How anti-modern farming agroecology NGOs spread GMO misinformation in Africa

Africa is under attack. But who is the perpetrator and who are the victims?

According to Henk Hobbelink, a Dutch agronomist and founder of GRAIN—a non-profit that campaigns against crop biotechnology and modern farming techniques—the menace is Big Ag, with GMOs as their weapon of choice. Hobelink, according to the GRAIN website, promotes "small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems

Hobbelink has been touring Uganda and other African countries in an attempt to kill growing support among farmers for genetically modified bananas that are resistant to banana wilt, which is devastating the crop. His message: countries that are growing GMO crops, the United States in particular, do not dare feed them to humans but use them exclusively for animal consumption—which is a lie.

The U.S. grows a dozen types of genetically modified crops including sweet corn, soybeans, sugar beets and papaya, which are all for human consumption.

But Hobbelink's misrepresentations have not stopped the local media, which is reporting extensively on his trip, to referring to him as an International agricultural expert. He revealed this "mystery claim" to small holder farmers in rural Masaka, where banana bacterial wilt has devastated most banana fields. Here was a self-declared expert without a tangible solution to a growing catastrophe telling desperate peasant farmers that the transgenic resistant variety that local scientists have developed to help them is no better than animal feed.

Hobblelink, who runs his NGO from Spain, did not acknowledge Spain's embrace of GMOs. Spain was the first European country to grow genetically modified plants and remains the region's largest grower, with approximately 20 percent of its maize production, with few consumer or environmental concerns. Spanish corn is used in food production and for animal feed, as in the U.S. and other countries.

Hobbelink and his group, after holding their GMO demonizing briefings, went on to announce an offer of $2.7 million dollars in grants for what he called 'viable food systems, economic rights of small farmers and their communities and the mitigation of climate change through low input and ecological agriculture'. This offer, he said, is open only to organizations which are ready to demonize GMOs at the grassroots level.

Background on GRAIN

GRAIN, which stands for Genetic Resources Action International, was founded as a coalition of European development agencies in the 1980s with the primary mission of "resisting the corporate Green Revolution." Today it claims to be "a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems." GRAIN works in Africa, Asia and Latin America with political, peasant and farm union groups opposing GMOs, conventional and "corporate" agriculture while promoting organic and "agroecology" alternatives.

Dating back to 2001, GRAIN has partnered with numerous anti-GMO groups, most notably the Philippines based MASIPAG, which opposes crop biotechnology and efforts to develop vitamin enhanced crops, such as Golden Rice. They have jointly declared their opposition to "so-called 'Green Revolution'" efforts by the International Rice Research Institute to engage in a "chemical take-over of rice farming" by "replacing farmers' varieties with seeds that require costly external inputs such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers... and coercive credit schemes..." The GRAIN and MASIPAG-led coalition claimed, "rice that is genetically engineered to resist herbicides or carry Bt toxins will lead to increased pesticide levels not to mention ecological disruption...." They have called for governments to prohibit all forms of genetic engineering of rice and other foods, even ones that enhance nutrition or fight against crop diseases, and ban all patents on genetic materials.

GRAIN claims to be a 'grassroots' organization. Its annual budget is more than one million dollars, with major contributors including the Barcelona government, OXFAM, and numerous U.S.-based anti-technology foundations. In Africa GRAIN's major partner is Alliance for Food Sovereignty (AFSA). Participants in its anti-GMO campaign campaign globally include: BIOTHAI (Biodiversity Action Thailand, formerly Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity), CEDAC (Cambodian Center for the Study and Development of Agriculture/ Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien--which markets organic rice), HEKS (Swiss Interchurch Aid group working in Cambodia), KMP (Philippine radical political party), Pesticide Action Network-PAN Indonesia and Philippines, Philippine Greens (Political party), UBINIG (Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona, the Policy Research for Development Alternatives in Bangladesh). These efforts were promoted by the U.S.-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), an anti-GMO NGO.

GMOs "dangerous and unnecessary"

GRAIN, partnering with AFSA, has also been campaigning against the proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, claiming the interests of "ordinary farmers" in Uganda are ignored.

