Them! Is Here Already!

Them! Is Here Already!

Them! is here already!What does an African country do when Bill Gates says eat it or starve?

Most Americans think that the growing concern over what foods are safe is something that only their privileged, developed world has to suffer, that it is somewhat esoteric and – provided, of course that you aren’t culinarily involved – restricted to … nuts. (Peanuts, that is.)

Well, it’s not. In fact the debate over GMO is reaching a crescendo in Africa where scientists, multinationals, governments and NGOs like the Gates Foundation are in a diabolical battle over GM corn.

It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Mom might wipe her brow when planning a contemporary Thanksgiving dinner at home, today. She might have to source out a natural turkey farmer and find a grocery store that sells gluten-free pie crust. This is all a lot more work than Aunt Evelyn did when the centerpiece of our holiday dinner was a jello salad.

But in Africa the sweat is over whether some people will starve or not, and my take is that GM foods are not the answer. Bill Gates disagrees.

You’ll have to be patient if using the links I’ve incorporated, because everyone is being quite deceptive. No one wants you to hear them shouting. But the uproar is rising and it’s focusing on a single of many ongoing battles:

Monsanto is one of a couple multinationals that is profiting from the development and patenting of GM crop seed, particularly corn (“maize” as it’s called elsewhere). That story is in itself distressing, as farmers who use GM seed can no longer use their own crop seed. They must buy it year after year from Monsanto.

There are literally tens of thousands, perhaps now hundreds of thousands of GM plants and organisms, and Monsanto owns a hunk of them.

One version of maize for which Monsanto had its highest hopes, MON810, whose appropriate brand name of “YieldGard” is all but ignored in the current debate, is the center of the controversy.

MON810 yields a corn that is remarkably drought resistant. It’s widely used in the U.S. and understandably was imagined as drought-plagued Africa’s savior seed.

About a third of Europe’s countries ban MON810. The most recent science from Norway declared MON810 harmful to humans, pigs, mice and butterflies.

An important European Commission (EFSA) that approves or disapproves GM products was given the task of deciding for all of Europe if Norway’s science was valid. On what many argue was a technical fault, the commission approved MON810.

The EFSA decision allowed multinational agribusiness to sue countries like Norway, France, Germany and Poland to reverse these bans, and Monsanto is succeeding in doing so… sort of.

Europe’s political interface is not yet complete, and so recently France “rebanned” MON810 after “reallowing” it. Other nations are likely to follow suit.

I can’t possibly pass judgment on the science. I can’t even figure out how to decide which science is worth reading; it’s all over the place.

The main crusader against GM foods is Prof. Gilles-Eric Séralini whose arguments verge on the hysterical. But his science is widely used by opponents of MON810.

There are many very respected groups whose approach is more measured but forceful, like the “Occupy Monsanto” crowd.

The problem – and it becomes critical in Africa – is who to believe: crusading scientists, respectable citizen groups or government commissions. No one questions that MON810 produces a much higher yield. Africa really needs a lot of corn, fast.

But I take my lead from South Africa, the most rational and developed of African countries.

Shortly after MON810 came to market about 15 years ago, the South Africans banned it. But that didn’t last long, and many anti-GMO activists in South Africa claim their government’s reversal was as a result of U.S. trade pressure.

During its use in the last decade, South African farmers recognized a need for increased pesticides and fertilizers to keep the crop going. Yes, it needed less water and from a business standpoint with the yields it was producing, it was still a good business decision.

Activists argued that the reason MON810 requires more pesticide and fertilizer is because it produces super insects and bacteria.

Late this summer, MON810 created corn was withdrawn from the South African market. It was a combination of public outcry and government regulation.

Moreover, pressured by the South African government, Monsanto agreed to compensate farmers for their unusual pesticide and fertilizer costs needed to bring MON810 corn to harvest.

It’s not clear whether this ban will be sustained nor if alternative Monsanto GM seeds will not just be used, instead. But what is clear is that the leading African country has decided MON810 is bad.

So what now?

Immediately the battle shifted north to less developed countries like Tanzania and Kenya where the seed is still allowed. But it was anything but certain Monsanto would prevail there, either.

In steps charitable giving.

Monsanto, in its ever creative marketing plans, decides to give the Bill Gates foundation free use of MON810.

And it’s an NGO coup for a foundation deeply involved in helping Africa. The cost of MON810 could be absorbed by South Africans, not by Kenyans. Now, Kenyans get it for … free.

And true to form, Kenya is now in the midst of another Shakespearean government scandal in which a quasi government agency banned MON810 before the Gates Foundation announcement, then summarily reversed itself after the announcement and, of course … nobody can say why.

Of course Monsanto dare not publicize its generosity too directly, so it’s being done through a partnership program created by an African foundation that gets most of its money from Gates.

That’s sufficient enough distance to keep Gates out of the maelstrom.

At least for now. Until we think we see a Dreamliner above the Mara cornfields, when it’s actually a monster locust coming in for the kill.

Corruption Index Disturbing

Corruption Index Disturbing

kenyacorruptAfrica remains the most corrupt continent, according to a report released today by Transparency International (TI).

Although Africa’s 54 rated countries represent just less than a quarter of all the countries in the world, Africa’s countries make up more than half of the most corrupt.

TI’s list and voluminous explanations were released today. Technically the list ranks “transparency” as defined by a complex compilation of surveys and parameters. But in a nutshell, it ranks corruption, and TI in fact refers to the indices as CPI’s or “Corruption Perceptions Index.”

TI’s executive, Alejandro Salas, explained to Reuters today that what the index shows best is the implementation of good policies to fight corruption. Many countries have good policies, but many fewer actually implement and enforce them.

