The Star (Nairobi)

22 January 2013

Africa: Genetically Engineered Foods - Has Barack Obama Betrayed Africa?

Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN
In Karamoja, people are resorting to reducing their food rations to cope.

opinion

"Living in a Monsanto Nation, there can be no such a thing as 'co-existence.' It is impossible to coexist with a reckless industry that endangers public health, bribes public officials, corrupts scientists, manipulates the media, destroys biodiversity, kills the soil, pollutes the environment, tortures and poisons animals, destabilizes the climate, and economically enslaves the world's 1.5 billion seed-saving small farmers. It's time to take down the Biotech Behemoth, before the living web of biodiversity is terminated."

Such 'loaded' words would be easy to dismiss were they uttered by some deranged political enemy of the United States from Iran, Iraq or Pakistan.

The issue becomes immensely more complicated, however, because the words originated from Ronnie Commins, a mainstream American citizen, a devout political activist, who believes firmly that America is capable of being reformed from within itself.

If the words reflect a case of genuine American self-criticism, it is important that all Africans pay attention to them, and incumbent upon the African leaders to take them twice as seriously. We ignore them at our own peril.

On November 8, 2012, the Government of Kenya prohibited importation of Genetically Modified Organism foods into the country. Presumably, those foods can be reinstated upon receipt of compelling scientific evidence that they are not a threat to public health.

When it comes to foods, however, meeting such a requirement can be a tall order. How does one prove that product XYZ does not cause cancer 10 or 20 years down the line?

The USA faces the same unsettling questions as Kenya regarding the safety of genetically engineered foods but, incredibly, the American officialdom does not bar their sale and distribution in the country.

Indeed, the food-conscious American public has practically given up on official GMO safety restrictions; the most they expect now is to be informed when their foods contain the GMOs. To this end, they have resorted to a grass-root political strategy that they are calling the 'label-it-campaign.'

Two days before Kenya's announcement of the GMO ban, Californians had voted on Proposition 37, a state-wide ballot initiative of far-reaching implications.

Had it been approved, it would have made it mandatory for food companies to label GMOs in foods for the first time in US history. The initiative did fail at the polls, but the contest was robust and the outcome remarkably close. This in itself was good news to the label-it-campaign.

Prop 37 is important in part because it is a reflection of an adversarial relationship that has been brewing in recent years in the US. On one side of the battle are the giant agribusinesses; on the other are the anti-GMO consumer groups and their devoted supporters who condemn the biotech giants for behaving like criminal predators against society. The two sides are locked in a dialogue of the deaf reminiscent of the anti-Vietnam War movement that ultimately brought down a popular US President, Lyndon B Johnson.

Anti-GMO activists are driven by a conviction that accurate food-labeling is a fundamental right of all Americans: to know what is contained in their foods, a right enjoyed by citizens of 61 other countries in the civilised world.

And they have a corollary belief that once the true GMO information becomes publicly available via accurate labelling, people will stop buying and eating them.

Presumably, this tactical manoeuvre will eventually trigger the decline and ultimate demise of the 'wicked' food giants as we know them today.

To the anti-GMO advocates, theirs is a moral crusade. They have no doubt that the food giants resist GMO-labelling because they have something sinister to hide.

After all, for no other reason than sheer greed, these agribusinesses have repeatedly engaged in reckless ventures, including life-threatening activities, often at the risk of compromising public health and general well-being.

Currently, the same food giants are said to be focused on a mission to push the spread of GMO foods worldwide, way beyond the US itself. Since this is now a 'global undertaking,' the GMO logic continues, wouldn't Africa be an ideal launching pad? Africa is unlikely to resist the genetically modified foods much. After all, they are desperately hungry!

For its November 8 ban on importation of GMO foods, Kenya is now on record that, if it can, it will not compromise the health of its people by assenting to a food solution fraught with unknown health risks. For that we say bravo to the Kenyan political leadership! But Kenyans beware.

The mighty multinational corporations are not happy about such resistance lest it becomes trend-setting in Africa and elsewhere in the third world. That eventuality may be difficult for the affected and 'spoilt' MNCs to swallow. They are not used to not getting their way.

From this perspective, California's Proposition 37 was a manifestation of a brewing global war in microcosm. True, it was a state-bound confrontation, but California is only one of 50 American states.

Could a good anti-GMO political showing in the California vote trigger similar future skirmishes in other states? How long can the MNCs endure recurring battles of this nature all over the USA?

And, behold, even before the dust had settled after the California confrontation, another GMO-labelling brawl has erupted in Washington State in form of a November 2013 anti-GMOs ballot. Vermont is also in the queue. As a faraway and vulnerable potential victim of GMOs, has Kenya unwittingly become part of a simmering global war by virtue of identifying with the tormented American consumers against the same global agribusinesses?

Informed Americans are aware that anti-multinational sentiments do not end at the US borders. In 1974, Richard J Barnet and Ronald E Muller published a book, Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations, that caused a stir in the US. It asserted, in part, that MNCs registered in the US were not necessarily American.

They were American-based but their orientation, outlook and outreach were global. In terms of loyalty and corporate strategy formulation, MNCs had transcended the nation-state as the world's basic units of operation.

When Barack Obama stormed into the American national scene in early 21st Century he, perhaps unwittingly, stepped into the 'pro' and 'anti' GMOs volcanic dialogue. Given that their raison d'être is exclusively to make money, American MNCs had turned on their own people in a frenzy to devour fellow Americans for profits. After all, MNCs do not have social contracts with any society, local or international; they are as comfortable with fratricide as they are with genocide.

