Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unnatural Disasters: GM and Biofuels

In an article about the highly suspect arrival of 40,000 tonnes of genetically modified (GM) maize in Kenya's Mombasa port, the BBC concludes "Many African countries are under increasing pressure to grow GM crops to tackle hunger and malnutrition, and drought in recent years has caused food shortages in Kenya."

This is very misleading, in several ways. Multinationals like Monsanto, which are having a lot of trouble persuading most countries to trust their attempts to take over world food production, want people to think that GM crops provide a solution to hunger and malnutrition. They want people to believe that their crops are resistant to drought, flooding, pests and whatever else. But none of these things are true. They have not developed crops that have any of these qualities.

Further, it has taken more than just drought to cause Kenya's food shortages. Much of Kenya's productive land is taken up with non-food or non-staple crops, such as sisal, flowers, tea, coffee, sugar and luxury fruit and vegetables. Most of these crops are for the export market. People cannot afford to buy food because they are poor. Because they lack empowerment, they do not have much choice as to what crops the country grows. And most people don't own large amounts of land, producing just enough to get by, if they are lucky. On the other hand, most of the industrial scale farms are owned by very few, well connected people, many of them foreigners.

The BBC article seems to take it as given that GM crops could play any part in reducing hunger and malnutrition. This couldn't be further from the truth. Most Kenyan farmers are subsistence farmers. GM crops were developed for rich farmers, mainly in the US. Some South Africans have fallen into the trap of accepting 'free' GM seeds and other inputs from the likes of Monsanto. Now they are stuck with contaminated land, crops they can't sell, rising input costs, shrinking profits and increased poverty and dependency levels. That's great if you're Monsanto but not so good if you're a small farmer.

This is probably the reason that the unwanted GM maize has ended up in Mombasa in the first place, but many Kenyans are wondering what it is doing there. Well, unless South Africans and some of the other poor fools who have been duped can now dupe others to take GM crops off their hands, they will have trouble shifting it. They have a surplus of maize in South Africa, which is bad enough, but a surplus of contaminated maize could prove to be a very hard sell.

High food prices, which are the real cause of hunger and malnutrition in Kenya and other countries, have a lot more to do with international speculation in staple food commodities. This speculation has recently been spurred by attempts by biofuel producers to buy up land cheaply in developing countries to produce yet more non-food crops or food crops that are destined for the petrol tanks of rich people. [Reuters have an interesting article about potential dangers of biofuels that the EU commissioned but subsequently 'forgot' to publish.]

Drought, flooding, pests and other phenomena can destroy crops and cause widespread poverty and starvation. But rich countries treating developing countries as mere inputs for the production of cheap raw materials, using cheap labour, is the real culprit in many of the famines and food shortages that are labeled 'natural' disasters. The real disasters are far from natural. They are artificially created for the benefit of the world's multinationals, the rich, the powerful and even those who just happen to live in the more fortunate countries.



claire said...

That reuters link doesn't work. I'm thinking conspiracy!

Simon said...

Thanks Claire, the Alertnet site seems to be offline at the moment and that may be the reason. I'll check again later.

Simon said...

It should be working now, Claire.