2003

Issue 214: September 2003

 Resisting Moral Blackmail


In a departure from our usual style, this issue is mainly devoted to one case study. Maybe it is a celebration of Cancun and the defeat of the US, the EU and the WTO at the hands of the Third World, or what some still call the ‘developing’ countries. In any case, we felt it is important to present the documentation, along with analysis, of the biotech industry’s propaganda campaign in Africa and around the world, trying to impress the public with its promise that biotech is the only way to feed the poor starving Africans. The focus is on Kenya, USAID, Monsanto, and an agent named Florence Wambugu. While we have been accumulating articles and reports about the biotech lobby and Wambugu for at least 8 years (some of which have appeared in previous issues of The Ram’s Horn), it was the arrival of the extensive, carefully researched article by Aaron diGrassi that suggested it was time to pull it all together to illustrate the propaganda strategy of the biotech industry.

Biotech advocates, whether in the university, the corporation or the government, just love to talk about ‘science.’ They make no claims for truthfulness, which is not recognized as a ‘scientific’ concept. The conclusion: approach everything you hear about the benefits and promises of biotech with suspicion, and do your utmost to resist the moral blackmail about feeding the hungry.

“Kenya is always a
focal point of practically everything!
We are used to being used like tennis balls.
But with the grace of God, we
continue to survive!”
– Jesse Mugambi,
Nairobi, Kenya

Monsanto and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) must have invested an awful lot of money in Florence Wambugu by now. They’ve been financing her career as a biotech agent since 1991 when she went to work in Monsanto’s St. Louis research centre on sweet potatoes. The intent was to engineer a virus-resistant sweet potato that would solve all of Africa’s food problems. At least that is the impression one gets from the hype year after year. Once that was accomplished, she was to go back to Africa and take the ‘technology’ with her (so-called ‘technology transfer’).
– source: Colin Peel of Degussa Corp. in Journal of Animal Science, 6/96

In recent weeks Canada has been treated to slick presentations of Dr. Wambugu by the biotech promoters to the press and other gullible audiences, such as the National Research Council. A black African woman in colourful traditional dress delivering a sermon on feeding the hungry of Africa is a real show stopper. And the right-wing press love it. They don’t bother to ask about the sources of the sensational numbers she throws about, they don’t ask to see the research studies to back up her claims for biotechnology or the world of African farmers that she paints in simplistic terms. They don’t ask who is paying her way around the world. Perhaps they just don’t want to appear impolite, even if truth is the victim.

When Florence Wambugu finished her three-year internship with Monsanto and went back to Kenya, she set up the AfriCentre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a US-based, foundation and industry backed biotech promotion and ‘technology transfer’agency. Since then, Wambugu and the ISAAA have spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech fronts, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum (ABSF), the African Biotechnology Trust, and AfricaBio – Biotech Stake-holders Association (Muffy Koch, editor). In January, 2002, Wambugu established her own A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International. Her website,<www.ahbfi.org>, gives the intended impression that farmers are actually growing her GM virus-resistant sweet potato with these words: “the GM sweet potato, which later became the first GM crop in sub-Saharan Africa. . .” The deGrassi study below reveals that this is far from the truth.

“It should never escape our minds that proponents of GM foods are often agents of multinational corporations who have everything to gain from acceptance and wide distribution of GM foods. They are pro-business. Opponents of GM foods do not seem to have anything to lose in terms of profit because they are not in any alternative business. In my opinion, when those who have nothing to gain from their arguments speak, we should listen carefully.

“A reason that is currently advanced by GM foods advocates is that these will reduce poverty and hunger in poor developing countries. Given the reality of hunger and the consequent death and malnutrition in many parts of the world, this reason could easily turn anybody emotional and irrational. But the premise on which this reason is based is shaky. The major cause of poverty and hunger in the world is not lack of food. Speaking for Africa and for Kenya in particular, I can say with certainty that there is enough food for all Kenyans in the country. But the distribution of the means to acquire food and the actual distribution of what is already available is poor. In the absence of appropriate policies on food distribution, Kenyans in one part of the country experience hunger while in another part, food is rotting in granaries for lack of demand! It is often that we have farmers in Kenya going on strike refusing to sell their food at throwaway prices. This is where to look for people who are genuinely interested in the real needs of the ‘poor.’

“It is a noble cause to feed the hungry. But to use this to advocate for products whose safety has not been determined beyond reasonable doubt is unethical. In my culture, we say that one does not look into the mouth of a goat that has been given free of charge. This is to say that one should appreciate what has been given as a free gift. But this does not mean that one should eat a sick goat just because it is given free. Indeed, it is public ‘looking into the mouth of the goat’ that was prohibited. In privacy, one has to scrutinize any ‘goat’ before eating it.” – 17/5/03


The most unrestrained endorsation of biotech we’ve seen – rivalling even Dennis Avery & Son or C.S. Prakash or Doug Powell – comes from Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente (5/7/03), who appears to have indulged in magic mushrooms while writing:

“When Florence Wambugu lectured at the University of Toronto last week there was a security guard on hand, just in case. Sometimes demonstrators show up when she speaks. To them, this stately, eloquent Kenyan woman has a dangerous message. Dr. Wambugu is among the world’s pioneers of bioengineered crops. She is both a scientist and an activist, and her message is that genetically modified foods are essential to help save Africa.

