least 8 years (some of which have appeared in previous issues of The Ram’s Horn), it was the arrival of the extensive, carefully researched article by Aaron diGrassi that suggested it was time to pull it all together to illustrate the propaganda strategy of the biotech industry.

Biotech advocates, whether in the university, the corporation or the government, just love to talk about ‘science.’ They make no claims for truthfulness, which is not recognized as a ‘scientific’ concept. The conclusion: approach everything you hear about the benefits and promises of biotech with suspicion, and do your utmost to resist the moral blackmail about feeding the hungry.

“Kenya is always a focal point of practically everything! We are used to being used like tennis balls. But with the grace of God, we continue to survive!”
– Jesse Mugambi, Nairobi, Kenya

Monsanto and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) must have invested an awful lot of money in Florence Wambugu by now. They’ve been financing her career as a biotech agent since 1991 when she went to work in Monsanto’s St. Louis research centre on sweet potatoes. The intent was to engineer a virus-resistant sweet potato that would solve all of Africa’s food problems. At least that is the impression one gets from the hype year after year. Once that was accomplished, she was to go back to Africa and take the ‘technology’ with her (so-called ‘technology transfer’).
– source: Colin Peel of Degussa Corp. in Journal of Animal Science, 6/96

In recent weeks Canada has been treated to slick presentations of Dr. Wambugu by the biotech promoters to the press and other gullible audiences, such as the National Research Council. A black African woman in colourful traditional dress delivering a sermon on feeding the hungry of Africa is a real show stopper. And the right-wing press love it. They don’t bother to ask about the sources of the sensational numbers she throws about, they don’t ask to see the research studies to back up her claims for biotechnology or the world of African farmers that she paints in simplistic terms. They don’t ask who is paying her way around the world. Perhaps they just don’t want to appear impolite, even if truth is the victim.

When Florence Wambugu finished her three-year internship with Monsanto and went back to Kenya, she set up the AfriCentre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a US-based, foundation and industry backed biotech promotion and ‘technology transfer’agency. Since then, Wambugu and the ISAAA have spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech fronts, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum (ABSF), the African Biotechnology Trust, and AfricaBio – Biotech Stake-holders Association (Muffy Koch, editor). In January, 2002, Wambugu established her own A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International. Her website, , gives the intended impression that farmers are actually growing her GM virus-resistant sweet potato with these words: “the GM sweet potato, which later became the first GM crop in sub-Saharan Africa. . .” The deGrassi study below reveals that this is far from the truth.

A letter from Eunice Kamaara, Kenya:

“It should never escape our minds that proponents of GM foods are often agents of multinational corporations who have everything to gain from acceptance and wide distribution of GM foods. They are pro-business. Opponents of GM foods do not seem to have anything to lose in terms of profit because they are not in any alternative business. In my opinion, when those who have nothing to gain from their arguments speak, we should listen carefully.

“A reason that is currently advanced by GM foods advocates is that these will reduce poverty and hunger in poor developing countries. Given the reality of hunger and the consequent death and malnutrition in many parts of the world, this reason could easily turn anybody emotional and irrational. But the premise on which this reason is based is shaky. The major cause of poverty and hunger in the world is not lack of food. Speaking for Africa and for Kenya in particular, I can say with certainty that there is enough food for all Kenyans in the country. But the distribution of the means to acquire food and the actual distribution of what is already available is poor. In the absence of appropriate policies on food distribution, Kenyans in one part of the country experience hunger while in another part, food is rotting in granaries for lack of demand! It is often that we have farmers in Kenya going on strike refusing to sell their food at throwaway prices. This is where to look for people who are genuinely interested in the real needs of the ‘poor.’

“It is a noble cause to feed the hungry. But to use this to advocate for products whose safety has not been determined beyond reasonable doubt is unethical. In my culture, we say that one does not look into the mouth of a goat that has been given free of charge. This is to say that one should appreciate what has been given as a free gift. But this does not mean that one should eat a sick goat just because it is given free. Indeed, it is public ‘looking into the mouth of the goat’ that was prohibited. In privacy, one has to scrutinize any ‘goat’ before eating it.” – 17/5/03

Swallowing the line
The most unrestrained endorsation of biotech we’ve seen – rivalling even Dennis Avery & Son or C.S. Prakash or Doug Powell – comes from Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente (5/7/03), who appears to have indulged in magic mushrooms while writing:

“When Florence Wambugu lectured at the University of Toronto last week there was a security guard on hand, just in case. Sometimes demonstrators show up when she speaks. To them, this stately, eloquent Kenyan woman has a dangerous message. Dr. Wambugu is among the world’s pioneers of bioengineered crops. She is both a scientist and an activist, and her message is that genetically modified foods are essential to help save Africa.

