by Paige Aarhus
May 10, 2012
Monsanto and the Gates Foundation claim
genetically modified crops will revolutionize agriculture in Kenya,
but critics warn the technology is ill-suited to the needs of
Photo Credit: Paige
In the sprawling hills of the Kangundo district
in Kenya’s Eastern Province, just a few hours outside of capital city
Nairobi, Fred Kiambaa has been farming the same small, steep plot of
land for more than 20 years.
Born and raised just outside Kathiini Village in Kangundo, Kiambaa knows the
ups and downs of agriculture in this semi-arid region. He walks up a set of
switchbacks to Kangundo’s plateaus to tend his fields each morning and
seldom travels further than a few miles from his plot.
Right now, all that remains of his maize crop are rows of dry husks.
Harvest season finished just two weeks ago, and
the haul was meager this time around.
“Water is the big problem, it’s always
water. We have many boreholes, but when there is no rain, it’s still
difficult,” he said.
Kiambaa and his wife, Mary, only harvested 440
pounds of maize this season, compared to their usual 2,200.
They have six children, meaning there will be
many lean months before the next harvest, and worse: Though March is Kenya’s
rainiest month, it’s been mostly dry so far.
“The rain surely is not coming well this
year. Rain is the key. We can only pray,” he said.
Farmers like Kiambaa are central to a push to deploy genetically modified
(GM) technology within Kenya.
In recent years, donors such as the Bill and
Gates Foundation have invested millions of
dollars into researching, developing and promoting GM technology, including
drought-resistant maize, within the country - and have found a great deal of
success in doing so through partnerships with local NGOs and government
The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), a semi-autonomous
government research institution, recently announced that after years of
trials, genetically modified drought-resistant maize seeds will be available
to Kenyan farmers within the next five years.
Trial GM drought-resistant cotton crops are
already growing in Kidoko, 240 miles southeast of Nairobi.
Researchers and lobbyists argue that in a country so frequently stricken by
food shortages, scientific advancements can put food into hungry bellies.
Drought-resistant seeds and vitamin-enriched crops could be agricultural
game changers, they say.
But serious concerns about viability, corporate dependency and health
effects linger - even while leading research firms and NGOs do their best to
smooth them over.
Agriculture dominates Kenya’s economy, although more than 80 percent of its
land is too dry and infertile for efficient cultivation. Kenya is the second
largest seed consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nairobi is a well-known hub
for agricultural research. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farming
is the largest contributor to Kenya’s gross domestic product, and 75 percent
of Kenyans made their living by farming in 2006.
Half of the country’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence
production - meaning farms like Kiambaa’s, where nothing is sold and
everything is consumed.
On top of that, the country is still reeling from the worst drought in half
a century, which affected an estimated 13 million people across the Horn of
Africa in 2011. Kenya is home to the world’s largest refugee camp, housing
450,000 Somalis fleeing violence and famine, increasing the pressure to deal
with food security challenges.
Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently called on parliament to assist
the estimated 4.8 million Kenyans, in a country of about 40 million, who
still rely on government food supports, as analysts predict that this year’s
rainy season will be insufficient to guarantee food security.
“The situation is not good... Arid and
semi-arid regions have not recovered from the drought,” Odinga said.
At the African Agricultural Technology
Foundation (AATF), a massive NGO working on GM research and development
in partnership with KARI, Regulatory Affairs Manager Dr. Francis Nang’ayo
says GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-genetically modified
foods and should be embraced as a solution to persistent drought and hunger.
In 2008, the AATF received a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda
Gates Foundation. This partnership involved the Howard G. Buffett Foundation
and American seed giant Monsanto.
In 2005, the Water-Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program became
one of the first main partners in a program aimed at developing
drought-resistant maize for small-scale African farmers. Monsanto promised
to provide seeds for free.
The Gates Foundation claimed at the time that
biotechnology and GM crops would help end poverty and food insecurity in
sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Gates
Foundation had invested $27.6 million in Monsanto shares.
Donors had been investing millions in KARI for decades in an effort to
develop seeds that would produce pest- and disease-resistant plants and
produce higher yields. Monsanto promised results, with the goal of
distributing its seeds to small-scale farmers across Kenya, Mozambique,
South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
Since then WEMA’s African partners have made major strides in bringing GM
crops to Kenya, most notably when KARI announced in March that it is set to
introduce genetically modified maize to farmers’ fields by 2017. Until 2008,
South Africa had been the only country using GM technology.
Now Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali,
Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana are researching GM seeds and growing trial crops
of cotton, maize and sorghum.