Kenya is the quintessential example of this. Despite adopting one of the most progressive constitutions in the world last year, it has proved unable to implement those parts that fight tribalism, nepotism and corruption. Kenya remains stuck in the bottom quarter of the world’s most corrupt nations.

Changes in ranking from year to year reflect not just that own country’s standing, but the standing of the world as a whole. If the whole world becomes less corrupt, then those countries that haven’t changed fall in the list.

In the Reuters interview Salas said there was no significant change in the last decade in the world’s overall corruption except … in Africa, where it has increased although slightly, (and in Central America where the increase in corruption is greater than in Africa).

In the actual incremental changes, 24 African countries improved, 20 declined, 9 stayed the same and one (South Sudan) appeared on the list for the first time in 2013.

However, those that improved had an aggregate increase of 124 position ranks, and those that decreased had an aggregate decrease of 164 position ranks, and this is the key factor. It means overall the continent is definitely getting worse.

The ten most egregious African countries are (in order of least to most corrupt) are Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia.

Botswana remained the least corrupt and continued to occupy the most favorable rank of 30. (The United States is ranked 19.) The next 9 least corrupt countries in Africa were Cape Verde, the Seychelles, Rwanda, Lesotho, Namibia, Ghana, Sao Tome & Principe and South Africa.

But there’s much more to the story. Rwanda may indeed be relatively transparent, but it is a horrible dictatorship. It just doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Senegal had a considerable improvement, increasing 17 ranks. Lesotho, Burundi and Swaziland also saw significant improvement.

Mali and Gambia had considerable declines, each falling 22 ranks. Also falling significantly was Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Yemen, the Congo Republic and Uganda.

While Americans tend to pooh-pooh anything that suggests they aren’t at the tip top of any ratings, I think that wise Africans take this annual ranking very seriously.

“Kenya’s score has remained disappointingly low and stagnant over a long period of time. Evidently whatever efforts that have been put into the fight against corruption have borne little results,” said Samuel Kimeu, Executive Director of TI-Kenya.

“The country’s little-changed score,” South Africa’s Times Live opined this morning, “could be attributed to the level of outrage expressed by the public in the form of service delivery protests and eagerness to report corruption to independent civil society-based organisations.”

TI doesn’t report angst, just corruption. Over my life time I’ve seen a great increase in angst especially among Africa’s youth. There is a feeling of shame, a feeling of outrage, that didn’t exist before.

So we wait anxiously for the mobilization.

Scant Rains is No Drought

Scant Rains is No Drought

migration.cartoonReports of a massive drought in the game rich areas of northern Tanzania may be exaggerated, although the wildebeest migration is off at least a month. That doesn’t mean several months down the line everything won’t be in sync.

The media, today, operates on the assumption that “if it bleeds, it reads.” It’s no less true of Obamacare than of the Serengeti migration.

In the case of the Serengeti migration, no less reputable media than the BBC report that the unusual weather-related movement of the great wildebeest migration has “never been seen before.”

Hmm. “Before” is a relative term. The BBC was quoting an official overseeing Kenya’s Maasai Mara ecosystem and perhaps he’s young, perhaps he’s inexperienced, or perhaps he’s more interested in promoting tourism than the truth. I’ve seen “it” before.

“It” is when the great wildebeest migration veers from its normal pattern. In this case it’s at least a month off: Right about now the migration should be moving slowly but certainly south through Tanzania’s northern Serengeti. It isn’t. The bulk of the wildebeest are lingering in Kenya’s far north Maasai Mara.

Several times in my career I’ve seen this, as well as a real reversal which this isn’t … yet. It’s proof that the migration is not a neurological hard-wiring, but a response to environmental conditions.

Click here for a fuller understanding of a normal migration.

The reason the migration is lingering in the north is because normal October and November rainfall was missed. NOAA’s satellites show that parts of the northern Serengeti received less than a tenth the normal rainfall for October and November.

Normally, heavy rains occur in November and the first part of December. They then reduce substantially, although the rains do continue right through June. Heavy “normal November” rains don’t normally start up again until March.

This drives the migration, as the great herds go where the grasses are growing.

NOAA’s mid-term (March through May) forecast is for normal or better than average rainfall.

That means all safaris planned for March on — if NOAA is correct as I expect it is — will not notice anything unusual.

But safaris, for example, expecting to see the migration in the Serengeti in November won’t. And safaris planned for December-February will experience difficulties finding the migration as it likely fragments more than normal, depending upon how soon we return to normal precipitation.

(For local farmers, by the way, it could be worse: wildebeest and zebra will now seep out of the national park onto ranches and compete with cows for pasture.)

Remember, too, that most of the animals on the veld don’t migrate. Indeed, they all suffer with scant rainfall, although the predators often prosper at these times. But unless an entire year of abnormal precipitation occurs, most animal life cycles aren’t effected enough that a casual visitor would notice anything significant.

There is even an indication that right now things are getting better. Surveying a number of traveler blogs being posted right now, I find pictures with green grass and accounts of some rain, already.

It’s infuriating when media like UPI misstate the situation, along with much of its historical evidence. Respectable journals like the South African Business Daily were even more off-the-mark.

“If it bleeds, it reads.”

It’s always dangerous to analyze anything that’s dependent on the weather, and I always caution my clients to never presume they’re going to see the migration, ever. But the facts right now do not suggest that migration patterns in just a few months will be anything but normal.

We will certainly lose a fraction of the animal, especially the herbivore population. But that’s the wild.

And it’s hardly the end of the game.