How govts, biotech firms push for adoption of GM cotton in Africa

Monday September 29 2014

The push for GM cotton is getting stronger. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The push by foreign governments, giant biotech companies and private foundations to have African countries adopt production of Bt-Cotton has been through what is seen as “thinly veiled corporate diplomacy” by the Food & Water Watch, a US-Based organisation that lobbies for safe and sustainable consumption of food, water and fish.

Online whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks detailed how the US State Department lobbied African governments to adopt policies and laws that were pro-genetic engineering.

In Biotech Ambassadors: How the US State Department Promotes the Seed Industry Global Agenda, Food & Water Watch said that it found 926 US State Department cables from 113 countries between 2005 and 2009 that discussed agricultural biotechnology and genetically engineered crops. The organisation says that the campaign targeted scientists, industry, media, farmers, legislators, NGOs and the public.

According to the WikiLeaks cables, the message to embassies from the State Department was that they needed to “encourage the development and commercialisation of agri-biotech products in the developing world, where many had hesitated to join the biotech revolution.” The embassies were also asked to “publicise the benefits of agri-biotech as a development tool.”

Kenya is said to have been targeted for the campaign in the belief that its adoption of the GM technology would make it easier for the rest of the African countries to do so. This was underscored by the former US state secretary, Hilary Clinton who, in her visit to Kenya said: “With Kenya’s leadership in biotechnology and biosafety, we cannot only improve agriculture in Kenya, but Kenya can be leader for the rest of Africa.”

The push appeared to have paid off as the biotech trade associations and scientists started to express optimism, with some saying that the country would start planting GM maize and Bt-cotton by 2014. The scheme was however dealt a significant blow when Kenya banned GM food imports in late 2012 until Public Health ministry certified their safety. Later, the US embassy in Kenya promised to work to overturn the ban.


The case of Mozambique and Malawi

But Kenya is not alone in this. The Seed Act of Mozambique does not allow the importation of GM seed. In Malawi, there has been a push by a Monsanto subsidiary to have the authorities allow a massive release of the Bt-cotton developed there.

This happened on May 22, when Monsanto Malawi (Pty) Ltd advertised in the two leading newspapers —Daily Times and Nation — its intention to get a permit from Malawi Biosafety Registrar for the release of MON15985, genetically modified cotton variety which Monsanto says it is engineered to be pest resistant.

But this has been vehemently opposed by a group of NGOs that said there had not been any cost-benefit analysis that could authenticate Monsanto’s claim that the technology will benefit cotton farmers in Malawi. They have also opposed the release on the grounds that the particular genes (cry2Ab2 and cry1Ac) have been synthetically manufactured with no history of safe use in nature.