“Dr. Wambugu has spent years developing a virus-resistant sweet potato that could spectacularly increase yields for subsistence farmers. No one knows better what a difference that could make. As the sixth of 10 children, she grew up on a subsistence farm herself. Sometimes, the family had only sweet potatoes to eat. Sometimes they went hungry. Her mother sold the family cow so that she could go away to high school. ‘I wasn’t even supposed to be educated,’ she says with a laugh. ‘My mother had to go to a tribal tribunal to get permission. I was a girl who was just supposed to be married, and that was it.’

“Today, with a doctorate in biotechnology, Dr. Wambugu devotes her life to sustainable food production in Africa. ‘Sub-Saharan Africa is practising organic farming and the result is poverty and hunger,’ she argues. ‘Without science, we’ll never have enough.’ . . . Bioengineered crops can be made immune to insects and devastating diseases such as the maize streak virus, which the World Bank calls one of the most difficult and devastating diseases afflicting Africa’s food supply. They are also weed-resistant, which means that women can be liberated from the slavery of weeding. The crops are also far more productive. Dr. Wambugu’s modified sweet potato, for example, can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes. In some instances, biotechnology can triple rural farm incomes.

“Dr. Wambugu sees biotech as the great equalizer – for women, for the illiterate, for the most disadvantaged. ‘Many farmers here cannot read or write,’ she says. ‘But they know seeds. We can give them technology that is packaged in the seed.’ And, because most food is eaten where it’s produced, GM crops empower people at the very bottom. . . . Dr. Wambugu, who has three grown children, is now the CEO of a Nairobi-based foundation called A Harvest Biotech, which is focussed on providing developing nations with the new technologies. She is committed to a grassroots, co-operative approach whose goal is to make people self-reliant. . . Watch her. This is one woman who is changing the world.”

Eerily similar language

“Dr. Florence Wambugu, one of the 15 people most likely to change the world according to Forbes Magazine, will give a special scientific lecture on the ‘Potential and Demonstrated Impacts of Biotechnology in Africa,’ at the National Research Council in Ottawa. Dr. Wambugu’s talk . . . is part of a visit to Canada to raise support for the use of biotechnology as a farming tool to fight hunger in Africa.”
– 16/9/03 press release, source unclear

Getting around

“Growing up with hunger and poverty all around her, Florence Wambugu tried to protect her family’s crops from pests and disease. Today, the renowned Kenya-born scientist continues that work on behalf of a continent. Dr. Wambugu is a strong proponent of using biotechnology as a farming tool to help fight starvation in Africa, where 5,000 people die from a lack of food every day. Considered one of the world’s foremost experts on agri-biotechnology, she believes the development of genetically modified (GM) crops – immune to insects and disease – is key to winning the battle.

“‘I am not a GM crusader; I am a crusader for Africa,’ Wambugu said yesterday . . . after speaking at the CropLife Canada Conference [the lobby organization of the agrotoxin/biotech industry]. . . Wambugu told a packed meeting room that Canada has a vital role to play in developing African agriculture’s move to more GM crops. ‘Canada can take a look at Africa as an emerging market,’ she said. ‘We need Canada’s help. . . contributing science, building partnerships, training our people to produce our own food over the long term.’” – Jason Bell, Winnipeg Free Press, 16/9/03

A Different Take . . .

“Florence Wambugu . . . has become an influential advocate for the biotechnology industry. After her work with Monsanto and KARI, she headed ISAAA’s Africa office, before establishing her own A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International . . . ISAAA has created a Knowledge Center in Kenya with the primary purpose to ‘facilitate a knowledge-based, better informed public debate.’ The group has also spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech NGOs, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum and African Biotechnology Trust. Pro-biotech Western aid agencies have joined with these organizations to quietly conduct one-sided conferences at up-scale venues around the continent, such as Kenya’s Windsor Golf and Country Club, aimed to swing high-level officials in favour of GM.” – Aaron deGrassi, TWN Africa (see page 4)

Another note from Eunice Kamaara I have been reading quite a bit of Dr. Florence Wambugu’s opinions in our local dailies but have not had the chance to speak to her although she is Kenyan and actually from my home province. I would really like to understand the background from which she so strongly supports GMOs after which perhaps I would be justified to respond in whichever way. Since I have not got this opportunity as yet, I feel the need to restrain myself but I just have to respond however briefly.

