IFIs line up with companies to push GM crops

Down to Earth No. 49, May 2001

Biotech companies have formed powerful alliances with multilateral development banks, UN agencies, Northern governments, research institutes, large funding organisations and 'independent' agencies to promote biotech agriculture and GM seeds in developing countries. Their networks extend from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) through food research institutes such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) down to national level governments whose key personnel and research institutes are targeted for training and funding partnerships.

A key agency in Asia is ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications). ISAAA portrays itself as an "honest broker" helping to build biotechnology partnerships between the private sector in the North and the public sector in the South. It receives support from biotech companies Syngenta, Monsanto and AgrEvo as well as from USAID and the US-based Rockefeller Foundation. A recent investigation into ISAAA activities by a coalition of Southeast Asian NGOs concluded that "[t]hrough the formation and support of key local elites, ISAAA is helping carry out an agenda set by transnational companies, in the name of Asia's rural poor."

In Indonesia ISAAA facilitates partnership projects on papayas, soybeans and tomatoes with the Research Institute for Fruits, the Central Research Institute for Horticulture Crops and Northern-based companies including Monsanto and Novartis (now Syngenta). These companies have also been represented on ISAAA's board. Another Board member - Gabrielle Persley - from Australia's AusBiotech, is also an advisor to the World Bank.

Other, lower-profile methods are used to promote biotech agriculture too. According to information from GeneWatch, a UK-based NGO, Monsanto is involved in a global campaign to promote GM foods by influencing which experts are selected for international scientific committees. An internal company report, leaked to GeneWatch, showed how the company was seeking to promote its views through supposedly independent scientists and gaining influence with key decision-makers in government departments in developing countries. (ISAAA in Asia - Promoting corporate profits in the name of the poor - see information box for details. GMOs in brief 3/10/00 - http://www.ictsd.org/html/weekly/story7.03-10-00.htm)


World Bank meets biotech CEOs

The World Bank has organised a series of meetings which aims to "get the private sector perspective on how to increase food security and agricultural productivity in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner". The first meeting was with Gordon Conway, of the Rockefeller Foundation - contributor to the ISAAA and part-funder of the development of GM crops including "golden” rice (see box). The second meeting, in December 2000, was with the chief executive officers (CEOs) from thirteen agribusiness companies - Aventis, BASF, and Bayer (Germany); Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Emergent Genetics, Monsanto, Cargill (USA); Merial (UK); Seminis (Mexico) and Mahyco (India). The discussion included the 'key point' that "agricultural science and research, not limited to, but including biotechnology, is a key component in addressing food security…" but also that private sector companies "are not likely to meet most of the developing countries' agricultural research needs…". The meeting also discussed setting up a working group that includes "representative stakeholder participants" in order to "create the enabling environment" to carry out a "scientific based assessment of the opportunities and risks of new technologies." (Agricultural Science & Technology Roundtable with the Private Sector - see info box in "organic movement" page)


"Golden" rice

This rice has been genetically modified to include vitamin A (Beta -carotene) and is being promoted by its patent-holders - including Syngenta and Monsanto - as a solution to Vitamin A deficiencies among poor people in Asia. The first samples of the rice were delivered to researchers in the Philippines from Switzerland in January this year, but there is public opposition to its introduction in that country. Indonesia may prove a softer target: Minister for Agriculture M. Prakosa, said in August last year that his department would adopt GM rice if farmers accepted it through trials.

A new report by Southeast Asian NGOs, "Grains of Delusion: Golden rice seen from the Ground" reveals serious flaws in the industry's promises of benefits for farmers and consumers. There is widespread scepticism as to whether "golden" rice can address malnutrition - through delivering higher levels of vitamin A, as it claims, or tackle poverty.

(See www.grain.org/adhoc.htm for full NGO report on "golden" rice; Suara Pembaruan 18/Aug/00; Guardian 10/Feb/01.)


