African farmers are demanding that Lynas cease using their images in GMO promotionals; Lynas’s mischief-making may have triggered Tanzania’s ending of GMO field trials. Report: Claire Robinson, GMWatch and Mariam Mayet, African Centre for Biodiversity
The British pro-GMO activist Mark Lynas has angered African farmers over his mis-use of their images on the internet to promote his pro-GMO agenda. Now the farmers have demanded that Lynas remove their images and names from all online platforms.
These developments are documented in a new report by Dr Eugenio Tisselli, an IT specialist, and his co-author, biosafety scientist and agroecologist, Dr Angelika Hilbeck of ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Since 2011, Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck have coordinated a project, “Sauti ya wakulima” (“The voice of the farmers”), aimed at supporting Tanzanian farmers in creating a collaborative network of shared knowledge.
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck felt compelled to speak out when they discovered that some Tanzanian farmers, whom they know personally, were used in Lynas’s public relations campaign to promote GM crops in Tanzania. Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck emphasized that the farmers know nothing of the GMO “debate” or Lynas’s role in it. They are only concerned that their voices were used without their knowledge or consent.
Lynas uses images of African farmers to mislead
Lynas is a Visiting Fellow at Cornell’s Office of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where he promotes GM crops. Lynas describes his role at Cornell as “advising on Cornell’s vital work on public sector biotechnology in developing countries to support environmental and food security improvements via the Cornell Alliance for Science”. The Alliance produces propaganda promoting GM crops in the developing world.
Lynas used images of the Tanzanian farmers and their crops on his Twitter thread to put forward his views on how “anti-GMO activism and politics” block the advancement of agricultural biotechnology, which, according to him, will prevent local staple crops from being devastated by drought, disease, and pests.
In the posted series of images is one depicting a pair of hands holding three stunted maize cobs, with the following caption: “We really need the President [of Tanzania] to allow farmers to grow improved crops with drought tolerance and pest resistance. This is what it looks like when they grow the old varieties with no resilience.”
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck write in their report, “This image and caption are grossly misleading, since they imply that this is the general appearance and outcome of the farmer’s traditional open-pollinated maize varieties. They also imply that these crops would lack the resilience of other ‘improved’ ones – presumably Mr Lynas’s favoured GM hybrid varieties.”
This image is followed immediately by another, depicting a group of four children with sad faces and torn, dirty clothes, with Lynas’s caption: “Is that [the three maize cobs from the image above] enough to feed this hungry family [the four children]? All the European-funded NGOs say, ‘Yes, these farmers should stick with farmer-saved seeds and traditional varieties.’ So these children must stay hungry thanks to their ideology.”
A few tweets below, a third image is posted of a woman with Lynas’s caption: “I am sick of having to explain to farmers here [in Tanzania] why they must continue to suffer this global injustice. It is past time for progressives everywhere to speak up. Science is for everyone, not just the world's rich.”
Farmer Mrs R. protests
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck happened to know the woman in the third image, a farmer whom they call Mrs R. They describe her as “an innovative and progressive farmer” who enjoys a “good quality and quantity of food production” using locally-adapted varieties that are also non-GMO. In reality, they say, her life is “the opposite of what Mr Lynas’s Twitter thread misleads the reader to believe”. Far from the implication of the image posted by Lynas of starving children, Mrs R.’s farm has been profitable enough to enable her to put her children through school and all now lead independent lives.
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck report that Mrs R. did not give permission for the use of her image in this context and that she “is shocked that she was implicated in a context that, by association, could imply that she is needy, starving, and leading a life of deprivation”. They add, “Mrs R. demands that her image is deleted from all social media and internet platforms immediately.”
Farmer Mrs Salima protests
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck found that Lynas’s employer, the Cornell Alliance for Science, repeatedly used the image of the stunted maize cobs in publicity materials promoting the Gates-funded WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) project and a Monsanto GM maize (MON 87460). Monsanto claims that MON 87460 is drought-tolerant and insect-resistant but in November 2018 South African regulators rejected it for cultivation on the grounds that there is no evidence that it actually increases yield under water-limited conditions – or that it effectively resists pests.