Having grown up in almost similar circumstances as Dr. Wambugu in terms of wants, and currently living in a rural town in Kenya, I wholly agree with her that there is hunger in Africa. I also concur with her that this has gender dimensions. But I do not agree that GMOs is the solution. On the contrary, I find this direction very dangerous to take as it will lead to more hunger. It is precisely the very control of food production and ownership that leads to hunger in Africa. On the international level, poor trade relations and lack of balance of trade is the source of Africa’s hunger: Raw materials from poor countries fetch very low at the international markets and the international markets are not competitive but largely oligopolistic. On the national level, too few extremely rich people control food production and ownership in Africa amidst abject poverty and hungry millions. At the family level, from a gender perspective, men control the means of production and ownership of food although they do not contribute labour towards actual production. For me, redistribution of control of means of production and ownership of food is the gravitational issue around which controlling hunger in Africa revolves. Promoting GMOs will leave control and ownership of food in even fewer hands!

Unfortunately for Africa, due to many years of colonialism and neo-colonialism (and now globalization), many of us are not confident with ourselves. We, consciously or unconsciously have little dignity left in us. This leads to a state in which we are often willing to ‘sell’ our own people in exchange for ‘tokenism’ and ‘breadcrumbs falling from the master’s table’. I am not saying this is what Dr. Wambugu is doing. As I have already observed, I do not understand where she is coming from adequately enough to criticize her. I am simply expressing my opinion versus hers.

An important thing to note is that we cannot underestimate our peoples’ (Africans) understanding of reality with regard to GMOs. They may not be aware of the technical terms used but they do well understand the implications of GMOs. If we were to let them speak for themselves, we would be wiser! – 16/7/03

Looking in the Goat’s Mouth

Excerpts from Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence, by Aaron deGrassi, 6/03. Available with all 435 references from Third World Network – Africa at http://www.twnafrica.org/docs/GMCropsAfrica.pdf

In this paper deGrassi evaluates the ‘appropriateness’ of GM cotton, sweet potatoes, and maize using six criteria which are substantially more fundamental and comprehensive than the usual simplistic industry/government criteria of ‘productivity’ and ‘safety’:

  • demand led,
  • site specific,
  • poverty focussed,
  • cost effective,
  • institutionally sustainable, and
  • environmentally sustainable.

“Virus-resistant sweet potatoes are not demand driven, site specific, poverty focussed, cost effective, or institutionally sustainable. The environmental sustainability of modified sweet potatoes is ambiguous, but not great.

“Bt cotton scores low on criteria of demand drive, site specificity, and institutional sustainability. It has ambiguous poverty focus and cost effectiveness. Environmental sustainability is currently moderate, but could potentially be moderate to strong.

“For Bt maize, the analysis shows low demand drive, cost-effectiveness, and institutional sustainability. It is too early too detect unambiguous site specificity or poverty focus. Environmental sustainability is currently low to moderate, but could potentially be raised.

Virus-Resistant Sweet Potatoes

The Portuguese brought sweet potatoes from South America to Africa several hundred years ago, and it has subsequently been adopted and adapted by farmers, primarily in eastern and central Africa. Sweet potatoes engineered with a gene coding for resistance to Sweet Potato Feathery Mottle Virus (SPFMV) are perhaps the most widely cited example of the benefits that genetic engineering holds for African farmers. Kenyan scientist turned advocate Florence Wambugu has publicized the project widely, touring the world, including Canada, and her name and ‘story’ has been placed in numerous pro-biotech editorials in professional as well as popular journals and newspapers. The project has garnered enormous publicity, and some rather fantastic claims have been made.

“Sweet Potato Feather Mottle Virus (SPFMV) does not cause significant problems on its own, but when it combines with another potato virus – Sweet Potato Chlorotic Stunt Virus (SPCSV) – it forms the damaging Sweet Potato Viral Disease (SPVD), which can reduce a plant’s yield by up to 80%. The plant becomes stunted, with distorted veins and leaves. However, SPVD, although a nuisance in some cases, is not a primary constraint on sweet potato production, nor is it a significant cause of food insecurity, let alone famine. SPFMV is only one relatively small factor among many problems that constrain production.

“The sweet potato project began in 1991 as the idea of three American men: Ernest Jaworski and Robert Horsch at Monsanto, and Joel Cohen at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The sweet potato was one of the first crops to receive significant work involving genetic modification. C.S. Prakash, a prominent and lively pro-biotech figure in current debates, began his foray into agricultural biotechnology by attempting to transfer Bt into sweet potato in order to provide resistance against weevils. . . .