“Dr. Wambugu has spent years developing a virus-resistant sweet potato that could spectacularly increase yields for subsistence farmers. No one knows better what a difference that could make. As the sixth of 10 children, she grew up on a subsistence farm herself. Sometimes, the family had only sweet potatoes to eat. Sometimes they went hungry. Her mother sold the family cow so that she could go away to high school. ‘I wasn’t even supposed to be educated,’ she says with a laugh. ‘My mother had to go to a tribal tribunal to get permission. I was a girl who was just supposed to be married, and that was it.’

“Today, with a doctorate in biotechnology, Dr. Wambugu devotes her life to sustainable food production in Africa. ‘Sub-Saharan Africa is practising organic farming and the result is poverty and hunger,’ she argues. ‘Without science, we’ll never have enough.’ . . . Bioengineered crops can be made immune to insects and devastating diseases such as the maize streak virus, which the World Bank calls one of the most difficult and devastating diseases afflicting Africa’s food supply. They are also weed-resistant, which means that women can be liberated from the slavery of weeding. The crops are also far more productive. Dr. Wambugu’s modified sweet potato, for example, can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes. In some instances, biotechnology can triple rural farm incomes.

“Dr. Wambugu sees biotech as the great equalizer – for women, for the illiterate, for the most disadvantaged. ‘Many farmers here cannot read or write,’ she says. ‘But they know seeds. We can give them technology that is packaged in the seed.’ And, because most food is eaten where it’s produced, GM crops empower people at the very bottom. . . . Dr. Wambugu, who has three grown children, is now the CEO of a Nairobi-based foundation called A Harvest Biotech, which is focussed on providing developing nations with the new technologies. She is committed to a grassroots, co-operative approach whose goal is to make people self-reliant. . . Watch her. This is one woman who is changing the world.”

“Dr. Florence Wambugu, one of the 15 people most likely to change the world according to Forbes Magazine, will give a special scientific lecture on the ‘Potential and Demonstrated Impacts of Biotechnology in Africa,’ at the National Research Council in Ottawa. Dr. Wambugu’s talk . . . is part of a visit to Canada to raise support for the use of biotechnology as a farming tool to fight hunger in Africa.”
– 16/9/03 press release, source unclear


“Growing up with hunger and poverty all around her, Florence Wambugu tried to protect her family’s crops from pests and disease. Today, the renowned Kenya-born scientist continues that work on behalf of a continent. Dr. Wambugu is a strong proponent of using biotechnology as a farming tool to help fight starvation in Africa, where 5,000 people die from a lack of food every day. Considered one of the world’s foremost experts on agri-biotechnology, she believes the development of genetically modified (GM) crops – immune to insects and disease – is key to winning the battle.

“‘I am not a GM crusader; I am a crusader for Africa,’ Wambugu said yesterday . . . after speaking at the CropLife Canada Conference [the lobby organization of the agrotoxin/biotech industry]. . . Wambugu told a packed meeting room that Canada has a vital role to play in developing African agriculture’s move to more GM crops. ‘Canada can take a look at Africa as an emerging market,’ she said. ‘We need Canada’s help. . . contributing science, building partnerships, training our people to produce our own food over the long term.’” –Jason Bell, Winnipeg Free Press, 16/9/03

“Florence Wambugu . . . has become an influential advocate for the biotechnology industry. After her work with Monsanto and KARI, she headed ISAAA’s Africa office, before establishing her own A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International . . . ISAAA has created a Knowledge Center in Kenya with the primary purpose to ‘facilitate a knowledge-based, better informed public debate.’ The group has also spun off a number of innocuously named pro-biotech NGOs, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum and African Biotechnology Trust. Pro-biotech Western aid agencies have joined with these organizations to quietly conduct one-sided conferences at up-scale venues around the continent, such as Kenya’s Windsor Golf and Country Club, aimed to swing high-level officials in favour of GM.” – Aaron deGrassi, TWN Africa (see page 4)

