Andreas Späth

No WikiLeaks on our mielies

2011-01-12 08:08

While the citizens of a number of countries have recently been (mildly) scandalised by leaked US diplomatic cables that show just how much American pressure has been put on their governments to accept genetically modified (GM) crops, the good folks at WikiLeaks haven’t been able to – and never will – get any dirt to stick to our GM mielies.

Unfortunately that’s not because the SA government has been bravely resisting US bullying tactics. Quite the opposite. For years it has bent over backwards to accommodate the multi-billion dollar biotech industry without bothering to await a comprehensive scientific evaluation of the consequences or consulting the unsuspecting public. No behind-the-scenes strong-arming and cloak-and-dagger diplomacy required.

Recent WikiLeaks exposés disclose that when the French government set out to ban a GM maize variety – MON-810 BT corn, also banned in Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg, but grown commercially in SA, of course – the US ambassador in Paris, Craig Stapleton, advised his Washington masters to set up a “target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU”. (What is it with American politicos and their assassin’s lingo these days? Would it come as any surprise if Mr Stapleton turned out to have shared a tactical advisor with Sarah Palin?)

Other documents show that US diplomats have been actively pushing GM crops around the world while agitating against the adoption of effective GM legislation and regulations. In Rwanda, Burundi and the Republic of Congo, for example, intelligence operatives were asked to gather information on “government acceptance of genetically modified food and propagation of genetically modified crops”, and in the Vatican, advisors to the pope were pressurised to get him to publicly support the technology and to put a leash on influential anti-GM bishops in the developing world.

None of this comes as much of a surprise, of course. The US government has long had an aggressively pro-GM domestic policy and promoting a similar strategy on the international stage clearly comes naturally. The leaks do, however, confirm the very close connection between the American government and the biotech industry. Companies like Monsanto, the world’s largest producer of GM seeds and proprietor of MON-810, spend millions on political campaign contributions which, evidently, buy them the active co-operation of the US diplomatic corps.

The process is aided and abetted by a well-oiled revolving door between the GM companies and the administration. President Obama’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the US Food and Drug Administration, Michael Taylor, for instance, used to be a Monsanto lawyer as well as its Vice President for Public policy.

While other countries agonise over being harassed into a dubious biotech future, our own government has long been an enthusiastic GM-proponent. South Africa remains the only African country to commercially grow GM crops (maize, cotton and soya) and the only country on the planet to do so for one of its staple food crops (maize). Government officials are also keen to promote GM maize as a feedstock for the domestic biofuels industry, a practice which has been identified as one of the causes of global food price increases in recent times. And all of that with virtually no public debate or product labels to help consumers identify GM-contaminated goods.

What’s worse, our GM “wealth” hasn’t exactly helped to feed the country’s hungry. Rather than filling local bellies, GM maize surpluses are flogged on international markets. Last year, we flooded Kenya with 280 000 tons of GM maize, “seemingly without the explicit acknowledgement of the Kenyan biosafety authorities”, according to the African Centre for Biodiversity. Why resort to behind-the-scenes machinations when the agricultural equivalent of gunboat diplomacy will do?

I agree with US commentator Matthew McDermott, who says that “GM crops are far, far more about big business and big profits for their developers than they are about increasing crop yields, feeding more people either in rich or poor nations, or developing climate-resistant agriculture”.

Note to the SA government: stop force-feeding us and others GM food we neither want nor need. We already have the know-how to create a reliable food supply and sustainable agriculture that’s both eco- and human-friendly even though it may not lend itself to patenting and profit maximisation by giant biotech corporations.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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