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Khadija Sharife: Genetic Colonialism

December 30, 2008

Christmas – or should we say Cokemas, — given Coca-Cola’s branding of Santa decades ago, came early this year for the natives, and none could be more pleased than this particular monkey [picks teeth]. After years of struggle, genetically engineered (GE) products in South Africa will soon be labeled thanks to a clause in the Consumer Food Bill, motivated by the consistent lobbying of local consumer watchdog SAFeAGE.

Andrew Taynton of SAFeAGE said, “It is the fulfillment of the collective will of the people. And a very big thanks to the Department of Trade and Industry who pushed it against all odds, despite huge opposition from the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture and some members of the Democratic Alliance.”

Also removed were clauses exempting GE products from liability, with the latter placed entirely on end-user, the consumer. Are GE products safe for human consumption? Well, GE, as opposed to selective breeding, operates outside natural gene systems. On the subject of gene disruption, Dr Arpad Pusztai, the world’s leading plant lectin specialist said, “The insertion of foreign genes basically alters the plant’s own genes in an unpredictable way.

“Protein folding is not predicted by the DNA coding for that particular protein and from that DNA no scientist can predict how its product will be post-translationally modified and how it will fold.” The technology is basically “hit and miss” with only one clear upside: corporate control of food systems.

SA is an important conduit perceived as the gateway for biotech companies keen on Africa. Sadly, real-life heroes like Pusztai and SAFeAGE rarely receive due respect. The social content of modern civilization has been constructed around vaudevillian-like cultures rooted in sensational identity politics: who we celebrate, and how and why, is already determined, gearing us for dramatic and oft times hollow, external performances; all else is trivialized. All too often, real-life heroes, minus the tights and square jaws, pass by unseen and unacknowledged.

Britney Spear’s knickers and Jacob Zuma’s showers – reminiscent of ploys underpinning the coliseum, distract a willing audience, and are easier to digest than the reality that surrounds us. The phenomenon of media-induced compassion fatigue has precipitated the kind of fatalism that allows for solutions ranging from solar energy technology to organic farming to remain an indulgent alternative; a token feel-good story, while policies sustaining poverty and conflict are promoted as logical and rational mechanisms toward “progress”. If those that are celebrated symbolize the distillation of our values, then it would appear that, as a nation, we are without ourselves, lost in delusions of grandeur, glitter and luxury; devoid of justice and integrity. Similarly, if those who are in power symbolize corruption, realized through destructive policies, it is less a measure of them, than us. We have allowed for them to be so.

Sweatshops subcontracted by brands, for example, directly correspond to military alliances between emerging countries and empire. Many of us are cognizant that democracy cannot exist in the militarized free market, nor can the essential components thrive when exposed to corporate or autocratic capitalism.

Food security is one important component. Labeling ensures acknowledgment and recognition, catalyzing the democratization of consumer choice, indicating the tipping point long feared by agribusiness giants.

On the global stage the EU, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and China, amongst others, have already recognized mandatory GE labeling, visibly facilitating the consumer’s right to information.

This prevents normalization, forcing the deliberate corporate processes underpinning growth, proliferation and “justified” consumption to emerge from unobserved vacuums of power, and “closed door” negotiations. But a two-tier system requires continuous independent regulation: who will be responsible for monitoring this industry, determining liability and thresholds? Who will hold them accountable? Is labeling to be self-regulated?

The timing is indeed appropriate: after many years of resistance, the CSIR in South Africa recently approved super “strika” sorghum, albeit in a controlled greenhouse environment …

Super sorghum is a patented improved variety of sorghum, one of Africa’s most important staples. This particular initiative consists of Du Pont, one of the world’s largest agro-chemical and GM corporations, via their subsidiary Pioneer Hi Bred, suppliers of GM corn, wheat, sugar and soy. Dr Florence Wambugu, a former employee of Monsanto and an advisor to Du Pont is another key player.

Wambugu is the manna of the biotech industry: a female African scientist who legitimizes genetic colonialism by virtue of the right skin color and gender. In Africa, over 60% of the labor force is made up of farmers, with 70% of this figure composed of women.

Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Washington – an umbrella for eight hundred + biotech interests, said of Wambugu, “I wish we could clone her.” Wambugu was twice awarded by Monsanto for outstanding performance.

The justifying hook of agribusiness is alleviating poverty and hunger. Ironically, Africa’s primary business is agriculture and the continent is already the world’s most efficient agricultural producer with WTO statistics (2007) stating the continent surpasses global export averages. This is largely done without the use of agro-chemicals and GE seeds. As mentioned here: http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/khadijasharife/2008/12/07/unep-on-africa-organic-farming-food-security/ organic farming doubles, even triples yield in comparison to conventional farming, whilst preventing farmers from falling into the trap debt of expensive agro-chemical input, technology fees and GE seeds that last for one round only.