In the Alliance for Science’s publicity materials, the stunted maize cobs were shown as being held by a woman whom the Alliance identified variously as “Selma Njukwage, Chambezi” and “Selma Selimani”.
Tanzanian colleagues of Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck identified the woman as Mrs Salima and informed her of the Alliance’s use of her image and footage. They report that like Mrs R., Mrs Salima did not give her consent to this use in this context – a context with which she is not familiar and does not wish to be associated. Mrs Salima is also demanding that her image and footage be removed from Lynas’s and the Alliance’s publicity materials and from the internet.
In addition, Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck report that the image of the stunted maize cobs was taken during a period of drought on Mrs Salima’s farm. They comment, “Under such drought conditions (e.g. 2012 and 2013 in the USA and 2018 in Germany), hybrid maize has just as little or even less resilience than local varieties and looks similarly dreadful. Yet no one in their right mind would suggest that industrial commodity farmers would routinely harvest stunted maize because they are using hybrid varieties.” They add that most such hybrid varieties “require substantial chemical inputs and water to perform acceptably and thus are not resilient”.
Lynas’s tweets attracted responses (featured in Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck’s report) calling him out on his fabricated narrative and showing images of healthy, locally adapted African open-pollinated maize varieties.
Lynas’s history of mischief-making in Tanzania
Mark Lynas has been the mouthpiece of the agricultural biotech lobby in Tanzania for some time. His visits to the country are well organized by the lobby, using platforms such as the regular meetings of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), where the media are in attendance to report on his talks.
His attacks have principally been directed at the country’s biosafety regulations, particularly its precautionary approach and strict liability provisions. In 2015 the agbiotech lobby claimed victory when the strict liability provisions (where whoever introduces a GMO is legally responsible for any damage, injury or loss caused by the GMO) were relaxed to fault-based liability (where the introducer of the GMO has to be proven negligent or at fault in order to be held responsible), to enable scientists to conduct research trials on GM maize.
However, the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity (TABIO) clarified that other types of GMO releases than research trials were still subject to strict liability.
In April 2017, a Tanzanian media outlet published Lynas’s blog post, “Tanzania is burning GM corn while people go hungry”. According to Sabrina Masinjila, outreach and advocacy officer with the ACB based in Dar es Salaam, “The article, mischievously written, unethically portrays Tanzania as a country and its farmers as being ‘desperate’ to a point where he says that the country is at the brink of starvation. His article describes children in Tanzania as ‘malnourished’, ‘skinny’ and ‘listless’. This, he says, is as a result of what he claims as ‘outdated’ biosafety laws that prevent GM maize from feeding families.”
But Lynas’s narrative is demonstrably false. GM maize does not provide higher yields than non-GM maize. And as we have seen above, there is no evidence that its supposed drought-tolerant and insect-resistant traits work as claimed.
Thus even if Lynas’s description of the Tanzanian situation were true, GM maize would not offer a solution.
Non-GM drought-tolerant maize already available
The pro-GMO propaganda stream put out by Lynas and the Alliance for Science seems especially absurd since, as Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck state in their report, “There are many [non-GM] African maize varieties with documented, significant tolerance to drought already in farmers’ hands. The DTMA (Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa) project, which preceded the WEMA project, has produced dozens of non-GM drought-tolerant maize varieties (OPVs [open-pollinated varieties] and hybrids) through conventional breeding, which farmers now grow in many African countries.”
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck write, “By using African smallholder farmers in fabricated contexts for his activism, without informing them nor obtaining their consent, Mr Lynas is harming and distorting the discussion about farming systems and GMOs in Tanzania.”
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck add that Lynas’s “manipulative communication tactics and attempts to discredit anybody who holds different views than his on GMOs and hybrid seeds have crossed an ethical red line and must cease.