Biotechnology and poverty

NGOs and farmers groups are concerned that the World Bank's engagement with these companies could lead to greater pressure on governments in highly indebted countries to adopt national agricultural policies favouring the introduction of more biotech agriculture and GM crops. Monsanto and others claim that GM crops can dramatically increase production and grow more food on the land available. They say GM crops are environmentally sustainable because the area of food-growing land does not need to be expanded, thus sparing forests. The crops are also genetically-engineered to resist disease, thus reducing the use of chemical pesticides and insecticides. The logical conclusion, according to the industry, is that the best solution to the global food supply problem - and poverty - is intensification of agriculture through biotechnology.

However, there is widespread resistance to this rationale which amounts to putting more control over the world food supply in the hands of a few multinational companies. NGOs are questioning the basic assumptions about poverty and sustainability behind the biotech industry's arguments. Since poverty is rooted in structural social, political and economic problems - like farmers' lack of land rights - the 'technical fix' of biotech is inappropriate. The danger of biotechnology is that farmers - like under the Green Revolution of the 1970s - will lose even more autonomy and become further marginalised. NGOs point out that decision-making on biotech crops is 'top-down', from the companies who decide which seeds to modify or 'engineer' down through national and local government agencies who decide that those seeds should be grown. True sustainable development and poverty reduction would be better served, they argue, by a bottom-up process, which starts off by asking farmers what they think are the main problems and solutions.


GM Oil palm

The Indonesian government Board for the Research and Application of Technology (BPPT) together with Mitsubishi of Japan and Indonesian conglomerate Bakrie are developing a GM oil palm variety which, they claim, reduces the amount of palmitic acid - a chemical compound suspected of increasing cholesterol levels. It is estimated that another 6 years will be required before commercial production, with field trials starting in two years. The announcement was made at a seminar on biodiversity and the application of biotechnology in agriculture organised by BPPT and the Japanese aid agency, JICA, in March. (Kompas 2/Mar/01)


According to Riza Tjahjadi of PAN Indonesia, GM crops will not automatically increase farmers' income. "We can see this because the terms of trade for smallscale farmers in Indonesia have not improved since the Green Revolution, which focussed so much on increasing yields of a few selected grains. In reality, we keep facing a crude mismatch when people try to make poverty the target or agricultural technology. Farmers get the rhetoric thrown at them, but the livelihood improvements don't follow." (Quote from 'Grains of Delusion' - see “Golden” Rice box above.)


'Sustainable' agriculture

Studies by the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, UK, have found that sustainable agricultural methods have great potential to supply the needs of a growing global population. Here, 'sustainable agriculture' is defined as making "best use of nature's goods and services whilst not damaging the environment" and making "better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance and capacities". It also makes productive use of "social capital" - people's capacity to work together to solve problems such as pest, watershed, irrigation, forest and credit management.

The CES database of sustainable agriculture - the largest known survey of worldwide sustainable agriculture - includes Indonesia's Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system. This was introduced in 1986 during the Suharto era in the attempt to safeguard rice self-sufficiency at a time when the chemical treatment of crops was failing to tackle problem pests. At the same time, 56 brands of pesticides were banned for use on rice and "farmers' field schools" (FFS) were established. The programme's results have been encouraging, with higher rice yields and reduced pesticide use. CES also reports that "[m]any of the FFSs have continued to be active as farmer IPM groups, meeting to discuss farming problems; monitor pest and predator populations in their villages; conduct village-wide campaigns to control rats; extend IPM to neighbouring villages; and run savings and credit programmes." The programme has been funded by the World Bank, the FAO and USAID.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, CES estimates that sustainable agriculture is present on at least 3% of land under permanent and arable crops. Studies found substantial increases in food production, showing "the extraordinary potential of small patches on farms, and the degree to which they can improve domestic food security". 
(Guardian 17/Jan/01; CES homepage: www2.essex.ac.uk/ces/ResearchProgrammes/ListofResProgs.htm)