"We believe agro-ecological practices such as organic farming, soil conservation and biodiverse gardening are solutions to food insecurity, rural poverty and environmental degradation, not introduction of GMOs,” said AFSA's Bridget Mugabe. “It (the bill) should be withdrawn and redrafted. We really need a law that will not deprive our farmers of their right to grow food based on agroecology,” Ms Mugambe added.

In Uganda and most parts of Africa, the nature of the crop determines whether it is grown organically or otherwise. Uganda’s major staple crops like bananas and cassava are always grown organically. In some few instances, farmers apply insecticides like carbofuran to fight nematodes. Through genetic engineering, Ugandan scientists at the National Banana Program have developed crops which are resistant to both nematodes and banana weevils, but they remain on the shelf because of opposition by GRAIN and other groups. Farmers would not need to apply significant amounts of inorganic pesticides again if they were approved and grown. The anti GMO activists, who claim to be environmentalists, are blinded to the versatility of genetic engineering, which could actually help them in their goal of no or limited chemical use.

Some farmers who grow crops without pesticides or fertilizers--organic crops--do so because they cannot afford the inputs. Often their yields are disastrously low, destroyed by pests. Yet their goods are sold into a Ugandan market that does not discriminate between organic and conventional products, where yields are much higher.

Uganda ventured into organic cotton production years ago, but farmers were badly hit by the resultant low yields coupled with promises of a premium price, which never materialized. Most farmers abandoned organic cotton for other crops like sunflowers. Recently the Cotton Organization was on the spot because Uganda, once known for cotton production, has started importing cotton for its small textile industry. While the organic movement in developed countries profits, small countries like Uganda, whose markets do not discriminate between organic and non-organic, are rendered forever subsistence by adopting an organic-only model. It could be profitable for a European or American farmer to produce organically because they would get premium prices for their products. But using poor farmers in Africa to under produce and remain poor while the certificate issuing middlemen and their organic masters profiteer is immoral. Adopting genetically modified Bt cotton would dramatically reduce the cost in inputs and result in a sharp cut in pesticide use--and save Uganda from importing cotton.

Fighting hypothetical fears with scientific facts

Cornell University's global Alliance for Science has been accused by some anti-GMO activists of training GM propagandists.

That's not what is happening.

In Uganda, the Cornell fellows under their Uganda Alliance for Science umbrella went to the very region where Hobbelink and his group had spread fear. In what seemed like a "battle for the grassroots" farmers, they shared with the locals how genetic engineering has helped confer "protection" on their indigenous crop varieties and how biosafety regulations would help protect rural farmers while encouraging innovation. Some of the information provided by the Uganda Alliance for Science included economic facts on losses due to these main crop diseases.

Alliance for scienceMore than 10 million Ugandans consume cassava as their main source of carbohydrates. Cassava brown streak disease causes as much as $24.2 million in damage annually. Another crop under attack is banana consumed by over 13 million Ugadans as their main source of carbohydrates. Bananas contribute up to 22 percent of the country's agricultural revenue. The estimated yield loss due to banana bacterial wilt is $299.6 million.

The two diseases, banana bacterial wilt and cassava brown streak disease, ravaging Uganda's farms are a threat to national and region food security as Uganda has been a major supplier of food to neighboring countries, especially South Sudan, which have not had time to develop their agricultural systems due to protracted wars. Conventional methods have not had meaningful success in addressing these challenges. Through genetic engineering, local scientists in collaboration with regional and global counterparts have been able to generate varieties which offer absolute resistance to these diseases.

In this battle for the grassroots where locals are bombarded with divergent information, farmers will have to make their decision based on hypothetical claims of harm made by groups like Friends of the Earth or the very real benefits documented by science groups like the Alliance for Science. They will have to be convinced that genetic engineering will protect their indigenous varieties as the Alliance claims or whether GMOS will "wipe away our sweet tasty natural indigenous forefathers' varieties" as GRAIN and other anti-GMO groups claim. That choice will determine food availability or lack of it for current and future African populations.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in Africa. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac

  • Whiteowl

    It’s immoral what these propagandists are doing, but also, in my view, criminal to scare these populations into eventual protracted poverty and starvation conditions. They should be required to prove to all what they say about GMO.