Hostile sentiments against MNCs were thus a strong 'intangible factor' beneath California's Proposition 37 vote. To the anti-GMO Americans, the heartless and cold-blooded Monsanto Company was, and still remains, the ultimate Prime Evil of the worst of MNCs.

In his initial run for the US presidency in 2007, Barack Obama made it publicly clear that he knew and understood the risks of vesting too much power in the hands of MNCs, especially in relations to regulatory government agencies.

Furthermore, in the acrimonious confrontation between consumers and the food giants, he was decidedly on the side of the former. Accordingly, his presidency would not allow the Department of Agriculture to be transformed into the department of agribusiness. Regarding GMO-labelling, his position was equally succinct and unequivocal, "Let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know what they're buying."

On assuming office, however, Obama made a surprising u-turn by suddenly tilting towards big agricultural businesses. In no time, the US president became the most visible 'convert' of the biggest of the agri-businesses: the same, much-despised Monsanto.

Obama's bewildering turnaround was consummated by adopting the 'revolving door strategy' of appointing Monsanto's ex-employees for key positions in government regulatory agencies. The approach was so effective that, in no time, Obama was branded as 'Monsanto's man in Washington' and 'the most GMO-dedicated politician in America.' Indeed critics do wonder aloud: Did Obama jump or was he pushed? Only Obama knows.

What is publicly known, however, is that Obama evolved what appeared to be an extra-cozy relationship with Monsanto in blatant defiance of storm of public protest. GMO critics distrust and resist genetically-engineered foods on the simple grounds that their ultimate impact on human health and environment are still largely unknown. Indeed, the side-effects of gene tampering have never been studied. Inevitably, their approval for human consumption requires more safety testing.

In short, the GMOs are scientifically 'unknown territory.' The only uncontested claim among scientists is that some of the adverse consequences of genetic tinkering on the environment will be irreversible. Consequently, a good many American consumers are unprepared to compromise, even with their otherwise popular president, over the right to know what is in the foods that they buy and their right to choose whether or not to ingest GMO-foods.

Against this background, American anti-GMOs advocates recalled Obama's pledge of 2007 and they held it against him. The promise was that the Obama's Administration would make it legally mandatory for GMO-foods to be labelled as such. They were hurt and disappointed that when the 2012 presidential elections came around, fulfillment of that promise was still nowhere near the president's agenda. They felt betrayed by Obama, a leader that they deeply longed to trust.

Yet, Obama has gone considerably further than betray the American consumers. Indeed, he has raised the odds to a whole new level by authorising and facilitating entry and spread of Western MNCs in Africa.

In May 2012, he ceremoniously launched the New Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security, ostensibly to eradicate hunger and poverty in sub-Sahara Africa in a decade. This ideal is to be achieved by embracing modern agricultural methods and technology, code words for biotech agriculture and GMOs.

Needless to say, the undertaking is to be spearheaded by the huge Grand Daddy of the GMOs, none other than the world's biggest agricultural and seed corporate monster, Monsanto.

Critics immediately cried foul on the grounds that MNCs are historically known as blood suckers; they are neither inclined nor equipped to be in the business of humanitarianism, least of all in Africa. This has always been the case since the advent of the Dutch East India Company, the mother of all MNCs.

The 'label-it-campaign' is certainly gathering steam and quickly becoming an unstoppable force. However, it faces a menacing specter of the GMO club that is resolved to spread genetically engineered foods around the world, and whose membership has widened to include immensely powerful forces. At this stage the setting is a virtue stalemate between GMO advocates and anti-GMO critics. Increasingly, it is becoming a classic case of irresistible force against an immovable object.

Monsanto is of course at the cutting edge of GMO-advocates. Despite its sordid history, it is a powerful, ruthless and super-rich MNC with awesome political influence, even over the US government. The pro-GMO club has also been joined by other 'rich-and-famous', including Microsoft's Bill Gates, now a prominent shareholder in Monsanto.

Bill and Melinda Gate's Foundation underwrites numerous GMO projects in Africa and is the major funder of Nairobi-based AGRA (Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa) together with the Rockefeller Foundation, another old hand at agricultural manipulation for profits, mostly in Latin America.

AGRA was originally projected as a brainchild of the respected former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan whose image is that of an 'authentic, caring and sophisticated African.' Use of his name has undoubtedly opened some doors in Africa. But, in the final analysis, it is the official entry of Barack Obama into the pro-GMO club that is truly unsettling. Obama is not just another man. In addition to claims of African roots, he is the most powerful individual alive precisely because he is President of the USA, the world's superpower. He brings with him extraordinary powers.

With ten offices already established in South Africa alone, Monsanto is poised to jump and launch implementation of the pro-GMO club's plan to 'save the continent from the ravages of poverty and starvation.' And, this time around, 'the plan' has the expressed endorsement of the most powerful government in history, thanks to Obama. Perhaps Africa's 'radicals' can be forgiven for conjuring up images of a modern-day scramble for Africa. Is Obama duty-bound to reassure his ancestry?

Finally, questions persist. What prompted the launching of NAFNS? Was Obama moved by compassion for the hungry Africans? Was he brainwashed by the vile agri-businesses on what they can do for the 'dark continent'? Or was Obama consumed in a bid to apportion a 'piece of the continent' for the West in the face of encroaching Chinese economic dragon? Ultimately, did Obama jump or was he pushed?

James N Kariuki is professor of International Relations and an independent writer based in South Africa.

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