“Five years ago it was only South Africa
that had a clear policy. Since then a number of countries have put their
acts together by publishing policies on GM technology laws. In Kenya
we’re moving on to create institutional mechanisms,” said Dr. Nang’ayo.
But Nang’ayo and his team face several challenges. Popular opinion on the
technology is deeply divided in Kenya, in large part due to suspicions about
the giant foreign corporations that control it.
Monsanto-patented seeds are usually costly,
which has led to numerous accusations of exploitation and contemporary
But how long will these particular strains of
seeds last? What are the guarantees? Critics fear dependence on corporate
fertilizers and pesticides, the emergence of super-weeds and pests that can
no longer repel GM varieties, and terminator seeds that only last for one
At Seattle’s AGRA Watch, a project of the Community Alliance for Global
Justice, director Heather Day said there aren’t enough questions
being asked about introducing GM technology to developing countries.
“Our campaign started because of our concern
about the Gates Foundation’s influence on agriculture and the lack of
transparency and accountability. We also have ecological concerns, in
terms of food sovereignty and farmers’ ability to control their food
system. We need to be concerned about the industrialization of the
agricultural system,” she said.
AGRA Watch’s objective is to monitor and
question the Gates Foundation’s push for a “green revolution” in Africa.
Monsanto has promised an indefinite supply of royalty-free seeds for this
project, but Day said the pitfalls have the potential to devastate the
“Genetically modified crops actually haven’t
been that successful,” Day said.
“We’ve seen massive crop failure in South
Africa, and farmers there couldn’t get financial remedies or
compensation for their losses. There’s genetic resistance and
super-pests, these things are happening now, and it’s not surprising.
It’s what you would expect from an ecological standpoint.”
The horror stories are real - in India, for
example, farmers who purchased Bollgard I cotton seeds from 2007 to
2009 wound up spending four times the price of regular seeds, and paying
dearly for it.
It was believed that Monsanto’s patented GM
seeds would be resistant to pink bollworms, which were destroying cotton
crops across swaths of India, but by 2010 Monsanto officials were forced to
admit that the seed had failed and a newer breed of far more aggressive
pests had emerged. The solution? Bollgard II, an even stronger GM cotton
As of December 2011, Monsanto was actively promoting the latest Bollgard
III cotton seed, stronger than ever before. Pesticide spending in India
skyrocketed between 2007 and 2009, forcing thousands of farmers into
crushing debt, and hundreds more into giving up their land.
Some media outlets later drew a connection
between the Bollgard debacle and a rash of suicides across farms that had
purchased the seeds.
Kenya is a country where land-grabbing is all too common, be it on the coast
to make way for new tourist resorts, or in Nairobi, where slum demolitions
left hundreds homeless when the government bulldozed several apartment
buildings to reclaim an area near the Moi Air Base.
Farmers here are skeptical of risking everything for a few seasons of higher
yields. In Kangundo, Kiambaa said he would try GM technology if it was a
matter of life or death - but he is wary.
Kiambaa uses the Katumani breed of maize, a widely available seed that is
reasonably drought-tolerant and affordable.
Higher yields are tempting, of course, but
Kiambaa said he doesn’t want to chance his livelihood on a foreign
corporation. While his family has been on the land for decades now, Kiambaa
said they didn’t get to farm it until British colonialists returned it to
He pointed out trees that line the steep
hillside, planted by the British.
“It’s because of Mzungus that we have
charcoal,” he said, smiling wryly.
After the last harvest, Kiambaa can’t even
afford to use Kenya’s standard DAP fertilizer, which costs 59 cents per
pound. Instead, he has a lone cow tied to a post in his fields.
“This provides the fertilizer we need. We
can’t afford anything else. The maize yield could have been much better,
but we know our plants will grow each year. It is better we keep it the
way it is. My family has been on this land for 100 years. We have always
survived,” he said.
At the National Biosafety Authority
(NBA), CEO Willy Tonui claims media hysteria and inaccurate reporting
are to blame for resistance to GM technology, arguing the NBA maintains
stringent guidelines about GM seeds in Kenya.
Referring to the plans to allow GM maize seeds
in by 2017, Tonui said
“The National Biosafety Authority does not
have the mandate to introduce GM maize or any other crop into Kenya. We
only review applications that are submitted to the authority. To date,
the authority has not received any application on commercial release of
GM maize or any other crop.”
Anne Maina, advocacy coordinator for the
African Biodiversity Network (ABN), a coalition of 65 Kenyan farming
organizations, said that’s not a good enough answer.
“Who’s controlling the industry?” she asked.
