This weekend, thousands of people worldwide marched against the multinational biotech corporation Monsanto. 400 cities in more than 40 countries participated with an abundance of protesters showing people power against unethical GMO experiments.
GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are somehow bad. That’s common knowledge among Greens. But a number of people – and not just anyone, United Nations bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) among others – believe that humanity can solve the global food crisis by planting genetically modified plants.
Increasing crop yields in hunger-ridden regions by making plants more resistant to drought or pests – doesn’t that sound like a good idea? This article will seek to discuss the wrongs of such practice from a global justice and environmental perspective.
The most persistent myth about GMOs is that they are necessary to feed a growing global population. Highly effective marketing campaigns have drilled into our heads that GMOs will produce more food on less land in an environmentally-friendly manner. This mantra has been repeated so often that it is considered self-evident. It has now come to Africa, sung by the United States government and multinational corporations, like Monsanto and Pioneer, in order to open new markets for a product that has been rejected by so many others around the globe.
While many countries have implemented strict legal frameworks to regulate GMOs, African nations have struggled to gather the legal, scientific and infrastructural resources needed to do so. The introduction of GMOs in Africa has been delayed by these limited capacities, but this has provided GMO proponents with a plump opportunity to ‘offer their assistance’ and influence the development of legal frameworks throughout the continent. As a result, agro-business-friendly investment climates have been created and GMOs deregulated.
The drive to open markets for GMOs in Africa is not only happening through “assistance” resulting in permissive legal frameworks for GMOs, but also through an array of “philanthropic” projects, most of them funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
One such project is Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), funded by the Gates Foundation in collaboration with Monsanto. The project initially sought to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties in five pilot countries. But as the project progressed it incorporated one of Monsanto’s most lucrative commercial traits into the mix – MON810, which enables the plant to produce its own pesticide.
Interestingly, MON810 has recently come off patent, but Monsanto retains ownership when it is stacked with another gene, in this case, drought tolerance. WEMA has provided a convenient vehicle for the introduction of Monsanto’s controversial product while also using its influence to shape GM-related policy in the countries where it works.
African civil society and smallholders’ organisations are fighting for the kind of biosafety legislation that will safeguard health and environment against the potential risks of GMOs, not the kind that promotes the introduction of this wholly inappropriate technology. About 80% of Africa’s food is produced by smallholders who seldom farm on more than 5 hectares of land and usually on much less. The majority of these farmers are women who have scant access to finance or secure land tenure.
That they still manage to provide the lion’s share of the continent’s’ food, usually without commercial seed, chemicals, mechanisation, irrigation or subsidies, is testament to their resilience and innovation. African farmers have a lot to lose from the introduction of GMOs; the rich diversity of African agriculture, its robust resilience, and the social cohesion engendered through cultures of sharing and collective effort risk being replaced by a handful of monotonous commodity crops owned by foreign powers.
The mantra that GMOs are necessary for food security is hijacking the policy process that should be providing appropriate solutions for the poorest farmers. Only a tiny fraction of farmers will ever be able to afford elite GM technology packages – over 85% of maize production is genetically modified in South Africa, for instance. GM maize seeds cost 2-5 times more than conventional seeds, must be bought annually and require the extensive use of toxic and expensive chemicals and fertilisers. Furthermore, despite 16 years of cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton, South Africa’s food security continues to decline, with some 46% of the population now categorised as food insecure.
It may be tempting to believe that hunger can be solved with technology, but African social movements have pointed out that skewed power relations are the bedrock of hunger in Africa, such as unfair trade agreements and subsidies that perennially entrench poverty, or the patenting of seed and imposition of expensive patented technologies onto the world’s most vulnerable and exposed communities.
Without changing these fundamental power relationships and handing-back control of food production to smallholders in Africa, hunger cannot be eradicated. A global movement is growing and demanding that governments support small-scale food producers and agroecological methods instead of corporate agriculture. Agroecology is an agricultural system that is based on collaboration with nature ,and is appropriate for small scale production as producers are free to plant and exchange seeds and operate in strong local markets.
We should also have a closer look at the company that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation cooperates with, Monsanto, which is one of the biggest players in the GMO market. Currently, the company mainly produces genetically engineered (GE) seeds and glyphosate-based herbicides, products whose safety is controversy – furthermore the products the company produced in the past have made it clear that Monsanto prioritises profit before human and ecological well-being.
During the Vietnam War they were involved in the production of Agent Orange which formed part of a herbicidal warfare program. The pesticide was used to destroy woods and food crops, and resulted in high rates of birth defects and disabilities among the Vietnamese population.
Monsanto also was involved in the production of PCB, an extremely toxic and carcinogenic chemical. It was consequently banned by the United States Congress in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on President Organic Pollutants in 2001.
But how can we solve the hunger problem? GMOs are definitely not the solution. Most of the GMO plants end up feeding animals or turned into biofuels. Solutions to world hunger are the reduction of food waste, reversing biofuel production capacities, changing dietary habits (including the reduction of meat consumption) and the improvement of agroecological technologies and socio-political infrastructures in vulnerable and exposed areas instead of using GMOs.
Let us show Monsanto and co. that we don’t need them to solve the problems of world. To do so we must put pressure on our governments and adopt more ecologically and socially-responsible dietary habits.
Sources: Swanby, Orovwuje (2015): Manipulate and Mislead: How GMOs Are Infiltrating Africa – http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/23/manipulate-and-mislead-how-gmos-are- infiltrating-africa Friends of the Earth (2015): Who benefits from gm crops? – http://www.foei.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Who-benefits-report-2015.pdf Seattle Organic Restaurant: Dark History of Monsanto – http://www.seattleorganicrestaurants.com/vegan-whole-foods/dark-history-monsanto/