I have been reading quite a bit of Dr. Florence Wambugu’s opinions in our local dailies but have not had the chance to speak to her although she is Kenyan and actually from my home province. I would really like to understand the background from which she so strongly supports GMOs after which perhaps I would be justified to respond in whichever way. Since I have not got this opportunity as yet, I feel the need to restrain myself but I just have to respond however briefly.
Having grown up in almost similar circumstances as Dr. Wambugu in terms of wants, and currently living in a rural town in Kenya, I wholly agree with her that there is hunger in Africa. I also concur with her that this has gender dimensions. But I do not agree that GMOs is the solution. On the contrary, I find this direction very dangerous to take as it will lead to more hunger. It is precisely the very control of food production and ownership that leads to hunger in Africa. On the international level, poor trade relations and lack of balance of trade is the source of Africa’s hunger: Raw materials from poor countries fetch very low at the international markets and the international markets are not competitive but largely oligopolistic. On the national level, too few extremely rich people control food production and ownership in Africa amidst abject poverty and hungry millions. At the family level, from a gender perspective, men control the means of production and ownership of food although they do not contribute labour towards actual production. For me, redistribution of control of means of production and ownership of food is the gravitational issue around which controlling hunger in Africa revolves. Promoting GMOs will leave control and ownership of food in even fewer hands!
Unfortunately for Africa, due to many years of colonialism and neo-colonialism (and now globalization), many of us are not confident with ourselves. We, consciously or unconsciously have little dignity left in us. This leads to a state in which we are often willing to ‘sell’ our own people in exchange for ‘tokenism’ and ‘breadcrumbs falling from the master’s table’. I am not saying this is what Dr. Wambugu is doing. As I have already observed, I do not understand where she is coming from adequately enough to criticize her. I am simply expressing my opinion versus hers.

An important thing to note is that we cannot underestimate our peoples’ (Africans) understanding of reality with regard to GMOs. They may not be aware of the technical terms used but they do well understand the implications of GMOs. If we were to let them speak for themselves, we would be wiser! – 16/7/03

Excerpts from Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence, by Aaron deGrassi, 6/03. Available with all 435 references from Third World Network – Africa at
<www.twnafrica.org/docs/GMCropsAfrica.pdf>

In this paper deGrassi evaluates the ‘appropriateness’ of GM cotton, sweet potatoes, and maize using six criteria which are substantially more fundamental and comprehensive than the usual simplistic industry/government criteria of ‘productivity’ and ‘safety’:
• demand led,
• site specific,
• poverty focussed,
• cost effective,
• institutionally sustainable, and
• environmentally sustainable.

“Virus-resistant sweet potatoes are not demand driven, site specific, poverty focussed, cost effective, or institutionally sustainable. The environmental sustainability of modified sweet potatoes is ambiguous, but not great.

“Bt cotton scores low on criteria of demand drive, site specificity, and institutional sustainability. It has ambiguous poverty focus and cost effectiveness. Environmental sustainability is currently moderate, but could potentially be moderate to strong.

“For Bt maize, the analysis shows low demand drive, cost-effectiveness, and institutional sustainability. It is too early too detect unambiguous site specificity or poverty focus. Environmental sustainability is currently low to moderate, but could potentially be raised.


The Portuguese brought sweet potatoes from South America to Africa several hundred years ago, and it has subsequently been adopted and adapted by farmers, primarily in eastern and central Africa. Sweet potatoes engineered with a gene coding for resistance to Sweet Potato Feathery Mottle Virus (SPFMV) are perhaps the most widely cited example of the benefits that genetic engineering holds for African farmers. Kenyan scientist turned advocate Florence Wambugu has publicized the project widely, touring the world, including Canada, and her name and ‘story’ has been placed in numerous pro-biotech editorials in professional as well as popular journals and newspapers. The project has garnered enormous publicity, and some rather fantastic claims have been made.

“Sweet Potato Feather Mottle Virus (SPFMV) does not cause significant problems on its own, but when it combines with another potato virus – Sweet Potato Chlorotic Stunt Virus (SPCSV) – it forms the damaging Sweet Potato Viral Disease (SPVD), which can reduce a plant’s yield by up to 80%. The plant becomes stunted, with distorted veins and leaves. However, SPVD, although a nuisance in some cases, is not a primary constraint on sweet potato production, nor is it a significant cause of food insecurity, let alone famine. SPFMV is only one relatively small factor among many problems that constrain production.

“The sweet potato project began in 1991 as the idea of three American men: Ernest Jaworski and Robert Horsch at Monsanto, and Joel Cohen at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The sweet potato was one of the first crops to receive significant work involving genetic modification. C.S. Prakash, a prominent and lively pro-biotech figure in current debates, began his foray into agricultural biotechnology by attempting to transfer Bt into sweet potato in order to provide resistance against weevils. . . .

“The three Americans recruited a Kenyan scientist, Florence Wambugu, who had recently finished her PhD thesis in England on sweet potatoes. USAID funded a three-year post-doctoral position for Wambugu at Monsanto in St. Louis. Wambugu and two additional American men decided to focus on SPFMV. They would attempt to protect against the virus by inserting a coat protein gene from a clone of the American SPFMV strain rc, which they obtained from Dr. Jim Moyer at North Carolina State University. Monsanto, with facilitation and financial support from USAID, worked with Kenyan scientists from the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), who travelled to Monsanto’s laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri.

“Wambugu claims that she chose to research SPFMV because the crop ‘is a major staple. It is always there in the backyard if there is nothing else to eat. My mother grew it. I know it.’ Without much empirical support, she claimed, ‘there was a well-defined need to generate resistance to the virus.’ However, at that point, no studies had been made measuring the incidence of SPFMV in any of the countries in Eastern Africa. Nor had farmers’ organizations identified the disease as a central priority.

