And Science said, Let the land produce vegetation: insect-resistant, vitamin-enriched, pesticide-dependent, patent-protected, corporation-controlled plants and trees upon the land. And it was so. And Science saw that it was good. And the Gentiles gathered their placards and petitions, and they sought to defy the ways of Science. But the Almighty works in mysterious ways, for year after year, the Gentiles were bowed to the will of the Most High. And the World Bank beheld the land, and saw that it was good. - Genesis 1:11-13 (New Millennium Version)
“Opposition to new technologies may cast a dark shadow over the prospects of feeding the world,” Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor of international development, warned earlier this year. Juma, an advocate for the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Africa, preaches GMOs as the golden path to maximising agricultural yield and overcoming malnutrition.
GMOs are engineered to overcome barriers to their growth in the environment, especially plant-eating pests, and in some cases to contain higher levels of essential minerals that are deficient in the population. Contrary to popular belief, the pro-GMO camp argues, this technology poses no health risk to the consumer. It’s a win-win situation – if only the skeptics would get out of the way. “They are a bunch of complete and utter loonies,” declared one South African scientist to the Mail and Guardian.
Photo by Philip Martin from protest in Durban, South Africa – May 2013
But if GMOs present such a promise, why the widespread resistance – not just from a flank of vocal activists, but at the highest levels of governance all over the world? Outside of the Americas, GMO farming has struggled to take root. The European Union, despite importing over 30 million tons of genetically modified animal feed every year, stringently restricts the cultivation of GMOs on European soil, and France recently halted all open-field trials of GMOs.
On the African continent, South Africa was the first country to permit the commercial production of GMOs, which account for the majority of its national staple food, maize-meal. Since 2008, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan have cautiously followed suit. A few more African countries are now hosting scientific trials of GMOs, including some of the continent’s most prominent economies such as Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.
One of the factors influencing the shifting tides of GMO policy on the continent is the belief that health fears, which have been the main basis for public opposition to this technology, are unwarranted. Most scientific studies on GMOs have not revealed any negative effects on the animals that consume it. But then again, the industry maintains a tight grip on the studies that get published.
Last year’s Seralini study slipped out of their grip, provoking an uproar in the scientific community. This study demonstrated that rats which had been fed on maize produced by GMO giant Monsanto, along with its associated herbicide, Roundup, developed tumours at a higher rate than those fed on maize that had not been genetically modified.
Rats from different feeding groups in the study
Pro-GMO scientists were not having it, and immediately attacked the methods, motives, findings and integrity of the authors. “I smell a rat,” declared science/agriculture writer Cami Ryan. Earlier this year, a less rigorous study demonstrated higher rates of severe stomach inflammation among pigs fed on GM foods. “From I Smell a Rat to When Pigs Fly”, she quipped.
GMO research may have brought punning prowess to the forefront of scientific debate, but it has not brought clarity. On the one hand, the pro-GMO community attacked the Seralini study for failing to meet minimum standards required for scientific legitimacy. On the other, the study’s authors and their allies issued rebuttals drawn from the same rulebook as their critics.
One indisputably important aspect of this study was that it observed the rats throughout the full duration of their 2-year life cycle, in contrast to the usual 90-day cycle used in industry studies. In that light, its unusual findings could point towards the need for more research on the long-term effects of GMO consumption.
All in all, the study raised some important concerns that were swallowed up in the avalanche of heated debate, leaving no simple answers – only more questions, and the echo of Daniel Dennett’s remark that “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
But while the science of GMOs may remain murky, the economics are crystal clear. The most obvious and direct of these is the matter of seed ownership and control. Unlike traditional agriculture, in which seeds are the property of nobody in particular and nature at large, GMO farming places the ownership of seeds firmly in the hands of corporations, and entitles them to a share of profits from crop sales.
GMO farmers are not allowed to save seed produced through their crops for use in the coming season, as they have always done. They are obliged to buy new rounds of seed every year, or at the very least, pay royalties on any crops sold using later generations of seed – thus ensuring sustained profits for seed-selling corporations.
Of these corporations, probably the best known is Monsanto, which was one of the earliest players on the GMO scene and is often in the spotlight via high-profile courtroom dramas. “Since 1997,” Monsanto says on its website, “we have only filed suit against farmers 144 times in the United States.” Most of these cases have been due to farmers who, according to Monsanto, have violated its intellectual property (IP) rights by saving seed. Monsanto has won all of its court cases.
Recently, Monsanto’s aggressive protection of IP rights backfired, when five million Brazilian farmers launched a lawsuit demanding a return of at least US$2 billion dollars that Monsanto had unfairly taken from farmers in the form of royalties on crops grown from its genetically modified soybean. These royalties, the farmers argued, were applied to crops that had been grown many generations after the planting of Monsanto seed, and were extracted even after the patent had expired in 2010, imposing severe financial strain on Brazilian farmers as a result.
With a Brazilian judge ruling in favour of the farmers, Monsanto’s stick was taken away, so it resorted to dangling a carrot. By offering a 16% discount on its latest GMO seed, for four years, to all farmers who agreed to drop the legal claim, Monsanto succeeded in retiring the legal case: a short-term solution to evade a long-term problem.
India is another country that has embraced widespread GMO farming, in the form of Bt cotton, which was genetically modified to be resistant to pests. 90% of Indian farmers made the shift over the past decade, and reaped economic benefits. But in more recent years, as yields decreased and costs increased, the long-term impact of GMO farming has become less clear-cut. Last year a leaked advisory from India’s Ministry of Agriculture noted that “Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers...”
Meanwhile, in some African countries such as Nigeria, genetically modified cotton is viewed as an ideal entry point for GMOs. "We don't eat our clothes, so people are less concerned about cotton. This would be the first way in for GMOs,” explained Kola Masha, a Nigerian agribusiness advisor, earlier this year. Such assessments, however, do not acknowledge that the uncertain health impacts and inconsistent agricultural benefits of GMOs are only a part of the picture.
The fundamental issue here is that of control. As Duke Tagoe of Food Sovereignty Ghana explained to The Guardian earlier this year: "The origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain. These seeds are not owned by any African entity, they are owned by American companies."
GMO farming displace traditional approaches to agriculture, approaches which possess a rich history and knowledge base that could be built upon to increase produce. That potential is dismissed in preference of a brand new way that preaches progress, while cultivating dependency.
In addition to seed control, dependency is further entrenched by the fact that land in Africa is increasingly being bought up by foreign entities, as the global demand for food and minerals grows. In the process of these land grabs, the homes and livelihoods of communities are uprooted. The World Bank has been singled out for facilitating these land grabs by pushing privatisation policies on countries and providing investors with large loans to support their shopping sprees.
The African continent, having the most available arable land, presents the ideal frontier for expansion of the GM industry – so as countries relax their policy on GM, land grabs are only likely to intensify, in what some have referred to as ‘genetic colonialism’. This increasing concentration of land ownership in the hands of the elite in turn exacerbates the drivers of poverty and hunger.
“He who feeds you, controls you,” said Thomas Sankara. The proponents of GMOs hail it as a way to “feed the world”. What this slogan fails to capture is that the forces underpinning the shifting landscape of agribusiness are the same forces that have created an economic system that breeds dangerous dependency and inequality – a system in which, despite having a substantial surplus of food, hundreds of millions of people starve daily. Will such deep-rooted inequalities be changed by a future in which corporations control the seed, the land and the intellectual property of food and cotton? Or will they be further entrenched?
I’m no prophet, but I smell a rat…