GM crops

A continent divided

African activists, backed by wealthy supporters in the United States and Europe, are locked in combat over the merits of transgenic crops. Ehsan Masood tracks the people, the politics and the cash behind the campaigns.

When Jocelyn Webster was asked by a South African reporter for her opinion on “genetically modified orgasms”, she was exasperated but not surprised. For Webster, who heads the pro-biotech campaigning group AfricaBio, this question was just one more symptom of the endemic misunderstanding about transgenic technologies in Africa.

Africa is emerging as one of the front lines in the battle for acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods. Webster believes that transgenic agriculture is vital in the fight against world hunger, and AfricaBio, along with agribiotech companies and other pro-biotech campaigners, is now fighting tooth and nail, often by somewhat controversial methods, to spread the word about GM crops. But the anti-GM lobby is equally powerful and vociferous, and vast amounts of money are flowing in to Africa in support of both sides of the argument, as the various parties try to influence policy-makers and the public.

For AfricaBio, a coalition of scientists and companies based in South Africa, the idea is to improve GM's image — perhaps with good reason. Today, some 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don't know where their next meal will come from, and the problem will not be going away. Despite international aid to feed the hungry, Africa will still have 183 million undernourished citizens by 2030, according to a report published by the UN Millennium Hunger Task Force this year. AfricaBio is one group among many that believes transgenic crops, modified so that they will grow in salty soils or conditions of drought, offer a solution to starvation.

But the group's methods would be considered in some countries to be blatant media manipulation. Webster talks about training journalists how to report GM stories, telling them that the term 'genetically improved' is more accurate than 'genetically modified'. In early 2003 she hosted a press briefing where the journalists were fed GM fritters without knowing it. The idea, Webster says matter-of-factly, was to demonstrate that GM food tastes just the same as conventional fare, and does no harm. She claims that the journalists were amused and there were no angry headlines in the next day's papers.

Although Webster stresses the role of GM crops in improving nutrition in Africa, there are wider issues at stake for companies such as the US-based agribiotech giant Monsanto, which is one of the funding sources of AfricaBio. If GM crops can be sold as the way to feed the starving, there could be a subtle shift in the political landscape worldwide, making GM food more acceptable to consumers in Europe and elsewhere.

On the other side of the fence, opponents of GM crops are just as determined to keep them out of Africa. Over the past few years, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in development, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Action Aid, have joined their environmentalist cousins from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in lobbying against GM in both Europe and Africa. Their extensive network of international media contacts has helped them to generate publicity for their views in a relatively short time.

Battle lines

Opposite sides: Florence Wambugu (bottom) is a firm supporter of GM technology, whereas Tewolde (top) remains sceptical of its benefits. Credit: SOLOMON H/MARIAM

The two sides are squaring up to each other at a crucial time for Africa. South Africa is the only country on the continent that is currently growing GM crops commercially. Egypt, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda are doing GM research. But elsewhere, GM is still very much an emerging issue. Only three countries so far — Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe — have introduced regulations to govern transgenic agriculture.

The local policy-makers who will ultimately decide on the future of GM in Africa are being pushed and pulled in both directions, and are being showered with money from the developed world, some in the form of grants for 'biosafety research' — money for regulatory infrastructure and testing of whether GM affects the environment or human health.

At last year's Earth Summit in South Africa, the US government pledged $100 million over ten years to support agricultural biotechnology in the developing world. In May, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a grant of $15 million to support biosafety policy-making and research in Asia and in East and West Africa. At the beginning of October this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the charity established by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — pledged $4 million for GM technologies, as part of a $25-million project to combat malnutrition. And later the same month, Germany approved a grant of €2 million (US$2.3 million) to help African countries strengthen biosafety laws.

The USAID and German grants are particularly significant when viewed in the context of a looming trade dispute between the United States and the European Union (EU) over the latter's failure to approve new GM products for sale and growth (see Nature 425, 655; 2003). Against this background, both powers are trying hard to influence African interpretations of a new international treaty on GM trade — the Cartagena biosafety protocol, which came into effect on 11 September 2003. The protocol governs trade in 'living modified organisms' — from seeds to fish — intended for direct release into the environment. A country can use it to block GM imports if it thinks a crop will damage the environment, human health or the trade in locally produced goods.