“Those were the American pressures, but what about African demands? If the researchers had consulted with farmers, they would have found that many farmers were already using varieties resistant to both SPFMV and SPVD. In a survey of seven districts in Uganda and Tanzania, for instance, 75% of farmers said they had access to virus-resistant landraces. A popular local variety, New Kawogo, is actually both SPVD resistant and high yielding. Other varieties, while not completely resistant, can recover strongly from SPVD. Unfortunately, neither KARI nor Monsanto have made any efforts to explore the possibility of promoting local resistant varieties through farmer-to-farmer exchanges. . .

“Since 1982, four major World Bank projects totalling almost $60 million have attempted to make the Kenyan agriculture and research system function to help poor farmers; they have largely failed. A recent review by the Operations Evaluation Department of the World Bank is scathing: ‘The Kenyan system lacks a focus on farmer empowerment. It is based on a traditional top-down supply-driven approach that provides little or no voice to the farmer … Inappropriate incentives and the failure to incorporate mechanisms to give farmers a voice have led to a lack of accountability and responsiveness to farmers’ needs. This is evident in the mismatch between what farmers want (advice on complex practices) and what they get (simple agronomic messages) … The system as implemented has been ineffective, inefficient, and unsustainable.’

“Eleven years on, the Monsanto-KARI project resulted in modifying only a single Kenyan variety of sweet potato (the CPT-560 line), out of an original eight lines attempted. The CPT-560 line was described as “not the most popular variety,” by Dr. Gichabe, Director of KARI’s biotechnology program. In contrast, there are over 89 different species of sweet potato grown in East Africa alone. Four-year field trials began in August of 2000 in several districts. Whereas some speculated a modified variety could be released by early 2002, it now looks unlikely before 2008. . . The most recent account, published in January 2003, makes no mention of state of the trials. KARI researchers have refused to state how the trials, now in their third year, have performed.

“At the level of allocating research funds, an examination of the time, money, and human resources spent on the GM sweet potato project shows very low cost effectiveness, particularly compared with conventional breeding. Total spending on the 25-year project is estimated at nearly $6 million. . . It thus appears the focus on genetic engineering in the sweet potato project has diverted time, money and attention from other important avenues of research. A narrow focus on genetic modification means researchers ignore other productive scientific opportunities and hence do not make the most effective use of scarce research resources.


“Having shown that the three GM crops analyzed above are inappropriate for poverty alleviation, the large amount of publicity they have garnered is attributable to carefully crafted and well – financed media campaigns by GM advocates. . . . Politicians have latched on to biotechnology to illustrate their otherwise absent commitment to the poor. Academics have found another fad. Corporations try to sell their products. Scientists have projects that need funding. The result of this unjustified publicity is muted debate and diminished capacity to select and develop appropriate science and technologies for poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa.

“To crack open lucrative markets worldwide, biotechnology corporations are seeking public legitimacy for genetically engineered crops by turning their PR machines upon small farmers in Africa. Industry-funded groups are increasingly using Africans to misinform publics in both industrialized and developing nations.
. . .

 

Issue 217: December 2003/January 2004

 

Like water flowing downhill, consolidation and concentration
naturally flow to corruption
.

For more now than 23 years we have reported on the corruption and decline of both cooperatives (with sadness) and capitalism. In fact, The Ram’s Horn was initiated in 1980 to explain to fellow sheep farmers who had taken over their organization and why – i.e., to protect and further personal advantage and gain at the expense of the collective. Unfortunately, we have had, over the years, to document the decline and perversion of even the biggest cooperatives as they have sought to play the capitalist game of cancerous growth. In this issue, with the bankruptcy of Parmalat and Solutia, the corruption and greed of neo-liberal capitalism is starkly revealed. At the bottom of both corporations are farmers – sometimes as willing and more often as abused accomplices.

Note: €1 = $C1.62 C$1=€.61

 “turning out to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in history”

“One of Europe’s biggest corporate crises exploded last week when Parmalat’s new management team said a document had been declared false by Bank of America which purported to certify that €3.95 billion of securities and cash were held by Bonlat Financing Corp, a Cayman Islands unit of Parmalat. . . The missing €4 billion dwarfs a €1 billion accounting scandal at Dutch retailer Ahold and drew comparisons with the collapse of energy giant
Enron” – NYT, 23/12/03

Parmalat is one of Canada’s Big Three dairy processors – Saputo of Montreal and Agropur co-op are the other two. Parmalat Canada is only one of 200 subsidiaries of Parmalat, based in Collecchio, near the north-central Italian city of Parma. Italy’s eighth-largest industrial group, Parmalat had €7.6 billion (C$12.95 billion) in revenues last year from selling juice, milk and cookies in 30 countries from South America to Asia.

On Dec.19 Bank of America Corp. reported that it wasn’t holding the US$4.9 billion in Parmalat funds that the company had reported in September. Now Italian reports say a total of around US$12 billion could be missing from Parmalat accounts after what may have been 15 years of false accounting. Another €2.9 billion of Parmalat bonds had never been bought back by the firm, despite statements to the contrary on its balance sheet.