“If you are going to talk to the National
Biosafety Authority, they’ll tell you the information is available, but
there is a confidential business information clause where whoever is
controlling the industry is not held accountable. The level of secrecy
and lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
The ABN has actively lobbied the government since 2004 to crack down on GM
technology slowly filtering into Kenya, with some measure of success. A 2009
Biosafety Act required all GM imports to pass stringent government standards
before entering the country.
Maina recognizes the uphill battle she’s facing.
“Our public research institutions must shift
their focus back to farmers’ needs,” she told The Indypendent, “rather
than support the agenda of agribusiness, which is to colonize our food
and seed chain. We believe that the patenting of seed is deeply
unethical and dangerous.”
Joan Baxter is a journalist who has spent
years reporting on climate change and agriculture in Africa.
Reporting now from Sierra Leone, Baxter was
quick to point out that even if a farmer chooses not to use GM technology,
it won’t guarantee crop safety.
“Farmers are always at risk of contamination
from GM seeds. That has been shown in North America. The farmers [in
Africa] may lose their own seeds, perhaps be given GM seeds for a year
or two, then have to purchase them and be stuck in the trap and in
debt,” she said.
Like Maina, Baxter sees a problem in how GM
technology is being marketed, and slowly introduced, into African countries,
under the guise of ending famine.
With climate change becoming an increasingly
influential factor in the GM debate, Baxter said companies claiming to help
are only looking for profit.
“Basically this is disaster capitalism. The
disaster of hunger and drought, climate change and policy-related, is
now a profit opportunity for Monsanto and Syngenta. The Gates Foundation
buying shares in Monsanto tells you what the real agenda is: To get GMOs
in Africa,” she said.
In 2010, NBA’s CEO resigned after it was
revealed that 280,000 tonnes of GM maize had found its way into Kenya from
South Africa through the Port of Mombasa.
Farmers mobilized en masse after the Dreyfus scandal (named for the South
African company responsible for shipping the seeds) was revealed, marching
on Parliament to demand an end to secret imports. After the most recent GM
announcement, however, there were no protests. The long rains that would
ensure a good yield haven’t come. The drought may continue.
Added to the potential problems with GM technology are health risks - the
strains of maize that were illegally imported in 2010 had been deemed unsafe
for children and the elderly.
Maina also worries about animal feeding trials
that showed damage to liver, kidney and pancreas, effects on fertility, and
stomach bleeding in livestock that has consumed GM feed. A more recent study
carried out on pregnant women in Canada found genetically modified
insecticidal proteins in their blood streams and in that of their unborn
children, despite assurances from scientists that it wasn’t possible.
The political scandal that erupted after 2010’s illegal imports brought GM
technology into the forefront of Kenyan public debate, but last year’s
massive drought has shifted public and political discourse.
The ABN doesn’t have a $47 million grant to keep
it going, and the pressures it faces from politicians and corporations, now
waging their own propaganda war, are overwhelming.
At the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health in Toronto, researchers
recently released a report titled “Factors in the adoption and development
of agro-biotechnology in sub-Saharan Africa.”
The report, which was financed by a grant by the
Gates Foundation, came to the conclusion that,
“poor communication is affecting agbiotech
adoption,” and that “widespread dissemination of information at the
grassroots level and can spread misinformation and create extensive
public concern and distrust for agbiotech initiatives.”
Lead researcher Obidimma Ezezika declined
to comment on Monsanto’s involvement with GM technology, and denied that his
team was creating corporate propaganda.
“I think it is important to actively and
soberly engage in the debate by offering facts to the policy makers,
media and public on ag-biotech which will dispel fears and anxieties,”
he told The Indypendent.
The mounting evidence, health questions and
political scandals all mean Kenya would be wisest to take a step back before
jumping on board the GM train, says Maina.
“Our key concern is that the development of
insecticides and pesticides is primarily the emergence of companies
getting farmers to buy highly toxic chemicals, which they will become
totally dependent on.
We don’t yet know the extent of the health
risks posed, nor how we are expected to trust companies that have a
record of putting small farmers out of business. It is time for sober
second thought,” she said.
Seeds of a Controversy
by John Tarleton
Genetically modified foods were first introduced on a commercial basis in
the United States in the mid-1990s.
The new technology made it possible to splice
desirable qualities from one species into another - such as inserting the
gene that keeps a flounder from freezing in cold water into a tomato for
longer cold temperature storage. The usage of GM crops in the United States
grew rapidly in the following years with minimal public debate.
Today, more than 70 percent of the food in
supermarkets have GM derivatives, including virtually all processed foods.
However, GM food continues to be controversial in other parts of the world,
especially in Europe and Africa.
