Food Security in Africa: Will Obama Let USAID's Genetically Modified Trojan Horse Ride Again?

Yesterday Secretary Clinton was in Kenya with a delegation that included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as well as Representatives Donald M. Payne (D-NJ) and Nita M. Lowey (D-NY). While the group was there on a broad platform to discuss economic development in Africa, including food security issues, the delegation took the opportunity yesterday afternoon to visit the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) lab, which is best known for unsuccessfully trying to produce a genetically modified, virus-resistant sweet potato under a US-led program. The trip to KARI highlights the poor vision the United States currently holds on furthering food security in Africa.

Historically, the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the US and other countries has primarily profited patent-holding companies, while creating farmer dependence on the chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced by a few US corporations, used to the detriment of human health, soil quality and the environment. The failed sweet potato project at the KARI lab was a product of a public-private partnership between Monsanto, KARI and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the federal organization responsible for most US non-military foreign aid. USAID is not shy about their desire to promote biotechnology, and have been working towards furthering a GMO agenda abroad since 1991, when it launched the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP). According to this in-depth research article by the organization GRAIN, the ABSP sought to "identify suitable crops in various countries and use them as Trojan Horses to provide a solid platform for the introduction of other GM crops."

In Kenya, that crop was the sweet potato -- the focus of the USAID-funded Kenya Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program, which sought for fourteen years at KARI, at a cost of $6 million dollars, to create and bring it to market before the partnering groups abandoned the project.

ABSP shifted its operations in 1998 (four years after GMOs became legal to plant and sell to the US public in food products without a label) by branching out into more specific focus groups seeking the promotion of biotech abroad. This included the Collaborative Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative (CABIO), and its subsidiary, a public relations arm focused on promoting policy friendly to biotechnology called the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS). PBS is noted for its aggressive push against various governments' use of the Precautionary Principle, a moral and political principle that protects society from risk in the face of a lack of scientific consensus, in decisions not to plant GMOs.

USAID's support for biotechnology also extends to its personnel. For example, Judith Chambers was one of the main forces behind the strategies pursued to further the biotech agenda at the ABSP. After working as a senior advisor to USAID, she later served as Director of International Government Affairs at Monsanto, and is now head of PBS.

The point of all these acronyms and associations is to show how a tangled consortium (these are just some of the groups), funded by taxpayer dollars via USAID, seeks to further the aims of biotech abroad, especially in Africa, where Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia were singled out and have been the testing grounds for this strategy.

The obvious beneficiaries of such international development are the handful of corporations which own the patents and the technology, and which produce the herbicides and pesticides required by the use of such seeds. Josephat Ngonyo, head of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, a network of 60 community groups, small farmers and food security organizations in Kenya, stated in a teleconference yesterday organized by the National Family Farm Coalition that he didn't feel that farmers were considered when governments made agricultural policies. He sited building infrastructure, like roads, as well as a need for markets as real ways to help farmers. Africans like Ngonyo have a right to be worried -- they can look to India to see what a future relying solely on biotech seeds could look like, where a depleted water table, poisoned waterways and farmer suicides have been the result of the first Green Revolution.

The bottom line is that biotechnology requires a spin campaign because it is a marginal approach to the very big and very real problems we face in agriculture. Indeed, there is no one-fits all solution to food security. Yet the US government still pursues the same stubborn, limited policy.

Secretary Clinton continued the mis-guided rhetoric yesterday, despite the fact that hunger is not a yield problem, while speaking at KARI:

"Farmers in Africa have also faced the lack of investment from the private sector as well as governments and the global community, while technologies that have helped farmers in other parts of the world haven't yet been adapted to the extent necessary to Africa's needs. Together, these challenges have eroded the foundation of African agriculture. But that foundation is being rebuilt. The scientists here at KARI are taking the lead. I've just met with researchers who are cultivating hardier crops that can feed more people and thrive in harsher conditions, disease-resistant cassava plants, sweet potatoes enriched with Vitamin A to prevent blindness, maize that can flourish in times of drought.

The breakthroughs achieved in these labs and others throughout Africa can go a long way toward making sure that farmers who work from sunup to sundown can grow enough to support their families and so people aren't forced to pull their children from school or sell their livestock to survive a food shortage."

It is noteworthy that we are even having this discussion, and I commend the administration for talking about food security. (It is also noteworthy that it has taken many months to find a head of USAID -- which could be a sign of a real effort to change the direction of that organization.)

But instead of tired solutions that are not working, we need a paradigm shift, says Dr. Hans Hennen, who has worked in Nairobi for 27 years and was co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report. The IAASTD report [pdf] was sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and represented four years of work by 400 scientists. "We can do better and more using a broader set of tools [than biotechnology]," Hennen continued. The report, which came out in 2008, stated unequivocally that business as usual in agricultural production was not an option, pushing for a more broad-based approach to answering the question:

What must we do differently to overcome persistent poverty and hunger, achieve equitable and sustainable development and sustain productive and resilient farming in the face of environmental crises?

Biotechnology is a reductionist pipe dream which is overly dependent on waning resources. By contrast, the IAASTD looked a agro-ecological solutions that focused on agricultural resilience. Agriculture according to the IAASTD requires multifaceted, local solutions. While biotechnology has been promising drought tolerance and higher yields for years without delivering, there are real answers available now -- like drought tolerant varieties, suited to certain areas, which are naturally bred; science that focuses on building the quality of the soil and the capacity for that soil to hold more water; or push and pull solutions that deal with pests naturally by attracting beneficial insects or planting compatible species that act as decoys for those pests.

So now what are we going to do with the 20 billion in aid pledged by the G-8 last month to promote food security in Africa? In light of what we now know about USAID, and the fact that there are biotech friendly advisers like Technology and Science Advisor to Secretary Clinton Nina Fedoroff and Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rajiv Shah in the administration, it is not hard to assume how those monies might be used. But President Obama should significantly change our policy if he wants to truly help the continent he says he cares so much about.

Obama administration: Study the IAASTD. If there is any hope for a better food system in Africa and the U.S., we must first accept that what is being practiced now is not sustainable, and begin to start the process of making it so.

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