GM crops in Africa are poverty-insensitive

GM crops in Africa are poverty-insensitiveBiotechnology does not address the real causes of poverty and hunger, concludes a recent study which examined the impact of three genetically modified crops on poverty alleviation in Africa.By Chee Yoke Heong A RECENT study entitled ‘Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence’, by Aaron deGrassi and published by Third World Network – Africa (, offers new evidence against claims of the miracle potential of genetically modified crops for dealing with famine and poverty in Africa.The study examined the impact of three GM crops, sweet potato, maize and Bt cotton, on poverty alleviation in Africa. It concluded that biotechnology does not address the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa. Indeed it shows that biotechnology is an inappropriate method of agricultural innovation for poverty alleviation. The study focused on ‘examining the current potential of those genetically modified crops that, according to proponents of genetic engineering, hold the most promise for alleviating hunger, poverty and environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa’ and concluded that the answer to Africa’s poverty and food shortage problems does not lie in biotechnology. The findings reveal that GM crops do not offer any answers to soil fertility or resistance to genes by pests, among other problems faced by the farmers of the three crops. It is also clear that biotechnology is not the answer to corruption, declining commodity prices, inequality in land distribution and ownership, income disparities, and armed conflicts, which are some of the major causes of poverty/hunger in Africa.DeGrassi assessed the three crops according to five widely accepted criteria for evaluating conventional crop breeding, namely, demand-led, site-specific, poverty-focused, cost-effective, and environmentally and institutionally sustainable tests. Flunking the tests From all these tests it came out that the innovations fail totally as the study found that the specific needs of the poor farmer were not taken into consideration nor were the farmers consulted. Again they fail the other criteria tests because they are not cost- effective or environmentally friendly and are generally unsustainable. The result is that the agro-ecological and socio-economic conditions of the farmers were not taken into consideration. Instead the commercial interests of biotech companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta which support the projects with a view to taking hold of the seed market in Africa hold sway. It draws its conclusions from a careful analysis of flagship projects in a number of areas: Monsanto’s GM cotton in the Makhathini Flats in South Africa, the Syngenta Foundation’s GM maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The report notes how such showcase projects have little to do with their suitability or effectiveness for African farmers but appear rather to be part of a public relations strategy by the biotech industry to reduce regulatory and public resistance to its products worldwide.It concludes that ‘genetic modification may constitute a novel tool but it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one in Africa.’ Below are extracts from the study:’…the excitement over certain genetic engineering procedures can divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers.”Bt cotton scores low on criteria of demand drive, site specificity, and institutional sustainability. It shows ambiguous results in poverty focus and cost effectiveness. Environmental sustainability is currently moderate, but could potentially be moderate to strong.’ ‘Where it has been adopted, there is now evidence that the Bt cotton has not only failed to solve Makhathini farmers’ problems with debt, it has actually deepened and widened indebtedness. . even farmers on the irrigation scheme had become mired in R16 million worth of debt by 1998. Makhathini farmers grow cotton in a context of both extremely variable market prices, and varied rainfall – precisely the sort of highly risky conditions that leave farmers heavily indebted.”For Bt maize, the analysis shows low demand drive, cost-effectiveness, and institutional sustainability. It is too early to detect unambiguous site specificity or poverty focus. Environmental sustainability is currently low to moderate, but could potentially be raised.’ ‘The environmental sustainability of Bt maize in Africa is low, because there are no great environmental benefits of Bt maize (in contrast to cotton), but there is a great likelihood that stem borers will develop resistance, or that other resistant pests will increase to fill the vacuum left by stem borers – even the IRMA [Insect Resistant Maize for Africa] project administrators admit this, and there is already evidence of shifts in the prevalence of borers after the introduction of the predatory wasp C. flavipes, which attacks C. partellus.’ Virus-resistant sweet potatoes in Kenya ‘Virus-resistant sweet potatoes are not demand driven, site specific, poverty focused, cost effective, or institutionally sustainable. The environmental sustainability of modified sweet potatoes is ambiguous.’ ‘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. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist turned advocate, has publicised the project widely, touring the world, including Canada, and her name and "story" has been placed in numerous pro-biotech editorials. 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 resulted from pressures by American officials and business, rather than through a participatory process by the Kenyan agricultural research and extension system designed to meet poor farmers’ needs.’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. 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 hadÿfarmers’ organisations 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.’ Top-down approach ‘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.’" ‘The sweet potato project is now nearing its twelfth year, and involves over 19 scientists … 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%.”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 programme. 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. ‘Perhaps the most ambitious claim about sweet potatoes was made several years ago: "Transgenic Sweet Potato Could End Kenyan Famine." However, this is a gross misrepresentation. The famine, according to FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation], mainly afflicted pastoralists who do not grow or even eat sweet potatoes. Furthermore, the food crisis was in no way caused by SPVD, but rather, as FAO notes, was "the result of a combination of cumulative livestock losses, falling livestock prices and sharply rising cereal prices." GM sweet potatoes have little potential to help the three countries currently hardest hit by the famine in southern Africa – Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe – since the crop is not widely grown there and SPFMV is rare.”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.’ ‘Transgenic virus-resistant sweet potatoes have garnered enormous publicity for their potential to alleviate poverty in Africa, but further detailed examination shows they are inappropriate for that task. The project has suffered from, and possibly exacerbated, the top-down nature of research and extension in Kenya. Consequently, the sweet potatoes are being engineered with traits that poor farmers did not rank as of great importance, and for which there are already effective existing varieties.Only one sweet potato variety has been transformed, but farmers require different varieties adapted [to] their specific bio-physical and socio-economic conditions. The years of research, millions of dollars, and scientific attention focused on genetic modification have been extremely ineffective when compared with conventional crop research programmes. Poverty in sweet potato producing areas stems from other agronomic constraints, as well as from overriding social and political maladies, such as corruption, conflict, hostile markets, and social inequality. Neither the technology, nor the institutional arrangements utilised in developing the technology appear sustainable. In sum, on each key [criterion], transgenic sweet potatoes appear to be an inappropriate method of agricultural research for poverty alleviation.’ The PR blitz ‘[H]aving shown that the three GM crops analysed 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 industrialised and developing nations.”To bolster its claims about the benefits of biotech crops, Monsanto has 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 [Robert] Zoellick’s side when the [US] 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.’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.’ ——————————————————————————————-The report "Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa" is attached below. It can also be obtained at:

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