Here are some of the reasons why:
The process of genetic engineering can
introduce dangerous new allergens and toxins into foods, such as when
Starlink, a gene-altered animal feed corn containing a potential
allergen, was found in corn chips and taco shells.
Questions have also been raised about the
potential impact of gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or
to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
Farmers have saved harvested seeds for
replanting since the dawn of human agriculture 11,000 years ago.
But farmers who carry on this practice with
GM crops can be charged with violating intellectual property rights in
much the same way that people who share music files online without
paying can be hauled into court. Biotech giant Monsanto has also
explored the use of Terminator technology that would render harvested
seeds sterile and unusable.
To date, this technology has not been
commercialized due to intense opposition around the world.
Contamination of non-GM crops
As the planting of genetically modified
crops become more widespread, the number of incidents in which their
pollen contaminates traditional or organic varieties increases.
Such contamination can cost organic growers
their certification and their consumers access to non-GM food. It can
also lead to a lawsuit from corporations like Monsanto, which
aggressively litigates against farmers whose fields have been
contaminated claiming - of all things - patent infringement. Many non-GM
farmers will refrain from growing certain crops in order to avoid the
risk of being sued.
The problems associated with crop
contamination could get worse - for both humans and wildlife - as
biotech companies prepare a second generation of GM crops that will
produce pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.
INCREASED PESTICIDE USAGE
Many of Monsanto’s GM crops are designed to
withstand much higher doses of Roundup, Monsanto’s top-selling
A study by the Organic Center found that the
planting of GM crops in the United States from 1996 to 2008 increased
the average use of active ingredient pesticides by a quarter pound per
planted acre, or a total of 318.4 million pounds over the time of the
The largest increases in pesticides occurred
in 2007 and 2008 as heavy usage of Roundup spawned Roundup-resistant
From higher seed prices to increased
pesticide and fertilizer usage, planting GM crops is more expensive and
favors agribusinesses that can operate on large economies of scale.
For small farmers in the Global South, the
extra expenses can quickly lead to crushing debt burdens and loss of
their land, especially when GM crops don’t deliver their expected
After 4.5 billion years of natural
evolution, the advent of genetically modified organisms represents a
“second genesis” in which the planet is being repopulated by
commercially patented lifeforms, says Jeremy Rifkin, author of The
The potential long-term impact of these
laboratory creations - from the emergence of new super-pests to the loss
of genetic diversity in the natural world - is not known yet.
skeptics, that is reason enough to proceed with caution.
Carving Up Africa,
Small farmers in Kenya and its African neighbors worry that the extra costs
associated with using genetically modified crops will bury them in debt and
force them to give up their land. If that happens, there will be many buyers
ready to seize the opportunity.
The British food aid organization Oxfam reports that over the past decade
561 million acres of land in the Global South and the former Soviet Bloc
have been sold, leased or licensed largely in Africa and to international
investors. It’s an area larger than Alaska and Texas combined. The trend has
accelerated since 2008 when food prices spiked around the world and Western
investors fled from the U.S. property market.
Asian and Middle Eastern countries have bought up large tracts of land in
Africa to ensure their future food supply.
Western investors, meanwhile, are turning to
Africa to boost biofuel production by planting vast swaths of sugar cane and
palm oil. In many cases, investors see their taxes waived by host
governments and are allowed to produce entirely for export.
Examples of land grabs include:
China purchased 250,000 acres of
agricultural land in Zimbabwe in 2008 and is investing $800 million
in Mozambique to modernize rice production for export.
In 2008 Philippe Heilburg, a former
commodities trader at AIG, leased 988,000 acres in the south of
Sudan from a local warlord. Since South Sudan became its own country
last year, Heilburg has leased another 740,000 acres. Heilburg’s
goal is to convert the land into an agricultural plantation.
From 2006 to 2010, 22,000 Ugandans in
the Kiboga and Mubende districts were violently displaced from their
forest homes by local security forces after a British timber company
acquired title to the land they had been farming for decades.
“The scale of the land deals being struck is
shocking,” Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute
told the (UK) Guardian. “The conversion of African small farms and
forests into a natural-asset-based, high-return investment strategy can
drive up food prices and increase the risks of climate change.”
More Africa Coverage
Swaziland is Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
Its ruler, King Mswati III, is a pudgy,
middle-aged playboy with 13 wives, 27 children and a fortune estimated at
more than $100 million. Life is not so sweet, however, for King Mswati’s 1.3
million subjects, the majority of whom live on less than $2 per day and who
suffer the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world.
To find out more about Swaziland’s growing
pro-democracy movement, see coverage by The Indypendent’s Janis Rosheuvel