Parmalat’s Canada website says, “Our tradition of quality began in Parma, Italy in 1961. Calisto Tanzi founded Parmalat with the hope of building a solid local business to support his family. But in time, Parmalat has become much more than that. With a continued commitment to quality and innovation, Parmalat has become an international company with increasing sales year after year. Parmalat is the world’s leading producer of UHT shelf stable milk.

“Today, Parmalat is one of the largest food companies in Canada. In fact, millions of Canadians enjoy our products every day. Trusted brands like Beatrice, Lactantia, Astro, and BlackDiamond are all part of the Parmalat family. Not to mention Balderson, Cheestrings, Sargento, Olivina, Parkay and Colonial too. Which means Canadians can enjoy everything from our milk and dairy products, to fruit juices, cultured products, cheese products, table spreads and cookies. All with the highest standards of quality demanded for your family.”
www.parmalat.ca 27/12/03 (The latest press release posted on their Canadian website is dated May 23, 2003.)

 

“Italian magistrates believe they have uncovered a decade of systematic fraud at food giant Parmalat and have placed group founder Calisto Tanzi firmly at the center of a complex web of deceit. Eleven days into their probe, the magistrates say they have plotted a pattern of market rigging, false auditing, fraud and misappropriation of funds involving current and former top managers. They also accuse two executives of the Italian unit of the Grant Thornton group auditing company of having helped set up off-shore subsidiaries to hide balance sheet irregularities. Tanzi admitted on Monday that he had misappropriated company funds and falsified company accounts. Grant Thornton has denied any wrongdoing and says it was a victim of fraud. . .

“Besides creating fictitious cash flow, Tanzi also embezzled large sums of money, the two teams of magistrates say. ‘He diverted about 800 million ($1 billion) to himself and companies that were not part of the group ... and ordered the destruction of accounting documentation ... that proved the group’s financial troubles,’ the Parma magistrates’ report says. . . They added that Parmalat managers hid losses of more than seven billion euros to enable the company to return to the market for fresh funds. The group now has debts between 10 billion and 13 billion, the magistrates say.” – NYT (Reuters) 30/12/03

For a few years before 2001 the big names in dairy in Canada had been Beatrice, Dairyworld/Dairyland and Ault. Then all of a sudden the names and owners changed. Dairyworld became Agrifoods International and was then bought by Saputo, Agropur expanded outside Quebec and Beatrice and Ault were acquired by Parmalat. Overnight Parmalat became Canada’s largest dairy group with annual
revenues in the range of $1.9 billion. [see RH#150, July 1997, RH #187, Jan 2001]

Now no one wants to talk about the state of the Canadian dairy industry – and ‘industry’ it is when it is in the hands of global corporations whose sole interest is in making money for its shareholders or, in the case of Parmalat, its top executives/owners.

Of course, one does have to wonder about the rationality of the dairy farmers’ organizations in Canada that allowed – or more likely encouraged – such consolidation to take place. It was probably all done in the name of efficiency and competitiveness, but that does not mean it was in the interest of the farmers, the public, or ‘food security.’

Parmalat had a market capitalization of 1.8 billion before the crisis broke. But since then the value of its shares has been almost completely wiped out and its bonds are worth just a quarter of their face value. Investigators say the total missing could exceed 10 billion euros. They say they do not know yet where the money went or even if it ever existed, making it hard to put a value on the firm. Parmalat buys eight percent of Italy’s milk output and milk producers have not been paid by Parmalat since August.
– source: NYT 23/12/03

 

“Parmalat engaged in a tangled scheme involving dozens of offshore front companies to invent assets to offset perhaps as much as $11 billion in liabilities over more than a decade, Italian investigators said. The seeds of Parmalat’s downfall appear to have been sown at the end of the 1980’s, when the company was preparing to sell shares to the public for the first time. . . . Calisto Tanzi had taken his family business in hams and preserves, and over several decades turned it into a global milk and food powerhouse. . . The Tanzi family [which still holds 51 percent of Parmalat] was looking to cash in some of this remarkable growth.


“Parmalat started creating finance companies in the Netherlands Antilles, essentially to get rid of liabilities it then offset, at least on paper, with assets it simply invented. . . The Parmalat group, including the offshore finance companies, was audited at the time by the accounting firm Grant Thornton. In the mid-1990’s, Italy began a sweeping overhaul of its financial system that required Italian companies to rotate their auditors every nine years. So in 1999, Parmalat brought in Deloitte & Touche to replace Grant Thornton. Before doing so, however, Parmalat effectively closed the Antilles-based companies, replacing them with Bonlat Financing, which was registered in the Cayman Islands. And while Deloitte assumed responsibility for the Parmalat group, the auditing of Bonlat remained in the hands of Grant Thornton. Parmalat, in information for investors, described Bonlat as a “treasury center.” But people close to the investigation called it a “garbage can,” where Parmalat parked all kinds of liabilities accrued at subsidiaries around the world.”
– NYT/Agence France-Press, 24/12/03

UC Berkeley officials confirmed in December that tenure had been denied to assistant professor Ignacio Chapela, who teaches microbial ecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. Chapela and grad student David Quist were the whistle-blowers over their finding that native maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, were contaminated with g.e. transgenes. It is now widely accepted that this is indeed true. (Just ask Monsanto about their contamination campaign!)

