Game of smoke and mirrors

Genetically engineered (GE) food was not even on the radar screens 10 years ago at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. And the topic will not be on the agenda at the Johannesburg Summit for Sustainable Development later this month, though it will be one of the hottest issues in town.

The summit takes place in the shadow of drought and famine in Southern Africa. This famine has many causes, none of them technical, yet a technical quick fix is being touted as the way to save Africa.

Drought is being used cynically and contemptuously as a marketing tool for GE food. Much of the food aid destined for drought-stricken regions comes from the United States, where GE grain is mixed with conventional grain. USAid, the main donor, has bluntly informed recipients that this is no time to quibble when lives are at stake.

Surely countries have the right to choose what seed they wish to import?

African agriculture and exports to Europe will be affected by the presence of GE crops in areas that were previously clean.

Genetic engineering is not even mentioned in the main negotiating text for the summit, yet it bubbles below, disguised under the sobriquet of biotechnology. Biotechnology includes genetic engineering, but the two are as a sparrow is to a vulture.

Biotechnology is yoghurt, beer, cheese, bread, drugs and medicines, and has been with us for millennia. Biotechnology is fine. Genetic engineering is the artificial insertion of foreign genes into unrelated species and is a far cry from our understanding of biotechnology.

GE food includes genes from bacteria, viruses, antibiotics, and now fish and pharmaceutical structures being blasted into our daily fare.

The equation of genetic engineering with biotechnology is the first semantic flick-flack in a game of smoke and mirrors. The prize is control of the global food supply.

It is critical that this issue receives attention at any summit dealing with sustainable development. After all, no development without food is possible. But does sustainable development have to come with these risks and costs?

If most civil society groups coming to Johannesburg had their way, GE food would remain off the agenda. But a narrow interest group led by the US government, Monsanto and other corporations, together with a powerful and effective international lobby group, are coming to town to sell GE food as an urgent humanitarian need.

The genetic engineering industry has grown phenomenally in the 10 years since Rio. The fuse was lit in 1994 with the world’s first GE crop, the Flavr-Savr tomato that went on sale in the US. Today, two-thirds of the soy and one-third of the maize grown in the US are genetically engineered.

The US leads the world in GE crops and about 90% of this production emanates from one corporation, Monsanto.

Monsanto recently bought two large agricultural seed companies in Africa, Carnia and Sensako, consolidating its control of the local food chain. The corporation also has a strong influence on a powerful lobby group called AfricaBio, a Section 21 company.

AfricaBio has posed as the voice of African civil society in international forums, calling for free international trade in GE commodities and increased international acceptance of GE crops.

AfricaBio poses as a non-profit industry support group and has gone so far as to join the South African National NGO Coalition. But should this corporate-driven NGO legitimately assume a place among civil society groups?

This is greenwash of the first order, albeit a schizoid, novel, mutant type eminently suited to its originators.

The US is already coming out with all guns blazing to promote GE food as an important tool in the fight against global hunger.

President George W Bush has declared that the US will feed the world, either by flooding international markets with subsidised food or by exporting patented food crops. The US will profit from global hunger. The threat of a new kind of biological serfdom beckons with the introduction of GE seed into Africa.

Are there alternatives to this scenario? Remember Bob Geldof playing for the starving Africans at the Band Aid concerts 10 years ago? Ethiopia, then at the centre of that terrible drought, has for the past seven years produced a surplus of food. Small farmers produce this food using traditional methods, saving and sharing their own seeds. No GE crops and limited fertiliser are used.

Where those notorious photos of devastation were taken, the land and ecosystems have been regenerated by following best agricultural practice. Ethiopia has concentrated on self-sufficiency and independent food production for its people.

The debate on best agricultural practices will burn hot in Johannesburg and the first shots have already been fired.

Africa’s ability to produce its own food, free of external constraints, is threatened by the biological imperialists of the North. Their lure: the wealth of African biodiversity as collateral for their African investment. In the genetic revolution, this is the capital of the future.

The real challenge is to come out of Johannesburg with a future for Africa that is not indentured to international capital and resources.

Glenn Ashton is World Summit coordinator for the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering

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