Agro-chemicals cause desertification, deforestation, water depletion, loss of income (poverty) and hunger. Over 90% of African forest cover has been stripped away by agribusiness and loggers, mandated by the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies (SAP). The bulk of food is exported to pay off debt.

Developing countries remain over $1.5-trillion in debt contracted by odious regimes currently or previously propped up by the World Bank from apartheid South Africa, to Marcos, Salazar, Idi Amin, Franco, Ceausescu, Mobutu, Pinochet, Deby, Somoza – the list goes on. These debts were forced onto incoming rulers, as was “fiscal reform” – the reason behind poverty, hunger, disease, lack of education and water and waste sanitation.

Intensive irrigation has left Africa in the midst of impending and imploding water wars; 72% of fresh water is used for monocrops, drastically depleting trans-boundary water basins. The US – 4% of global population — is the largest shareholder of the WB at 17% and the key beneficiary of resources, consuming over 60% of global resources. The remaining G8 control 40%. Ordinary Americans remain unaware of these policies; small and medium farmers in the US are rapidly disappearing due to loss of income … The system benefits corporate agribusiness alone.

In true Machiavellian-like style, gene giants have realized that patented sorghum and other indigenous crops, reduced to a few commercialized varieties, unravel the lynchpin of African agricultural security.

There are hundreds of sorghum varieties grown in Africa, from Tanzania to Nigeria, selectively bred for specific regions and climates. Sorghum, mainly grown in drier areas, is known for “drought resistant” qualities due to its genetic ability to retain water, and is vital for nutrition, fodder, and fibre eg sorghum straw is utilized for housing, biodegradable packaging etc.

The FAO states that the protein bodies of sorghum and millets are generously endowed with lipids, enzymes and minerals ranging from calcium to phosphorus, potassium and magnesium; the germ contains oil rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Sorghum is the steak of emerging countries: more than 80% of protein is derived from plant products in countries like China, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and India. Sorghum is also one of many maize substitutes tapped for animal feed and biofuels required by the US flesh and energy industry. This is why Du Pont aims to donate seeds, replacing and contaminating traditionally saved seeds. And this is essentially the crux of the Second Green Revolution, initiated once again by the Rockefellers, the World Bank, and USAID amongst others like the Gates Foundation, the Syngenta Foundation – the arm of Syngenta, a major agri-multinational – etc.

USAID has stated that the aim of food aid is to “integrate technology and GM food into local markets” and promote US business. The First Green Revolution, instituted while Africa held a food surplus, injected over $28-billion over a period of 30 years toward implementing agro-chemicals and commercialized hybrid seed technologies. Probably not what Mendel – the father of the science of genetics — had in mind when he set about analyzing peas in the garden monastery …

Then, as now, monetized economies managed by corporate oligopsonies impeded farmers – the hungriest and poorest on the continent — from actually consuming or selling their own crops by vectors ranging from reciprocal trade to subsidization. This “revolution” witnesses genetic colonialism via the World Bank’s CGIAR gene bank, the brainchild of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The bank possesses data on 600 000 different plant varieties. One interesting example of bioprospecting Africa’s genetic gold: the CSIR gave the “patent” of a traditional San plant – hoodia, to PhytoPharm. According to Mariam Mayet of the Africa Center for Biosafety, the CSIR “registered a patent claiming that there were no indigenous people in South Africa and that the San had died off. Stealing knowledge is extremely rife in Africa.” The San, now engaged, have yet to receive regular financial installments.

It’s not just the San getting screwed. In 2001, for example, Monsanto took Canadian farmer and former mayor, Percy Schmeiser, to court. Monsanto used the evidence probably produced by Robinson Investigation Canada Ltd, one of a few private investigative watchdogs in Canada contracted by the company to conduct secret tests on farms surrounding GE crops.

Until then, Percy had had no idea that his 320 acre farm was contaminated with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready canola. “It has been my position,” said Schmeiser, “that I didn’t want their technology in my fields. All I did was save my seed from year to year. Now it is clear that a company’s patent will take precedence over the rights of farmer’s to save and reuse their seed.”

The Canadian High Court ruled in favor of Monsanto. Though Schmeiser was not ordered to pay the $200 000 that Monsanto claimed, he was told to return every seed contaminated with GM canola back to Monsanto. No longer were his seeds his own.

The wind, of course, was never taken to court. Perhaps Zappa presciently foretold of this warped journey from Mendel the monk to Machiavelli’s power politics, in the song Call Any Vegetable … “why is a vegetable something to hide?”

Khadija Sharife is a freelance journalist, musician and the Deputy Director of the Phoenix Environmental Institute. She writes in her own capacity.

Copyright 2008 Khadija Sharife

To read more blog entries from Khadija Sharife at GUERNICA click HERE .

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