“The three Americans recruited a Kenyan scientist, Florence Wambugu, who had recently finished her PhD thesis in England on sweet potatoes. USAID funded a three-year post-doctoral position for Wambugu at Monsanto in St. Louis. Wambugu and two additional American men decided to focus on SPFMV. They would attempt to protect against the virus by inserting a coat protein gene from a clone of the American SPFMV strain rc, which they obtained from Dr. Jim Moyer at North Carolina State University. Monsanto, with facilitation and financial support from USAID, worked with Kenyan scientists from the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), who travelled to Monsanto’s laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Wambugu claims that she chose to research SPFMV because the crop ‘is a major staple. It is always there in the backyard if there is nothing else to eat. My mother grew it. I know it.’ Without much empirical support, she claimed, ‘there was a well-defined need to generate resistance to the virus.’ However, at that point, no studies had been made measuring the incidence of SPFMV in any of the countries in Eastern Africa. Nor had farmers’ organizations identified the disease as a central priority.

“Those were the American pressures, but what about African demands? If the researchers had consulted with farmers, they would have found that many farmers were already using varieties resistant to both SPFMV and SPVD. In a survey of seven districts in Uganda and Tanzania, for instance, 75% of farmers said they had access to virus-resistant landraces. A popular local variety, New Kawogo, is actually both SPVD resistant and high yielding. Other varieties, while not completely resistant, can recover strongly from SPVD. Unfortunately, neither KARI nor Monsanto have made any efforts to explore the possibility of promoting local resistant varieties through farmer-to-farmer exchanges. . .

“Since 1982, four major World Bank projects totalling almost $60 million have attempted to make the Kenyan agriculture and research system function to help poor farmers; they have largely failed. A recent review by the Operations Evaluation Department of the World Bank is scathing: ‘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 … Inappropriate incentives and the failure to incorporate mechanisms to give farmers a voice have led to a lack of accountability and responsiveness to farmers’ needs. This is evident in the mismatch between what farmers want (advice on complex practices) and what they get (simple agronomic messages) … The system as implemented has been ineffective, inefficient, and unsustainable.’

“Eleven years on, the Monsanto-KARI project resulted in modifying only a single Kenyan variety of sweet potato (the CPT-560 line), out of an original eight lines attempted. The CPT-560 line was described as “not the most popular variety,” by Dr. Gichabe, Director of KARI’s biotechnology program. In contrast, there are over 89 different species of sweet potato grown in East Africa alone. Four-year field trials began in August of 2000 in several districts. Whereas some speculated a modified variety could be released by early 2002, it now looks unlikely before 2008. . . The most recent account, published in January 2003, makes no mention of state of the trials. KARI researchers have refused to state how the trials, now in their third year, have performed.

“At the level of allocating research funds, an examination of the time, money, and human resources spent on the GM sweet potato project shows very low cost effectiveness, particularly compared with conventional breeding. Total spending on the 25-year project is estimated at nearly $6 million. . . It thus appears the focus on genetic engineering in the sweet potato project has diverted time, money and attention from other important avenues of research. A narrow focus on genetic modification means researchers ignore other productive scientific opportunities and hence do not make the most effective use of scarce research resources.


“Having shown that the three GM crops analyzed above are inappropriate for poverty alleviation, the large amount of publicity they have garnered is attributable to carefully crafted and well – financed media campaigns by GM advocates. . . . Politicians have latched on to biotechnology to illustrate their otherwise absent commitment to the poor. Academics have found another fad. Corporations try to sell their products. Scientists have projects that need funding. The result of this unjustified publicity is muted debate and diminished capacity to select and develop appropriate science and technologies for poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa.

“To crack open lucrative markets worldwide, biotechnology corporations are seeking public legitimacy for genetically engineered crops by turning their PR machines upon small farmers in Africa. Industry-funded groups are increasingly using Africans to misinform publics in both industrialized and developing nations.

. . . “Monsanto has [also] funded T.J. Buthelezi, a clean-shaven, middle-aged black farmer from Makhathini, South Africa, to act as an African representative. He has told of his positive experiences with Bt cotton (in terms suspiciously similar to Monsanto press releases) at conferences and events around the world. . . In May 2003, 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, . . The [industry-sponsored and directed PR organization] Council for Biotechnology Information calls him a “small farmer,” and others describe his life as “hand-to-mouth existence.” USAID Administrator Natsios called 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. 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.”

This was published in issue #214 (September 2003) of The Ram's Horn and is available at http://www.ramshorn.bc.ca/current.html