Vested interests

The United States and its private-sector allies would like the laws in African countries to reflect their own views — that GM technology is inherently safe unless proven otherwise, and that countries should not be allowed to refuse GM imports just because they don't particularly want to eat GM food. There are strong reasons to think that the USAID grant will be used to support this position. In April, the agency's head, Andrew Natsios, told the US Congress: “The great bulk of African agricultural ministers, presidents and prime ministers I have spoken with are all interested in bringing this technology into their agricultural systems.” Natsios accused “Europeans” of spreading misinformation, which did “enormous damage to poor people in Africa”.

European governments and aid groups see things differently. The EU, unlike the United States, insists that all GM produce is labelled and traceable back to its source. Measures that would add those requirements, and even stricter regulations, to the Cartagena protocol were endorsed by the African Union's heads of state at a meeting in Mozambique this August. The German grant will help member states to draw up similar regulations that would allow them to block imports of all GM produce without needing to cite specific reasons, and possibly to claim damages if a GM product harms human health or the environment.

The brains behind this African law, and the man who is courting European funding for the project, is Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority. Tewolde is soft-spoken and understated; it is hard to believe that his influence extends across Africa and beyond. He has powerful European supporters in environment ministries and NGOs, including former British environment minister Michael Meacher, who since his departure from government has emerged as a figurehead for the anti-GM movement. Meacher hosted Tewolde at the House of Commons in London last month to address members of parliament on the African position regarding Cartagena.

Natural response

When Nature caught up with Tewolde at his London base, the offices of the environmental organization the Gaia Foundation, he argued that he isn't entirely anti-GM, nor does he want to stand in the way of the technology feeding the poor. “We simply do not want to grow GM crops without due consideration given to human health, domestic animals and the environment,” he said over a plate of non-GM rice, bread and lentils. “We suspect that Africa is high on the agenda for the United States' next push for GM acceptance. And we resent the way that the stereotyped image of the hungry in developing countries has been used to force a style of agriculture that will only exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty.”

Until the late 1990s, those views dominated nascent African public opinion on transgenic agriculture. Environmental NGOs drip-fed messages questioning the safety of GM technology, its relevance to the needs of ordinary Africans, and the intentions of the multinational corporations who promote it. Their argument was, and is, simple: Africa does not need to waste its scarce resources on a technology whose principal products to date are herbicide-tolerant cotton and longer-lasting tomatoes. The anti-GM campaign reached a high point in 2000, when European and African governments, led in part by Tewolde, formed an alliance to defeat the United States and other grain-exporting countries at the United Nations and forced through the Cartagena protocol.

Stung by this defeat, pro-GM campaigners realized that, if they wanted to wield equal influence in Africa, they would need to take a leaf out of the green activists' handbook and bring on board successful public-relation strategies. The biotech lobby has since sought out charismatic African scientists, farmers and policy-makers who believe in the power of GM, and has built up their public profiles at home and abroad.

A prime example is Kenyan plant scientist and farmer's daughter Florence Wambugu, who in 2001 formed A Harvest Biotech Foundation to spread the message that Africa wants GM crops. She has strong connections to Monsanto, having done her postdoctoral research at its labs in St Louis, Missouri.

A boost for biotech

Wambugu, a passionate and assertive campaigner, wrote to a committee of the US House of Representatives about GM and poverty earlier this year. She argued that the European anti-GM lobby's primary accomplishment was to “keep safe and nutritious food out of the hands of starving people”. Those are strong words, but her choicest remarks are directed at Tewolde. “This is a very exciting time for biotechnology in Africa, but Tewolde's agenda is to prevent Africa's participation in this. My agenda is to promote it,” she says.

