A new kind of biopiracy
Billionaire potato overlords on both sides of the North Atlantic want to see genetically modified (GM) potatoes spread across the world. They rely on the collaboration of the Lima, Peru-based research institute, the International Potato Center (CIP), which is pushing to release a GM potato in East Africa, genetically engineered through cisgenesis.
You can read the full briefing paper here.
At the potato’s centre of origin in the Andes, where GM potatoes are banned, indigenous farmers agree with African farmers and civil society that GM potatoes are a terrible idea.
On 28 February, an international gathering in Cusco, Peru was organised by Asociación ANDES, Parque de le Papa (a community-led protected agroecological region known as the Potato Park), the African Centre for Biodiversity and Swift Foundation. It was heard how the GM potato for Africa is being framed by its backers as a philanthropic effort to release GM technologies in Africa, ostensibly to stop the fungal disease, the late potato blight.
But CIP’s GM potato quietly includes genes synthesised from digital sequence information (DSI) taken from Genbank, the international DSI database. The genes are from potato relatives that were collected many years ago and the rights to those genes are not clear. Such situations of misuse of DSI are the subject of major international debate. If African farmers are essentially tricked into adopting this DSI-derived GM potato, CIP will create a situation harmful to the interests of African and Andean small farmers, whose knowledge and resources are threatened by the new kinds of biopiracy enabled by DSI.
With attendees convinced that the GM potato is a narrow and short-sighted technological fix that is inappropriate for smallholder farmers, the workshop resulted in the formation of an Andes-Africa alliance against the cultivation of GM potato in Africa.
“For Andean farmers late potato blight is nothing new,” said Lino Mamani, traditional gene bank curator of the Potato Park in Cusco. “We have lived with it for thousands of years. Despite late blight, we have the greatest potato diversity that can found be anywhere in the world.” On controlling disease, “The key is diversity, when diversity shrinks, the Phytophthora strains multiply,” Mamani adds, referring to the blight fungus by its scientific name.
Ricardo Pacco of Asociación ANDES noted that late potato blight is far from being a uniquely African problem. He said, “Potato blight is endemic here in the Andes and elsewhere, so the picture of small farmers in Uganda and Rwanda clamouring for GM potato to save them from a centuries’ old problem that is managed without GM elsewhere sounds like a false and contrived imperialist prank. We know that GMOs are a fad, we know that they are false solutions.”
Alejandro Argumedo, Andes Amazon lead for the Swift Foundation, is disturbed by the role that CIP is playing in pushing GM potatoes in Africa. He said, “GM potatoes are banned in Peru, so why is CIP trying a potato in Africa that would be illegal in its home country? CIP should be cultivating good relationships with the Andean indigenous stewards of potato diversity, rather than encouraging further corporate appropriation of potato by supporting the cultivation of a risky GM technology.” He added, “Andean indigenous peoples created the potato and conserve its diversity in their fields. They are key to the future of potato, and to see CIP undermining their rights is something that must be condemned.”
Country Coordinator of PELUM Rwanda, Johnson Mwebaze said: “Rwandan farmers work plots that are an average of 0.5 hectares – 80% are under one hectare. Most are on hillsides, and less than 5% are irrigated, making them ill-suited for input-intensive agriculture. Reports of high yields from the GM potato are based on trials under wildly unrealistic conditions, at least for the average resource constrained Rwandan farmer.”
Ugandan Lawyer Barbara Ntambirweki commented: “We are outraged that Africa could be tricked into cultivating a DSI-derived GM potato, which could pave the way for the theft of the traditional knowledge and resources of indigenous and peasant farmers in the Andes.”
African Centre for Biodiversity Director Mariam Mayet participated in various biodiversity related international negotiations. She said, “The disagreement over benefit sharing for DSI caused the collapse of a six-year Plant Treaty (the ITPGRFA) negotiation aimed at overhauling the Treaty’s malfunctioning benefit sharing system. DSI continues to be a major site of controversy on the agenda of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is certainly mischievous of the CIP to be pushing a DSI-derived potato into Africa.”
The Andes-Africa Alliance is composed of indigenous peoples and small farmer groups representing thousands of potato producers and guardians, civil society organisations, and supporters. The Alliance rejects genetically engineered crops as a solution to food challenges and rejects corporate dominated food and seed systems, particularly as alleged solutions to the challenges of climate change.
The Alliance will work together to promote indigenous and local food and seed systems and agroecology as the best strategy to produce healthy and nutritious food, while protecting and enhancing ecosystems. The Alliance will also work to protect centres of origin and diversity of crops, and the biocultural heritage that goes with it. This means continuing to keep out GM varieties and protecting the rights and knowledge of indigenous farmers, including in relation to DSI.
A short paper has been published by Asociación ANDES, PELUM Rwanda and the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), which contains perspectives from Andean potato farmers, and information on DSI and the GM potato proposed for East Africa, as well research on the European and American billionaire backers of GM potatoes.
Read the briefing paper here.
The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) in Johannesburg and PELUM Rwanda have also recently published a study that outlines the situation of potato farmers in Rwanda who, alongside Ugandan farmers, are being targeted by GM potato promoters. The ACB/PELUM study raises key issues and concerns about the GM potato. Read that paper here.
Source: African Centre for Biodiversity
Image: Asociacion ANDES