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Report questions benefits of biotech for hunger in Africa

(Saturday, June 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Below is an excerpt from a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, UK, on whether GM crops are addressing the real causes of poverty and hunger in Africa.

The main part of the report is a careful empirical analysis of the actual results of the use of GM crops in Africa, from looking at flagship projects: Monsanto's GM cotton in the Makhitini Flats in South Africa, the Syngenta Foundation's GM maize project in Kenya, and another Kenyan project with GM sweet potatoes involving Monsanto and USAID.

deGrassi notes the gap between the hyperbole and the empirica evidence, "There has been a great deal of excitement over these new engineered crops despite their low suitability. The maximum gains from genetic modification are small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or agroecology-based techniques."

In fact, the report notes, such showcase projects have little to do with the suitability or effectiveness of GM crops for African farmers but appear rather to be part of a PR strategy by the biotech industry to reduce regulatory and public resistance to its products worldwide.

In support of this, deGrassi analyses how biotechnology firms have eagerly used ostensibly philanthropic African projects for public relations purposes.

Here's a telling, and carefuly referenced, excerpt from the report on the PR use of South African GM cotton farmers. It's followed by the full section on this topic, 'Trade Wars and Media Campaigns'.

Report Excerpt:

"...[South African GM (Bt) cotton farmer] Buthelezi was by Zoellicks side when the 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.

However, Buthelezis experience may be unique. The Council for Biotechnology Information calls him a "small farmer," and others describe his life as "hand-to-mouth existence." 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 areas farmersfederation encompassing 48 farmersassociations.385

For Monsanto, Buthelezi and his stories are part of the firms declared strategy of "gaining global acceptance of biotechnology." 386 Just before President Bushs May 2003 speech claiming that Europes 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. Others pro-biotech campaigners have caught on: CropGen, for instance, celebrates another South African farmer, Mbongeni Nxumalo.387

These South African farmers -- whom representatives of Monsanto and other businesses call "basically representative farmers"and "representatives of the African smallholding community" -- are plucked from South Africa, wined and dined, and given scripted statements about the benefits of GM.388 In an area where most farmers cultivate just a few hectares, and only half the population can read, Monsantos "representative" farmers are school administrators and agricultural college graduates, owning dozens of hectares of land.389 Monsanto has been criticized for using these farmers as a part of a deliberate attempt to distort public debate on biotechnology.390 Critics have coined the nickname "Bt Buthelezi,"to illustrate this farmers unconditional support to Bt cotton: during a trip to Monsantos headquarters in St. Louis, Buthelezi was quoted as saying, "I wouldnt care if it were from the devil himself."391

"Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence", can be downloaded as a pdf from here: http://allafrica.com/sustainable/resources/00010161.html