Bill Gates’ support of GM crops is wrong approach for Africa

By Glenn Ashton
Special to The Times

Bill Gates’ support of genetically modified (GM) crops as a solution for world hunger is of concern to those of us involved in promoting sustainable, equitable and effective agricultural policies in Africa.

There are two primary shortcomings to Gates’ approach.

First, his technocratic ideology runs counter to the best informed science. The World Bank and United Nations funded 900 scientists over three years in order to create an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). Its conclusions were diametrically opposed, at both philosophical and practical levels, to those espoused by Gates and clearly state that the use of GM crops is not a meaningful solution to the complex situation of world hunger.

The IAASTD suggests that rather than pursuing industrial farming models, “agro-ecological” methods provide the most viable means to enhance global food security, especially in light of climate change. These include implementing practical scientific research based on traditional seed varieties and local farming practices adapted to the local ecology over millennia.

Agro-ecology has consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity. Conversely, the present GM crops generally have not increased yields over the long run, despite their increased costs and dependence on agricultural chemicals, as highlighted in the 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists report, “Failure to Yield.”

For example, experimental “drought-resistant” corn, supported by Gates and Monsanto, is far less robust than natural maize varieties and farming methods requiring less water. Thus, Gates’ GM “solutions” depend on higher-cost inputs — such as fertilizers, pest controls and the special seeds themselves — distracting attention from proven, lower-cost approaches.

Secondly, Gates sponsors compliant African organizations whose work with multinational agricultural corporations like Monsanto undermines existing grass-roots efforts to improve local production methods. He has become a stalking horse for corporate proponents of industrial agriculture which perceive African hunger simply as a business opportunity. His Gates Foundation has referred to the world’s poor as the “BOP” (bottom of pyramid), presenting ” … a fast growing consumer market.”

Olivier De Shutter, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the right to food, reinforces the IAASTD research. He, too, concludes that agro-ecological farming has far greater potential for fighting hunger, particularly during economic and climatically uncertain times.

Poverty is the result of a dominant global economic system that considers traditional farmers, who produce mainly for local consumption, not export, as not contributing to the gross domestic product. To force these “BOPs” into the industrial agriculture system ignores their requirements. Gates’ philanthropy is undemocratic at both ideological and practical levels. It ignores democratically derived African solutions to our food security problems. Further, it runs counter to the traditional methodology of bi- and multilateral foreign aid, which is obliged to consider local policies and sensitivities.

Africa suffers from well-intended but poorly considered agricultural policies imposed by external “experts.” For one of the world’s wealthiest men to presume he can provide all of the solutions is arrogant. His “near-religious faith in technology” (as described in a recent business journal) conflicts with the practical work of the IAASTD, De Shutter and grass-roots democratic agronomic movements.

While successful in his chosen field, Gates has no expertise in the farm field. This is not to say that he and his fellow philanthropists cannot contribute — they certainly can. However, some circumspection and humility would go a long way to heal the rifts they have opened. Beating Africans with the big stick of high-input proprietary technology has never been requested; it will perpetuate neo-imperialism and repetition of foreign-imposed African “failure.” Africans urge Bill Gates to engage with us in a more-broadly consultative, agro-ecological approach.

Glenn Ashton is a South African agricultural consultant and researcher who has worked with grass-roots organizations across a broad range of social interests in the region. He may be reached at ekogaia@iafrica.com

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Brazil fines Monsanto $250,000 for misleading ad

AFP – A Brazilian court fined US biotech giant Monsanto $250,000 on Wednesday for what a judge said was the company’s misleading advertising concerning GM soy.

Monsanto released an advert lauding GM seeds in 2004 — a time when their use in Brazil was banned — suggesting that they benefited the environment.

But Judge Jorge Antonio Maurique in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, slammed the commercial as “abusive and misleading propaganda,” dubbing the scientific benefits of Monsanto’s product as “very questionable.”

Monsanto can appeal the court ruling but a representative refused to comment on the decision issued on Wednesday, saying the company was awaiting official court notification of the ruling before considering its next steps.

The first GM soy seeds were illegally smuggled into Brazil from neighboring Argentina in 1998 when their use was officially banned and subject to prosecution.

