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.
Jim, I’m surprised at you. To delve into the science after freely admitting that you don’t know anything about it is not generally your style.
So, a couple of points. First, farmers do not hold back and replant corn seeds that they have saved from the last harvest because the corn you are talking about is hybrid and the seeds will not give back the same plant. I think I remember that you and I have talked about this before. This argument is not true for soybeans, however, since commercial lines are not hybrids and the seeds will give you back the same plant.
Second, about MON810. This GMO line contains a single gene from a bacterium, and this gene produces a protein toxin that is active against a limited range of insects (lepidopterans). The valid science indicates that this toxin, called BT, is not active against humans. In fact, organic gardners use and have used for many years BT as a topical insecticide on many vegetable crops (tomatoes for example). They just use it in the form of a powder made of the entire bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis). So we as consumers have been exposed to BT for a long time. I might add that all tests of BT have shown it to be safe for humans. If this was not the case, it would not be allowed for use by, among others, home gardeners on vegetable crops.
Now for the bigger issue of GMOs in general, let me propose to you that there are two issues here…. the process (ie, the idea of the technology) and the product (for example, MON810, also called BT corn). Those of us who know the science, know the issues of gene spread in nature (also called horizontal gene transfer), and understand the technology generally have no problem with the technology. The product is a different issue, and each new introduction (ie, each new gene or set of genes introduced into the host) must be considered for safety and efficacy. Hence, the USDA and the EPA have stringent testing criteria for GMOs destined for release into the environment. I give you, for example, golden rice, a GMO variety that has been engineered to produce higher than normal levels of beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Once approved, there is every expectation that golden rice will serve as a useful dietary supplement for populations in which vitamin A deficiencies lead to vision problems.
You can rail, if you wish, against Monsanto, but its a company, and it exists to make a profit, just like any other seed company, including Burpee.
If we have a chance in our Southern Africa trip, while in Cape Town perhaps we can meet with Jennifer Thomson, an old friend of mine and a major spokesperson for the adoption of GMO crops in sub-Saharan Africa. As Charles and I did with evolution in our 2007 trip with you, perhaps Jennifer and I can broaden your understanding of the science and the sociology.