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What one African thinks about biotech ...
Shut Up and Eat your GM Soup!

(8 September - Cropchoice Opinion) -- You probably read about it. The Monsanto GMO sweet potato released last month in Kenya. Farm press articles waxed poetic about biotech feeding the world and, in particular, a hungry Africa. Everybody should get a nice warm and fuzzy feeling, the stories suggested, about biotech feeding the world.

Feeding a hungry world is a joke that companies have been perpetrating on American farmers for years, as one look at commodity prices and the bunkers going up around elevators will reveal. And nice, warm and fuzzy is not what many Africans feel. Dozens of senior African diplomats have signed a letter expressing their anger at how biotech companies use the image of poor and hungry Africans to sell biotech.

As if good kharma, not money, makes companies run. This kind of manipulation, the African diplomats say, is not only insulting; it's getting in the way of solutions to Africa's problems.

In the interest of balance, Cropchoice presents a piece from yesterday's paper in Nairobi, Kenya. Biotech might have won a few friends in Africa's elite research circles - especially among scientists it funds or used to employ; but it clearly has a long way to go with the people.

Africa News
September 7, 2000

Shut Up And Eat Your GM Soup, Africans Are Told

By Sam Wainaina, The East African (Nairobi)

Nairobi - The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Kari, teaming up with the international agribusiness giant Monsanto, achieved a coup of sorts when they went public early last month with their genetically modified sweet potato, described as highly resistant to viral diseases. It was a clever strategy that presented a fait accompli and pre- empted what critics would have said had these man-modified crops been subjected to an open discussion.

In their moment of glory and back-patting, Kari forgot that Monsanto is the agribusiness company that very nearly enslaved Third World agriculture with their "terminator" seed technology, which would have forced poor farmers into permanent dependence on Monsanto and similar companies for their seed needs.

Before Kari's announcement, Dr Harold Salter of the British biotech company, CropGen, had said casually on the BBC that Kari were proving quite innovative with genetic engineering technology. He cited the disease-resistant sweet potato. Dr Salter made me sit up and wonder what else we are eating locally that has been modified with exotic genes.

There is clearly no democracy in this matter; you eat what the scientists deem good for you or for your agriculture. In the past, I would shy away from American foods in supermarkets, but if Kari, with the covert assistance of Monsanto, and other American or British agribusiness giants, is bringing exotic genes into African nutrition with the simplistic assurance that it is all safe, then we need to worry.

Genetic engineering is the artificial insertion of the genetic material of one organism into another type of organism in order to effect a presumed advantage in productivity, disease resistance, taste and other qualities.

When one Dr Chakrabarty, an Indian born American scientist, succeeded in patenting a man-made bacterium able to lap up oil spills in the ocean, it was hailed at the time as a major breakthrough. I remember wondering aloud in the Sunday Nation at the time what would happen if Dr Chakrabarty's oil-eating bacterium extended its culinary preference to include all forms of plastics.

Now, 20 years down the road, truly exotic things are being done with similar technology to give us what Martin Walker, Chairman of Iceland Foods in the UK, has called "Frankenstein Foods." Genes responsible for the manufacture of deadly scorpion poison (in scorpions) have been transferred by man from where God put them, into some crops to produce toxins that kill crop-eating insects.

Scientists have also transferred genes from animals with an ability to withstand extreme cold into commercial crops to impart to them the ability to withstand frost.

Proponents claim that GM is merely an extension of hybridisation, which has given us so many of our crop varieties, such as Katumani maize. But hybridisation is a breeding process within related species. You don't force genes of fish into tomatoes and claim it is the same thing as breeding Katumani maize. As for our dwarf Ruiru II coffee variety, it was never a GM crop but a hybrid involving planting materials from coffee varieties obtained from Colombia.

The way Dr Salter presented his comments on the BBC was typical of many scientists in this field, who assume they are doing us a favour by stuffing all manner of combinations of genes down our throats.

The commonest argument one hears in reference to Africa is that the technology will ensure greater food supplies for a hungry continent. Sadly, in a manner reminiscent of the intolerance that prevails in African politics, not a whiff of dissent is allowed. Western scientists who have ventured to warn their African colleagues to be cautious of this newfangled science have been branded "racists" by some African scientists - as happened to Dr Hans Herren, director of the Nairobi- based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, at a recent conference organised by the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum.

According to The People of March 4, Dr Herren was accused of racism and related diseases by, among others, Kari director Dr Cyrus Ndiritu, and scientists Dr Florence Wambugu, Professor Norah Olembo and Prof J.O. Ochanda, who, in classic Kanu witch-hunt style, "poured vitriol" on the hapless (and absent) Dr Herren with the support of (surprise, surprise) two officials from the biotechnology giant Novartis, Klaus Leisinger and Timothy Reeves.

Don't fool yourself that the scientists who are doing these things to us are remotely conversant with the repercussions. As an American media commentator, Myra Rosenblum has observed "the bottom line is money, money, money..." And as for those simplistic assurances of safety, "No long term safety studies have been carried out," according to Dr John Fagan, a top British molecular biologist and author of Genetic Engineering - the Hazards. Charles Thomas of the British environment watchdog, Greenpeace, calls GM "living pollution" while the head of the British Food Standards Agency, Prof Phillip James, believes that those that see this technology as an advance in science "are being totally naive." ... The New England Journal of Medicine recently commented that the US Food and Drug Administration actually favours the genetic engineering industry. Should this be surprising, given that the deputy head of FDA recently joined Monsanto as senior vice president?

Whom do we in East Africa hold accountable once a genetically engineered food crop goes crazy leading to mass poisoning, sterility or fatal asthma attacks? If food crops act as their own pesticides, what is to stop us being poisoned by them? What is to stop bees and birds being decimated by them?

Furthermore, there is nothing to stop these genes spreading to species. "Designer crops" with an ability to withstand greater concentrations of herbicide than the common weeds of agriculture may spread their genes to the very same weeds. Once the weeds themselves become herbicide resistant and reach areas of the world where subsistence farming is still practised, they could spell the end of age-old farming traditions in the same way as the water hyacinth in Lake Victoria nearly wiped out artisanal fishing...

Beggars cannot be choosers. It is only a matter of time before we begin hearing reports that Africa's million-plus refugee population are living on GM foods. Research agencies working on food productivity in Africa should be reined in and made accountable to parliaments and consumers. The world has to go on long after the children of these scientists are old men walking with the aid of sticks.