The ban has since been lifted and 85 percent of Brazil’s soybean crop (25 million hectares or 62 million acres), is now genetically modified, making Brazil the world’s second producer and exporter, behind the United States.

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USDA panel gets altered-crops pay plan

Washington — California voters this fall will decide a ballot measure that would require labeling of foods containing genetically engineered material. But the Department of Agriculture is already tied in knots over how to deal with the contamination of organic and conventional foods by biotech crops.
On Monday, a USDA advisory panel will consider a draft plan to compensate farmers whose crops have been contaminated by pollen, seeds or other stray genetically engineered material. The meeting is expected to be contentious, pitting the biotechnology and organic industries against each other.
The draft report acknowledged the difficulty of preventing such material from accidentally entering the food supply and concerns that the purity of traditional seeds may be threatened.
It also cited fears on both sides that official action to address contamination could send a signal to U.S. consumers and export markets in Europe, Japan and elsewhere that the purity and even safety of U.S. crops are suspect.
An official who was not authorized to speak for the record described the current stalemate as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Known as AC21, the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture consists of representatives from across agriculture. Its current incarnation was created by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to appease critics after his decision in January 2011 to approve genetically engineered alfalfa, a plant that can spread easily.
Genetically engineered crops are also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Genetic engineering entails the insertion or deletion of genes, often from different species, into a plant to produce a desired trait. Up to now the chief traits are resistance to insects and herbicides.
U.S. corn 90% biotech
Bioengineered crops dominate U.S. commodities, including 90 percent of U.S. corn. In some states, penetration is all but complete, including 99 percent of the Arkansas cotton crop. Most processed foods contain genetically engineered material.
USDA’s organic certification does not permit bioengineered material unless trace amounts show up despite a farmer’s best efforts to avoid it. Many food companies do their own testing and have rejected contaminated shipments.
The biotech industry, which includes Monsanto, DuPont and other seed companies, argued that contamination is minimal. Organic growers, they said, get a premium for their crops and should “assume the economic risks associated” with certifying that their crops meet organic standards.
The organic industry said biotech companies should be responsible for containing their own genes and that contamination threatens the right of farmers to choose how to farm.
Vilsack directed the advisory committee to find a way for the two sides to co-exist. The panel has wrestled with the issue for more than a year but remains divided. The draft suggests using taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance to compensate farmers whose crops have been contaminated.
Lisa Bunin, organic policy coordinator for the Center for Food Safety, a Washington nonprofit that opposes genetic engineering, said crop insurance would put the burden of proof and the cost on the victims of contamination. She said the focus should be on preventing contamination, and that California’s Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, shows that people are “waking up to the realization that there are hidden ingredients in their food.”
Compensation is “just a way to hide the effects of … contamination,” Bunin said, calling the draft a “last-ditch attempt by the biotech industry to institutionalize transgenic contamination.”
No guarantee
Panel member Isaura Andaluz, head of Cuatro Puertas, a nonprofit heritage seed bank in Albuquerque, issued a blistering critique of the draft earlier this month. Andaluz said she was shocked that the panel’s report said “it is not realistic to suggest that commercial seed producers can guarantee zero presence” of genetically engineered material in seed varieties that are organic or not genetically engineered.
If that is true, she wrote, Vilsack’s co-existence plan already has failed.
The biotech industry fears that setting a suggested threshold of 0.9 percent engineered content, above which a product would be considered contaminated, would imply a safety limit, falsely signaling to consumers and export markets that bioengineered crops are unsafe.
The draft report said methods have been developed to keep “gene flows” segregated, citing the example of sweet corn grown in fields next to popcorn.
Environmental groups worry, however, that bioengineered crops threaten wild plants, too. Engineered canola and grasses spread easily in storm winds and floods, turning up miles from where crops are planted.
Oversight is split among three agencies, USDA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under a rule developed in 1992 under former Vice President Dan Quayle, bioengineering is presumed safe for food and the environment.
Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent E-mail clochhead@sfchronicle.com

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/USDA-panel-gets-altered-crops-pay-plan-3814480.php#ixzz25etipAVA