Chapela and Quist were also leading critics of the 1998 deal that gave Novartis (now Syngenta) privileged access to UC plant research in exchange for $25 million. The five-year agreement gave Novartis first rights to a certain percentage of patents from the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and two seats on the five member committee that awarded research projects.

The prestigious journal Nature, which had first published Quist and Chapela’s findings in 2001 and then recanted (repented of its sins) in an editorial, published a surprisingly detailed report by Rex Dalton on Chapela’s tenure denial in its December 11th issue:

“Chapela’s tenure at Berkeley has been under review since November, 2000. As part of the process, in his department, 32 faculty members voted for tenure and one against, with three abstentions. And in summer, 2002, an ad hoc committee of five colleagues familiar with Chapela’s field voted unanimously in favour of tenure.

“But the review then took an unusual course. The chair of the ad hoc committee was quizzed by the university hierarchy about his committee’s report and its membership; questions were raised about whether two members were biased. The chair, whose identity has not been released, then resigned in the autumn of 2002, disavowing his committee ’s report. But committee members weren’t told this had occurred. . . [One] tenured professor in Chapela’s department [who was on the ad hoc committee] only learned of what happened to the report of the committee he had served on in June [of 2003].

“Documents from the chancellor’s office [state that] ‘The overall assessment of reviewers was that Chapela’s good record of teaching and excellent service stood in sharp contrast to a disappointingly modest publications record’ says the document rejecting tenure.”

According to documents obtained through access to information by Bradford Duplisea of the Canadian Health Coalition, Agriculture Canada invested nearly $2.5 million in genetically modified wheat and stands to make money if it approves the product for sale. The government department:

  • committed $850,000 to Monsanto to develop GM seeds;
  • provided unfettered access to test the crops in the
    department’s fields;
  • assigned thee key scientists to work with Monsanto on
    the wheat.

If the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approves the grain for sale, Agriculture Canada will get nearly five per cent of the money. But John Cully, the department’s director of intellectual property, said there is no conflict of interest, that it’s common for governments to have research partnerships. – source: CBC online, 29/11/03


The University of California at Davis Plant Science Facilities recently celebrated the completion of a complex of new buildings that includes state-of-the-art greenhouses, a plant-science teaching facility, the High Throughput Genomics Facility and the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Plant Transformation Facility, new laboratories that contain state-of-the-art equipment for DNA sequencing and genetically modifying plants, and the Plant Reproduction Biology building that houses the Seed Biotechnology Center. The UC Davis press release (11/11/03) refers to “the partners involved with the projects” and acknowledged “seed industry leaders who supported the early vision of completing such a facility.”

 

Issue 215: October 2003

 Re-defining Conventional

 

How does an exception become the norm? How does an alternative become the conventional, the norm compared to which everything else is abnormal?

Conventional agriculture did not include GE crops until very recently. Conventional agriculture was, however, assumed to use agro-toxins. But 50 years ago conventional agriculture did not use agro-toxins in the contemporary sense of the term. So in something like 50 years the definition of conventional – the norm – has changed three times. Organic agriculture, or even sustainable or ecological agriculture, is generally considered as alternative. Yet the way people farmed until 50 years ago or so – the conventional agriculture – was essentially what we now class as ‘organic'.

Defining normal and abnormal – or conventional and alternative – has always been a power play. It is part of such concepts as ‘mental illness' and ‘enemy'. Consider how I can treat you if I define myself as normal and define you as abnormal particularly if you allow me to do so.

Organic/ecological agriculture is not abnormal. Nor is it ‘alternative' unless you accept industrial agriculture and GE crops as normal and conventional. It would be better to describe different practices – and different attitudes.

The advocates and apologists of biotechnology and GE crops like to think that they are the moral norm, that they define and represent conventional agriculture. From this standpoint they can then tout the issue as ‘consumer choice' – which they are happy to offer in their rather dishonest way: the public must have the option of purchasing GE food. If the vast majority (the norm) does not want GE food, then farmer's choice comes into play: you have no right to deny farmers the option of growing GE crops.

GE crops become ‘conventional', and organic and GE-free crops and food products become, by definition (theirs), a niche market – similar to the peculiar food preferences of minority religions. It is quite appropriate for them to be hard to find and to cost more, since they are the exception to the rule. If organic and GE-free have to be labelled so customers can exercise their choice, the purchasers will have to pay for the labelling to make that choice possible.

In other words, the freedom to choose is appropriated by the (abnormal) biotech industry (government-industry-university) that is insisting on its freedom to choose to produce GE crops and foods regardless of the will of the (normal) majority.