  • Roy Williams

    Can we put together an effective counter-campaign? If some nut from Spain can go tour Africa, why cannot we do the same thing. Surely all the groups that are biotech supporters can organize/fund a sustained campaign, supporting people to go to Africa and do the same thing (but obviously, educating instead of spreading fear).
    Perhaps we don’t need, nor could get, established research scientists to go, but it might be a wonderful opportunity for graduate students and/or post-docs interested in teaching / public outreach. Maybe a three month to six month tour per person, with logistical support. Might be the best money we can spend on the future of Africa.

    • Farmer with a Dell

      Intriguing idea Roy but I suspect there would be too small a pool of people truly dedicated to the overall science.

      Besides, it has been my personal experience working with many, many self-billed “advocates of science-based agriculture” that far too many adhere strictly to the science in their own narrow field of interest (they will even defend that ferociously), but casually endorse propaganda contrary to science in another’s field of study. Organic proponents in academia, extension, USDA and especially degreed organic zealots on the payroll of NGOs leap to mind (I am actually visualizing some of their smirking faces right now)

      The typical BS, MS or PhD in, say, soil science, who also happens to “believe” in organics will stick close to the pure science when other zealots are talking wild about soil structure, for example. But let the subject of discussion move on to, say, animal health and our soil scientist will proselytize the wildest “healthiness derived from the soil” nonsense and will endorse the most disturbing quack remedies. The phenomenon is widespread. How else could an academic like Michael Pollan, a writing professor, tour around accepting pay to deliver up lectures on the finer points of agriculture and social policy?

      I guess what I’m saying is we need devoted and capable generalist scientists if we are to counter the wide-ranging prevarications of anti-agriculture NGO mercenaries. Those generalists are few and far between in a world where we train only specialists. And even then, we are constrained by science and fact whereas NGO operatives are only constrained by the slightest shred of integrity and dignity in their finest hour — and that’s too easily set aside when away from home. Ask just about anyone who’s ever enjoyed a week in Vegas.

    • Carolyn Parsons

      One of the results of this kind of campaigning is that locals are becoming aware of weaknesses of the NGO model: White savior swoops in, implements a scheme that fits their political point of view, then leaves after two or three years. This system is not sustainable and ends helping very little, or even causing long-term harm to local economies. Local people have their own set of needs and values. They should drive the solutions.

      Local scientists are the best hope for improving food production systems. What they need is support, like what the Cornell Alliance for Science does. They equip local experts with the tools they need to be leaders in their own countries, leading their own people to find their own solutions. They know what their needs are.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Here is a good model that could be supported. I am sure there must be others.

      • Roy Williams

        Yes, Cornell Alliance for Science is a great project. But does the campaign by this group in Spain negate the ability of the local scientists to implement solutions using whatever technology is most appropriate to the local situation? If an outsider with a negative message can have as much influence as this article suggests, should not there be a offsetting positive voice?

        • Benjamin Edge

          The problem is you can spread lies a lot easier and cheaper than you can counteract them.

          • Roy Williams

            No kidding! But just because we see the problem does not mean we should not try! If you give up the ship without a fight then the pirates just go on to plunder more and more…

        • Carolyn Parsons

          Yes, I think that positive voices speaking about the benefits of biotechnology for farming should be present. The problem with the traditional model is that biotechnology generally comes to Africa in the guise of large government controlled agricultural projects that have almost zero transfer of technology to local farmers. NGO’s on the other hand, tend work more locally so they have a greater voice when it comes to everyday farmers.

  • Carolyn Parsons

    “small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems”

    I grew up in rural Africa, in the central plateau of Angola surrounded by communities struggling to produce the food they needed using “community controlled biodiversity-based food systems”. We called it subsistance farming. 30 years on, the same systems are being used and people are still desperately poor and their children don’t complete much school beyond a few elementary grades.

    A couple of years ago, during my last visit to the same area. Farmers were paying exorbitant amounts for small quantities of chemical fertilizer. After I found out how much it was I asked why they were using it. They said “because it works”.

    Farmers will use technology that is available to them.

  • Wackes Seppi

    In French here

  • Wackes Seppi

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