“We could not trace the image of the sad-looking children with the torn clothes – none of our Tanzanian colleagues and farmers knew them. But given what we discovered about the persons featured in the other images, it would not surprise us if the children’s parents did not know about the use of their image. What we do know is that this incident has left Mrs R., her community of smallholder farmers, and Mrs Salima noticeably shaken.”
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck accuse Lynas of damaging the “good faith” with which Tanzanian farmers normally welcome outside visitors through his “disregard for ethics and good journalistic practice”.
Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck end by saying, “We hope and expect that at the very least, the demands of Mrs R. and Mrs Salima to remove their images and footage will be honoured without delay… If Lynas is truly in favour of a significant discussion about GM crops in Tanzania, he first needs to engage in an honest and respectful conversation with the farmers who will be directly affected by decisions to adopt or reject them.”
Lynas is the product of an industry-led drive to influence agricultural policy in Africa, as part of a well-resourced public relations machinery supported in particular by the Gates Foundation, which funds the Alliance for Science to the tune of USD 12 million. The philanthropic capitalist model adopted by Gates is no more than a new form of imperialism, disguising extractivist approaches behind the argument that Africans are unable to find their own solutions to the agricultural challenges facing the continent.
The farm-saved seed that Lynas denigrated in his Twitter feed is the mainstay of African agriculture. By far the majority of crops on the continent continue to be produced and adapted by millions of smallholder farmers without any outside support. This is the real basis of food security in Africa. GMOs threaten to displace this internally generated diversity with a narrow trickle of varieties focusing only on a few crops, to the long-term detriment of Africans.
Blow against GM crops in Tanzania
There are suggestions that Lynas’s GMO promotionals in Tanzania may be backfiring badly. In November 2018 the newly appointed Tanzanian Minister of Agriculture ordered all GM maize field trials under the WEMA project involving Monsanto’s GM drought-tolerant and Bt maize to be stopped.
The Minister’s action came in response to the illegal release by the Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI) of the GMO trial results without the necessary authorization or corroboration by the Ministry of Agriculture or related institutions such as the Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), when it invited certain members of the public, including Lynas, to witness how "well" the GM crops were performing.
Those who have watched the progress of Lynas’s career in activism over the past couple of decades may not be entirely surprised by his misleading and apparently deceptive actions at the expense of African farmers.
For those who are not familiar with this history, Lynas is an environmental writer with a degree in history and politics (not science), who made his name writing about climate change. He also wrote to a far smaller extent about the issue of GM crop technology, initially taking an oppositional stance. However, in about 2009 he swapped sides and became a fervent supporter of GM crops.
In early 2013 he garnered headlines around the world by presenting himself at the Oxford Farming Conference as a penitent founder of the movement of opposition to GM crops who had undergone a damascene conversion to being passionately pro-GMO. But his claims that he was an important figure in campaigns against GMOs were denounced by leading figures in the UK environment movement as misleading and simply “not true”.
Despite his self-reinvention for public relations purposes (or perhaps because of it), later that same year he was appointed to his post at Cornell, a position that has enabled him to work on promoting GM crops "to the exclusion of almost everything else”.
Lynas’s promotional work has consistently been characterized by a serious disregard for both fact and science.
This has been particularly the case when it comes to issues affecting the developing world, and not least Africa. He has claimed, for instance, that “thousands died” in Zambia when it refused GM food aid – even though the Zambian Red Cross reported that it “didn’t record a single death arising out of hunger” at the time in question. And he has made similarly false claims about large numbers of deaths in relation to opposition to GM golden rice.
While Lynas’s emotive claims may have helped him gain a lucrative career in promoting GMOs, they seem to be having a destructive effect on the public discourse about food and farming in Africa. They are simultaneously obscuring important facts about agricultural problems and damaging trust between farmers and outsiders – including researchers who could both learn from the farmers and potentially contribute helpful expertise.
The report by Drs Tisselli and Hilbeck can be downloaded here.
Image: Sauti ya wakulima. Healthy non-GM maize in Chambezi, Tanzania, photographed by farmers in the context of the Sauti ya wakulima project. CC BY-NC-ND.