“We want the producer to have the option,” said Nelson Costa, superintendent of Brazil's Paraná state Organization of Cooperatives (Ocepar). “If the market wants a non-GM product, it should pay a premium for it.” – Reuters 7/10/03

“When consumers wish to make their own choices consistent with their philosophical beliefs – choosing halal, kosher, or GMO-free – they should be prepared to absorb the extra costs. Consumers who want ‘organic' foods pay a premium for the privilege. So should consumers who want GMO-free food.” – Peter Phillips and Robert Wolfe, letters, G&M, 2/9/03. Phillips holds the chair in managing knowledge-based agri-food development at the University of Saskatchewan and sits on the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee. Wolfe is a professor of geography at Queen's University

One of my favourite and most instructive scientists is Richard Strohman, emeritus professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology (see p.6) . In a commentary published in Nature a couple of years ago he wrote, “I prefer the identification GEO (genetically engineered organism) to GMO (genetically modified organism) to make clear that we are talking about an engineering project and not some modification that is substantially equivalent to what happens in nature.”

“Identity Preservation” is promoted by corporate buyers as a way to ‘add value' to farmers' crops for the benefit of farmers, buyers and end-users, such as bakeries or specialty oils users. But it is also a means of shifting the burden of proof regarding GE contamination of crops from the corporations responsible onto the farmers. Farmers are to become liable for segregation and ‘purity' of the crops they grow and market.

 

 

Issue 216: November 2003

 Suspicion and

the evaluation of ‘information'

In the era of big-pharma, big-food, and big-media, it is a real challenge to find reliable sources of information. One has to start with what theologians call the hermeneutics of suspicion, that is, a method of interpretation [hermeneutics] informed by suspicion – suspicion about the authorship, intent, and authenticity of the text.

Source and authorship are the first things I look for. Was the article or report published by the New York Times, the Vancouver Sun or theNational Post? New Scientist, Nature Biotechnology or Milling and Baking News? In other words, what is the nature of the source? Is it a reliable, conservative journal ‘of record' such as the NY Times or M&B News with a known business bias or an inflammatory paper like the National Post orVancouver Sun with a blatant reactionary political position? Readers ofThe Ram's Horn will recognize our carefulness to note sources.

Authorship is obviously significant. I no longer bother to read anything authored or endorsed by Dennis Avery, Henry I. Miller, Gregory Conko, C.S. Prakash, Doug Powell and many other blatant propagandists unless I want to know their current line, such as that of Avery&Son who operate as the Centre for Global Food Issues of the Hudson Institute. Their latest mystification is an “Earth Friendly, Farm Friendly Seal of Approval” project which they describe as “the only science-based seal of approval which supports both farm economics and protects the environment without added costs to consumers.” This is clearly intended to confuse the public about organic certification. Note that they give no specifics about being “scientifically proven” and “economically sustainable” – though they might be referring to the massive subsidies that keep industrial agriculture in the USA afloat.

Introducing a new certification process and seal of approval for dairy producers and processors. This product is certified as having been produced under the best available, scientifically proven and economically sustainable agricultural methods. These techniques have been shown to help conserve or use fewer natural resources, thereby preserving more of nature and earning the approval of independent scientists including Nobel Prize winners. Purchasing products with this seal supports farmers while protecting nature. Brought to you by The Center for Global Food Issues, this is the only science-based deal of approval which supports both farm economics and protects the environment without added costs to consumers. Endorsed by recognized world leaders in the fields of animal agriculture, veterinary health, conservation and environmental stewardship and backed by published peer-reviewed data. (www.cgfi.org)

A close look at their website will confirm your suspicions; they are supporting Monsanto's fight against the labelling of rBGH-free milk in the USA (see RH# 212) and their ‘scientific' advisors are a convenient list of the big-food and biotech front groups whose ‘information' warrants suspicion: organizations such as the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy and the American Council on Science and Health. The names are, of course, intentionally deceptive, but after a while you get to know them and the names of their chief lobbyists.

The language on the Avery website is more than deceptive. Its intent and tone can best be described as ‘hate' language. Clearly the Averys are scared to death of organics and a well-informed public – just like the biotech industry they represent.

Authenticity implies that the author has some personal connection or experience of the issue discussed. Where material is ‘authored' by an organization that operates as a collective, such as ETC Group and GRAIN, you have to know that the organization works in respectful collaboration with the people affected by the issues and policies they write about. It is this kind of track record that gives credibility to authors, both individual and collective.

The above discussion was prompted by information recently published about Wal-Mart. A major source drawn on here is the Executive Intelligence Review, a text-book example of where suspicion is warranted. The Executive Intelligence Review is published by the Lyndon LaRouche organization, a right-wing populist organization that actually does a considerable amount of solid research. As Al Krebs (The Agribusiness Examiner, see www.electricarrow.com/CARP) describes LaRouche, it's a case not of a straight line continuum between left and right, but a horseshoe, where the populist right comes close to the socialist left in its anti-corporate position. Recognizing this, we are happy to draw on this source of verifiable data while omitting some of its more bombastic language and interpretation. (It also helps when the New York Times and the Financial Times of London , not known for their populist or anti-corporate politics, essentially confirms the LaRouche data as the NYTimes did in the editorial cited below.)