AfricaBio is singing from the same hymn sheet. When this article was being researched, Webster was visiting Germany and Britain, where Tewolde's influence is strong, trying to counteract the “nonsense”, as she puts it, that he and his allies promote. Webster was accompanied by Thembitshe Joseph Buthelezi, a cotton farmer and chair of a federation of small farmers' associations in South Africa's eastern Kwazulu-Natal province. Over a breakfast meeting in London organized by Monsanto, the South African pair enthused about the power of GM to reduce poverty.

Buthelezi argues that planting Bt cotton — a GM variety that produces its own insecticidal toxin — has transformed his life. He says that, in common with 90% of the region's cotton farmers, he is seeing better yields, a better quality of cotton, and is spending less on the chemicals and labour needed to spray insecticides. One of the slides that he uses in his presentations to governments and corporations proudly says: “Normally, I used to ask my wife how we intend to pay our bills. Now I ask her, how are we going to spend this money?”

Taking such feel-good stories to consumers and the media in Africa and abroad is an important plank in AfricaBio's strategy. To that end, it is helping to train staff working in South Africa's supermarkets — including the UK-based Tesco chain — to handle questions about GM foods from shoppers. The organization is also working with women's groups in poor townships, and is advising the government of Lesotho — a tiny independent country landlocked within South Africa — with its planned biosafety legislation.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering AfricaBio's stance, not all of its funding comes from sources with a strong pro-GM agenda. One of its biggest donors is the Rockefeller Foundation — the wealthy US-based philanthropic organization set up by John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil. The Rockefeller Foundation has positioned itself as a bridge between opposing sides, and seems to have the trust of all the key players. It funds AfricaBio and Florence Wambugu's A Harvest. But it also gives grants to NGOs with a cautionary stance on GM, including the Winnipeg-based ETC Group in Canada and the London-based Consumers International, a federation of consumer groups and agencies worldwide.

Balancing act

Gary Toenniessen, the Rockefeller Foundation's head of food security, says it supports both sides in the GM debate to ensure that the public has access to a spectrum of information, both for and against. The hope is also to promote dialogue between opponents and help them to see an issue from another perspective. “Often they find they have more in common than is evident from their public statements,” he says.

Toenniessen does not think that GM technology by itself is the answer to hunger in Africa — it is, at best, one component in an overall strategy to achieve a secure, sustainable food supply. This is evident in the foundation's portfolio of food-security research: it invests about $3 million annually in genetic modification, and up to $7 million in supporting conventional plant breeding.

The Rockefeller Foundation's approach is in tune with the thinking of an international task force assembled by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 to find ways of halving global hunger before 2015. The Millennium Hunger Task Force, overseen by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, published its first report this April. The task force agrees that biotechnology has opened up new opportunities that could help feed Africa's starving, including projects involving drought-tolerant maize and disease-tolerant cooking bananas. But it points out that GM won't remove many of the present barriers to feeding the poor.

Between 1980 and 1995, sub-Saharan Africa was the only region in the developing world that showed a decrease in crop production. Yields increased by 27% in Asia and 12% in Latin America, but fell by 8% in Africa. The task force concludes that this is principally because of poor-quality soils, inadequate irrigation, fertilizers that are sold in remote areas at inflated prices, pot-holed roads that delay the sale of fresh produce, and little access to the credit that would help farmers manage their businesses better. Unless these conditions are improved, the task force concludes, the GM revolution won't be able to live up to its promise.

Pro-GM campaigners have a hard time disputing these findings. Wambugu herself was a member of the task force and doesn't disagree with the facts — although she observes that the emphasis on improving Africa's soils may have something to do with the fact that the task force was co-chaired by a soil scientist. Webster also agrees that GM alone is not a panacea. But if anti-GM campaigners succeed in the battle now going on in Africa, she claims, they will stock up problems for the future. “You can say 'no' to the technology now,” she argues. “But when you'll really need it, the technology won't be ready.”

It is difficult to predict where Africa's GM debate will go from here. Almost certainly it will involve a legal minefield of international treaties and arguments about the economics of trade. But you can count on Wambugu, Webster and Tewolde remaining at the heart of the battle to win the hearts and minds of Africa's people.

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Masood, E. A continent divided. Nature 426, 224–226 (2003).

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