Monday, November 9, 2009

Widespread Environmental Contamination and Loss of Biodiversity Are 'Externalities' to the GM Industry

The Kenyan government has been persuaded that it can 'revive' the country's cotton industry by introducing genetically modified GM cotton varieties. The first thing that springs to mind is the principle reason for the death of cotton industries in Kenya and every other developing country in the world: subsidies for American cotton farmers. It is not possible for poor countries to produce cotton at a price that can compete with the heavily subsidized American cotton, which is why most country's cotton industries failed many years ago.

Of course, these American subsidies are illegal and they are completely antithetical to the country's constant bleating about the importance of free trade. But double standards have never mattered to rich countries and they never will.

There may well be theoretical benefits to GM organisms, such as cotton, it's hard to know. The GM industry has been pumping out inaccurate and misleading data on trials for so long that they probably don't even know what is true and what isn't by now, and probably don't care much, either.

But the problems that will arise if farmers buy into the thirty pieces of GM silver are more obvious, for those who can be bothered about them. The GM producer in question, Monsanto, which has an unrivalled corporate social responsibility record, claims that farmers will save on pesticide costs because they have to spray less frequently. Unfortunately, they will be obliged to pay more for seeds, spray using expensive pesticides produced by Monsanto and the land they spray will be denuded of all species, from the microscopic up. Expensive Monsanto herbicides will do the same for any plant species.

This is a mere externality to Monsanto and probably to the Kenyan government. The fact that the land and water surrounding land planted with this cotton will be contaminated, probably irreversibly, is also an externality and those promoting the introduction of GM cotton even have the cheek (or ignorance) to claim that it will have a positive impact on the environment and the health of those working on cotton plantations.

In addition to the problem of having to buy seed every year from Monsanto, because it's not possible or even permissible to collect seed at the end of the season, it will be difficult for the farmers to get out of the grip of Monsanto, if and when they wish to. Their land and the land around will be contaminated with the GM cotton for generations and even these contaminated crops could be deemed to the be intellectual property of those generous people at Monsanto.

Many of the claims put about by GM hawkers are yet to be backed up by evidence but even they make little effort now to deny that GM crops are unlikely to be of any benefit to small farmers. The vast majority of farmers in Kenya and other developing countries are subsistence farmers who aim to grow enough food to live on and sometimes grow some cash crops to supplement their income. Although various cash crops have long been foisted on small farmers, many have felt the sting of becoming locked into producing things like tea, sisal, coffee, sugar and biofuels, for example, only to find that yields and prices never match up to what they were promised.

Small farmers who buy into GM crops need to ask themselves if they can afford to become locked into yet another non-food crop that will never be truly economical and may leave them worse off than before. Large scale farmers may not experience the same worries, but whole communities in Kenya and other countries need to consider what the potential effects of widespread contaminated land and water may be. They also need to consider the consequences of most of their food production being owned by a multinational that is not even bound by the country's laws.

It's worthwhile for Kenyans to bear in mind that cotton industries in developing countries did not decline because of pests and other problems but because a more powerful country controls the market. This is not likely to change quickly and the Americans are not going to give up the level of control that they have cheated so hard to obtain. Similar remarks apply to other GM crops. GM is not a technology for the poor, it is a technology for the powerful, like many technologies. But of course, it's of less use to the powerful unless the poor believe that they too need GM technology.



Toni said...

Hi there,

My name is Toni Petter and I am a journalism student in Ottawa, Canada currently working on a story about the Kenyan government's decision to conduct a survey of its homosexual population, even though it is illegal to be gay in Kenya.

I was hoping you might be able to answer some of my questions about this issue.

Please let me know an email address where I can reach you.

or email me at



Simon said...

Thanks for your message, Toni, the only information I have is from the mainstream press, which I link to in a recent posting:

You will need to follow up the BBC article but you will also find plenty of material on it by checking other African blogs, especially those with a gay theme. For example, you could try:

As I said in the posting where I covered the issue, I think the proposal to carry out such a census is seriously flawed. I don't think anyone, gay or otherwise, should trust that data collected will be kept confidential in a country where a few dollars can go such a long way.

I will reply to you privately as well.

George said...

Cracking piece, Simon. You give me hope that the plague of denial (see ) can be overcome. It is one web of exploitation wrecking the world and impoverishing 4/5ths of its human inhabitants: be it climate change, GM, or Christmas banking bonuses.

Simon said...

Thanks George, the whole thing is infuriating, so many people think GM is a bit of a non issue now that so much of the stuff has come in through the back door. The scare stories about frenkenstein foods were a straw man argument and the reality is far worse. Especially the bits that they don't really understand yet or won't release the data for!