Wal-Mart's financial security
is not your food security

Wal-Mart posted sales of $245 billion in 2002, holding the position of the world's biggest company for the second consecutive year. It has more than doubled its size in the past five years, increasing sales at an annual rate of 16 %.

As of August 31, 2003, Wal-Mart had 1,489 Wal-Mart stores, 1,397 Supercenters, 532 Sam's Clubs and 56 Neighborhood Markets in the United States. Wal-Mart employs about 1.1 million “associates” nationally at an annual wage of about $14,000 a year, below the US $15,060 poverty line for a family of three.

As the New York Times put it in an editorial (15/11/03):

“Wal-Mart is a non-union, low-wage employer aggressively moving into the grocery business. Everyone should be concerned about this fight. It is, at bottom, about the ability of retail workers to earn wages that keep their families out of poverty. . . Wal-Mart's prices are about 14% lower than other groceries' because the company is aggressive about squeezing costs, including labor costs. Its workers earn a third less than unionized grocery workers, and pay for much of their [own] health insurance. Wal-Mart uses hardball tactics to ward off unions. Since 1995, the government has issued at least 60 complaints alleging illegal anti-union activities. . . Wal-Mart may also be driving down costs by using undocumented immigrants. Last month, federal agents raided Wal-Marts in 21 states. Wal-Mart is facing a grand jury investigation, and a civil racketeering class-action filed by cleaners who say they were underpaid when working for contractors hired by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart insists that it was unaware of its contractors' practices. But aware or not, it may have helped to deprive legally employable janitors of jobs and adequate pay. This Wal-Martization of the work force, to which other low-cost, low-pay stores also contribute, threatens to push many Americans into poverty. . .”

Wal-Mart Is Not a Business,
It's an Economic Disease

Wal-Mart is “a driving force behind the decadent Imperial Roman model of the United States. Unable any longer to reproduce its own population's existence through its own physical economy, the United States has, for the past two decades, used an over-valued dollar to suck in physical goods from around the globe for its survival. Wal-Mart is both the public face and working sinews of that policy. It brings in cheap pants from Bangladesh, cheap shirts from China, cheap food from Mexico . . . and workers who produce these things are paid next to nothing.”

Wal-Mart

  • sells 19% of all grocery-store food in the United States, making it the largest food seller.
  • handles 16% of all pharmacy-drug sales in the United States,
  • controls 30% of the U.S. household staples market
  • sells 15-20% of all CDs, videos, and DVDs in the United States

Reciprocally, Wal-Mart controls a large and increasing share of the business done by almost every major consumer-products company: 28.3% of Dial's (soap products); 24% of Del Monte Foods'; 23% of Clorox's (bleaches and cleaners); and 23% of Revlon's (cosmetics). It controls one-fifth or more of the business done by Proctor & Gamble, Levi Strauss and Newell Rubbermaid. This gives Wal-Mart tremendous leverage over all its producers/suppliers, even though many of them are in the Fortune 500. Today, Wal-Mart “co-determines” the price of the goods it buys; it tells the supplier what type of product it wants, how to arrange its inventory, what sort of product line to develop. Because Wal-Mart determines how much shelf space each supplier receives, it has life-and-death control over that supplier. If Wal-Mart says that it wants a product's price to be lowered by 20-25%, that supplier will be forced to outsource an increasing share of its production.

As a result, Wal-Mart has become “a conveyor belt, either directly or through its suppliers, for imported goods, mostly from cheap-labor countries. Wal-Mart imports 10% of all America's total imports from China.”

Rubbermaid, the largest producer of consumer rubber products in the United States, provides a good example what happens when a company is dependent on Wal-Mart as its major market. In January 2001, Joseph Galli was appointed the new chief executive officer of Rubbermaid, and he and his staff had an intensive series of meetings with Wal-Mart management on what products Rubbermaid should bring on line, including Wal-Mart's not-so-subtle suggestions about the price of the products. Since January 2001, Rubbermaid has shut down 69 out of its 400 facilities, and fired 11,000 workers

Levi Strauss is one of the biggest manufacturers of jeans and denim products, including the line of Docker slacks, and Wal-Mart is its biggest retailer. During the past 18 months, Levi Strauss has announced it will shut down its four remaining production plants in North America and shift the work to Latin America and Asia. –source: Executive Intelligence Review, 14/11/03, at www.larouchepub.com/eirtoc/2003/eirtoc_3044.html

Levi Strauss, a company that 22 years ago had 60 clothing plants in the United States – and that was known as one of the most socially responsible corporations on the planet – will, by 2004, not make any clothes at all. It will just import them.

Wal-Mart has also lulled shoppers into ignoring the difference between the price of something and the cost. Its unending focus on price underscores something that Americans are only starting to realize about globalization: Ever-cheaper prices have consequences. Says Steve Dobbins, president of thread maker Carolina Mills: “We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world – yet we aren't willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions.”
–The Wal-Mart You Don't know,” FastCompany, Issue 77 December 2003, By: Charles Fishman –www.fastcompany.com/magazine/77/walmart.html