Chatham House, GM and Africa

Chatham House report misleads about GMO risks and promises, writes Claire Robinson

A report from the British foreign policy think tank Chatham House on agricultural biotechnology in Africa claims that GM "offers advantages over conventional plant-breeding approaches".
The report notes, "Accordingly there are a various projects under way to develop new GM varieties for African farmers, ranging from drought-resistant maize to varieties of cassava, banana, sorghum, cowpea and sweet potato with resistance to pests and disease."

Mercifully the report's release has been low-key in the UK, where the long-suffering public must be tired of hearing rich white Brits telling Africans that they should grow and eat experimental GM crops on the basis of no evidence that they will be beneficial.

It is, however, being publicised in Africa.

For anyone who doesn't know, Chatham House is known to be "a lynchpin of the British Foreign Policy establishment". Its current Chairman is Stuart Popham, who is also vice-chairman of banking in Europe for Citigroup, the American multinational banking and financial services corporation.

Chatham House's previous chairman was the former CIA analyst Dr DeAnne Shirley Julius.

The real "barrier" to GM in Africa

The report itself is highly misleading. It laments the fact that "despite the expenditure of considerable resources, the potential of GM in Africa is not being realized. So far no GM trait developed for African farmers has been put to use."

It blames the delay on various "barriers" to GM technology in Africa, namely regulatory constraints, consumer distrust and weak farmer demand. But it fails to admit to the real barrier: the apparent absence of any GM crop developed for Africa that outperforms already available non-GM crops.

The report lists a number of GM crops with desirable traits in development in sub-Saharan Africa that are said to be stuck in a confined field trial "bottleneck". But it doesn't actually give the one pressing reason why Africans would want this alleged bottleneck to be cleared: that one or more of these GM crops has a valuable trait that enables it to outperform existing non-GM crops. Absolutely nothing is said about the performance or efficacy of these crops. Presumably it's a commercial secret.

Report downplays catalogue of GMO failures in Africa

The report's silence on this issue is especially worrying because it also overlooks or plays down the dismal record of previous GM crops developed for Africa:

(see "GM crops for Africa: Catalogue of failure", in GMO Myths and Truths).

The omission or downplaying of these cases is especially odd as two of the entities responsible for developing the failed GMOs, Monsanto and the Monsanto-funded Danforth Center, are involved in some of the new GM crop projects too. Are the people of Africa supposed to have faith that this time they've got it right? Or does Chatham House just hope they've got a very short memory?

The report's authors do not draw the common-sense lesson from this catalogue of failure: stay away from GMOs unless they are the last resort and have a proven safety and efficacy record. Instead they resort to the time-honoured "GM is one tool in the toolbox" argument, saying, "no single innovation, or magic bullet, is likely to sustain significant productivity increases on its own – rather, the careful introduction of a basket of complementary innovations is needed."

Note the careful choice of words: by "innovations" the authors are unlikely to mean the agroecological methods that the IAASTD report on the future of agriculture decided were the key to future food security. Patented GMOs and their accompanying proprietary chemical packages, on the other hand, do qualify as "innovations".

Muddying the waters

The report's authors fail to define "biotechnology" and appear to misunderstand the term, since they describe "biotechnology" as "controversial". How controversial are bread making and composting, which are biotechnologies? Claiming that "biotechnology – and in particular one application of it, genetic modification (GM) is controversial" is simply muddying the waters with imprecise terminology (see "Muddying the waters with imprecise terms" in GMO Myths and Truths).

Report misleads on speed and risks of GM

The report defines the "advantages" of GM over conventional breeding as "faster breeding times and the potential to introduce traits from outside the crop genome".

But the first claim, of faster breeding times, is simply wrong. GM is no quicker than conventional breeding and in fact involves extra steps that don't apply to conventionally bred plants (that's even without the regulatory requirements).

The second claim assumes that the ability of GM to introduce traits from outside the crop genome has only advantages, without noting the serious and proven disadvantages, such as disruption of the host plant genome, leading to unexpected toxicity, allergenicity, and altered nutritional value.

GMO pie-in-the-sky

The report talks of "drought-resistant maize" and "varieties of cassava, banana, sorghum, cowpea and sweet potato with resistance to pests and disease", without admitting that in most cases these are complex genetic traits that cannot be genetically engineered into crops using today's crude techniques or any newer techniques in the pipeline.

