genetically modified crops


Kenyan farmers skeptical, lack knowledge about GMOs | 

A diseased stalk of maize in western Kenya.

Malava, Kenya – With a maize disease spreading across western Kenya, farmers are in need of seed alternatives and some are advocating the use of seeds genetically modified to fight disease.

However, genetically modified crops (aka GMOs, genetically modified organisms) are not yet a viable option for smallholder farmers. They are not an option for any farmer in Kenya.

The Kenyan government announced a ban of GMOs at the end of 2012. Only a year earlier it used GM corn to meet the emergency hunger needs of Kenyans caused by the drought across the Horn of Africa.

“The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health,” said the official statement.

The government announced that testing would commence in 2013 to determine the safety of bringing GMOs into Kenya. Pressure is on Kenya to change course and allow GMOs to gain entrance from advocates and even the US.

While Western nations battle over whether or not to label foods as GM or whether to ban them altogether, Kenya is still in the process of determining if they should be legalized. At a time when rain patterns are changing and people living in the north are vulnerable to drought, the potential of improved seed presents a lot of promise for Kenyan farmers. Continue reading

GM food fight: Why the Gates Foundation wants to make rice golden | 

Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk
Golden Rice grain being held by IRRI scientist Parminder Virk

Imagine if you could prevent hundreds of millions of children from suffering malnutrition maladies such as blindness, stunting, poor health overall and death by simply dropping a missing vitamin in their daily bowl of rice. Or by messing around with a few genes.

That’s essentially what scientists, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, hope to accomplish with a new form of rice dubbed ‘golden rice.’

It’s golden because, unlike natural rice, it has been genetically modified to produce the very yellow nutrient and precursor to vitamin A known as beta carotene. Experts estimate that 250 million poor children don’t get enough vitamin A in their diet, at least half a million die, go blind or otherwise suffer greatly for the lack of it.

Despite its intended humanitarian purpose, golden rice is highly controversial – because it is a GMO, a genetically modified organism.

For example, a report today from NPR’s Dan Charles, Golden Rice Study Violated Ethical Rules, is the latest in a long-running dispute over the still-experimental foodstuff. Here’s an earlier report from Nature on the same ‘scandal’ in China that erupted because unwitting volunteers were reportedly fed the golden rice to test for nutritional benefit but not told they were eating a GMO.

Further, in the Philippines where golden rice is under study, field tests of the crop have been ripped up and some Filipino farmers have vowed to prevent the GM crop from being approved for the market.

The scientists found that the golden rice did a good job at providing the nutrient, but the researchers were punished by Chinese officials and lost their jobs for failing to warn participants that they were eating GMO rice. Tufts researchers, in the NPR story today, said the sackings appeared justified for breaching research ethics.

Vitamin A deficiency worldwide
Vitamin A deficiency worldwide

Missed in all this is the simple fact that the Chinese study did show golden rice can prevent deadly vitamin A deficiency with no apparent adverse health effects. Informed consent is important in research, of course, but perhaps it’s worth noting that most Americans are already eating GMOs on a daily basis (most of our corn and soy, for example) to little furor. Nobody here feeding us this stuff is getting fired or embroiled in scandal.

That may all change, as I noted yesterday, as the battle over GM foods heats up with Seattle shaping up to become one of the main fronts. Accurately or not, the Gates Foundation is regarded as a leading advocate for the expanded use of GM crops globally.

“We fully expect golden rice will continue to be a lightning rod in this debate,” said Alex Reid, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation on its agricultural programs. Continue reading

Five reasons Seattle is ground zero in the global debate over GM foods | 

Vandana Shiva at Yes! confab says No to Gates Foundation's support of GM foods
Vandana Shiva at Yes! confab says No to Gates Foundation’s support of GM foods

Seattle, and the state of Washington in general, is shaping up to become ground zero in the increasingly heated global debate over the use of genetically modified (GM) foods. Here are five reasons why:

  • Initiative 522, a state ballot measure that would require labeling of GM foods, has so far seen significant public support, according to opinion polls. Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield has lent his high-profile to the cause, joining Puget Consumer Co-op, Clif Bar and others.
  • Monsanto, a world leader in developing GM seeds and crops, has significantly beefed up the opposition to the initiative by recently contributing $4.6 million to the efforts aimed at defeating it. A similar ballot measure in California last year brought in $44 million from Monsanto and others in agribusiness opposed to it.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s agriculture program has supported research into GM crops for the developing world and launched a GM-friendly initiative called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
  • The Gates Foundation’s position on GM crops has prompted a counter-offensive launch of organizations like Seattle-based Agra Watch and others. Critics contend AGRA and the philanthropy are promoting (not just exploring) the use of GM crops in poor countries as a means to counter the regulatory constraints and general antipathy towards GM in Europe and other wealthier nations.
  • Officials reported last week that they were investigating a case of suspected GM crop contamination of an alfalfa field. A Washington state farmer had his crops (which he believed were natural alfalfa) rejected when they tested positive for GM traits. If confirmed, this would be the second known case of GM crop contamination in the U.S. since a similar episode, involving banned GM wheat, in Oregon earlier this year.

Last week, one more sign that this region is shaping up to become the focal point of the battle over GM foods was a sold-out talk at Seattle Town Hall. Sponsored by Yes! magazine, the noted Indian food activist and scientist Vandana Shiva was the keynote speaker for the Yes! confab — and emphatically called upon all those gathered there to say No to GM foods. Continue reading

Activists challenge Gates Foundation’s agricultural development strategy | 

AGRA Watch

AGRA Watch logo

Seattle-based AGRA Watch, an activist organization that believes the Gates Foundation’s approach to agricultural reform in Africa is environmentally, economically and ethically unsound, today released a protest letter signed by more than 100 organizations, food experts and scientists opposed to the strategy.

The letter was released to coincide with street protests in Cancun held by groups angry with the nature of the climate talks going on there this week. (Note: KPLU’s Liam Moriarty is there, and reports here.)

“The Gates Foundation is promoting a Western, industrialized agricultural approach that serves corporate interests, not the needs of poor farmers worldwide, a strategy that will also do serious damage to the environment,” said Phil Bereano, a member of AGRA Watch and a retired UW professor of technology policy.

Agricultural reform is a key mission of the Gates Foundation, which helped launch an organization based in Africa devoted to this called AGRA, the Allliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Continue reading

Gates Foundation responds re Monsanto investments | 

Flickr, by sarniebill1

The Guardian recently published a post on its new online Global Development site (funded by the Gates Foundation) in which their environmental writer demanded that the Seattle mega-philanthropy explain why it had recently upped its investments in Monsanto.

Monsanto is big on genetically modified seeds and crops. The Gates Foundation is trying to spur an agricultural revolution in Africa. Some see this as an unholy alliance to spread genetically modified organisms across the planet (lots of GMO crops are already all over the U.S., as it turns out).

Not surprisingly, many people commented on this article.

But I wanted to highlight one response posted the other day from Mark Suzman, advocacy director for global development at the Gates Foundation.

Below is Mark’s statement printed in entirety: Continue reading

Squeamish About Biotech in Africa | 

Planting in Kenya

Flickr, World Bank

Planting in Kenya

Boosting agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa is critical to the fight against poverty and improving health on the continent.

The question is how.

Last week, the Gates Foundation came under criticism for significantly increasing its investments in Monsanto. Many took it as a clear sign the world’s biggest philanthropy is championing the use of genetically modified crops, since this is the company leading the world in the production of GM seeds and crops. Continue reading