Any GM drought-resistant maize that was produced would be a non-GM breeding success with a GM herbicide-tolerant or insecticidal trait added. This is why even the US Dept of Agriculture admitted that Monsanto's new GM drought-tolerant maize doesn't perform better than existing non-GM varieties.

The myth of the "public good GMO"

Perhaps in order to disarm critics of GMO developer firms like Monsanto, the report claims a "predominance of public research institutions over private corporations" in the list of institutions engaged in genetically engineering the crops intended for Africa. But this ignores the fact that through the mechanism of intellectual property (IP), public research institutions have been converted into honorary corporations.

This is how the system works for a public research institution developing a GMO. The public institution licenses its proprietary patented technologies to the private sector in order to offset the cost of the product's development – the rest of the cost being paid by the taxpayer. So most of the taxpayer funding is given to chasing business-relevant research that never pays back to the public. In the process, the public research institutions create internal incentives for academics to behave exactly like corporations would have them behave, but without the corporations having to pay them to do so.

Whether it is a public institution or a private company developing these products, that has no effect on the GMO research and development process or the outcome. Both types of entity will choose to develop IP on things that will make money rather than be the best thing for the farmer or the public in the long run. Both types of entity will use secrecy to protect the IP before it has been registered, thus screening out normal critical review from scientists and shielding the product from the scrutiny of the public – who may not even want it. Both types of entity will charge for the product and for using it in breeding, in order to recover development costs and to generate funds for other work (if not always to make returns to shareholders).

Corporations benefit from this system because paying a licence fee to a public institution for use of a GMO is a lot cheaper than developing the GMO themselves.

The Chatham House report's characterisation of the "public" interests involved in developing these GM crops also ignores the financial tie-ins between foundations and GM firms. For example, the Gates Foundation is an investor in Monsanto.

Through IP mechanisms, public research institutions have effectively become indistinguishable in their behaviour from corporations. Whether a GMO is developed by a public institution or a private company, the end result looks exactly the same to farmers in Africa.

Playing Russian Roulette with Africans' health

The Chatham House report claims "no adverse consequences for human or animal health from consuming GM foods have been recorded". But this is a ludicrous claim, given that GM foods are not labelled in North America, the continent that produces most such crops, so consumption cannot be tracked and linked to the occurrence of any diseases. The number of epidemiological studies that have been carried out to assess the effects of eating GM foods is precisely zero.

What is known, though, is that there have been steep increases in common diseases in the US in recent years. The cause is unknown but GM cannot be ruled out because the science hasn't been done.

The authors of the Chatham House report should be invited to personally underwrite the safety of the experimental GMOs they are promoting in this report. That way, if anything goes wrong, the Africans will know whom to sue.

Jam tomorrow

The report sidesteps worries about the imprecision of GM technology by claiming, "New ‘second generation’ GM techniques allow much greater precision. Scientists can now use particular enzymes to effectively edit chromosomes at specific loci, thus minimizing the risk of unintentionally disrupting the genome."

However, this is yet another "jam tomorrow" claim that owes more to hope than reality. Several studies in cell lines have shown that these new techniques cause off-target and unintended effects in the genome (see "Is GM technology becoming more precise?", in GMO Myths and Truths).

In conclusion, Africans need to take a clear-eyed look at this latest attempt to hook them on an experimental proprietary technology owned by rich Westerners. They certainly should think carefully before following the governments of the US and, to a large extent, of Europe in adopting a "Yes, unless…" regulatory and ethical framework for GMOs. The "Yes, unless" approach assumes that we must accept the GMO unless an overwhelming reason is found not to. In contrast, the UK's Food Ethics Council issued a report on GM crops that recommended that a "No, unless…" principle should be adopted, in that "the onus of proof of the acceptability of the proposal should lie with the applicant".

The report added, "Any proposals for the application of GM crops in developing countries should be viewed with extreme caution because of their tendency to cultivate dependency, have adverse social impacts and undermine ecological stability."

What is the condition that, if met, might justify acceptance of a GMO? Perhaps proof that the GMO is the only solution to a pressing problem that's been identified by the farmers or the public in the country concerned. No country can afford to allow a narrow group of technocrats to define the problem – because the "solution" will invariably be the one they want to sell.

The Chatham House report should be seen for what it is: a combination of genetically modified colonialism and a sales pitch for experimental products.

(by Claire Robinson)