The Guardian, UK
Nov 19, 2002
The president of Zambia is wrong. Genetically modified food is not, as far
as we know, "poison". While adequate safety tests have still to be
conducted, there is as yet no compelling evidence that it is any worse for
human health than conventional food. Given the choice with which the people
of Zambia are now faced - starvation and eating GM - I would eat GM.
The real problem with engineered crops, as this column has been pointing out
for several years, is that they permit the big biotech companies to place a
padlock on the food chain. By patenting the genes and all the technologies
associated with them, the corporations are manoeuvring themselves into a
position from which they can exercise complete control over what we eat.
This has devastating implications for food security in poorer countries.
This is the reason why these crops have been resisted so keenly by
campaigners. The biotech companies have been experimenting with new
means of overcoming their resistance.
Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all of which are suffering from the current
famine, have been told by the US international development agency, USAID,
that there is no option but to make use of GM crops from the United States.
This is simply untrue. Between now and March, the region will need up to 2m
tonnes of emergency food aid in the form of grain. The UN's Food and
Agriculture Organisation says that there are 1.16m tonnes of exportable
maize in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Europe, Brazil, India and
China have surpluses and stockpiles running into many tens of millions of
tonnes. Even in the US, more than 50% of the harvest has been kept GM-free.
All the starving people in southern Africa, Ethiopia and the world's other
hungry regions could be fed without the use of a single genetically modified
But the US is unique among major donors in that it gives its aid in kind,
rather than in cash. The others pay the world food programme, which then
buys supplies as locally as possible. This is cheaper and better for local
economies. USAID, by contrast, insists on sending, where possible, only its
own grain. As its website boasts, "the principal beneficiary of America's
foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80%
of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign
assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods,
created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of
thousands of jobs for Americans".
America's food aid programme provides a massive hidden subsidy to its
farmers. But, as a recent report by Greenpeace shows, they are not the only
beneficiaries. One of USAID's stated objectives is to "integrate GM into
local food systems". Earlier this year, it launched a $100m programme for
bringing biotechnology to developing countries. USAID's "training" and
"awareness raising" programmes will, its website reveals, provide companies
such as "Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto" with opportunities for
"technology transfer" into the poor world. Monsanto, in turn, provides
financial support for USAID. The famine will permit USAID to accelerate this
strategy. It knows that some of the grain it exports to southern Africa will
be planted by farmers for next year's harvest. Once contamination is
widespread, the governments of those nations will no longer be able to
sustain a ban on the technology.
All that stands in the way of these plans is the resistance of local people
and the protests of environment groups. For the past few years, Monsanto has
been working on that.
Six months ago, this column revealed that a fake citizen called Mary Murphy
had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the
scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops. The computer
from which some of these messages were sent belongs to a public relations
company called Bivings, which works for Monsanto. The boss of Bivings wrote
to the Guardian, fiercely denying that his company had been running covert
campaigns. His head of online PR, however, admitted to the BBC's Newsnight
that one of the messages came from someone "working for Bivings" or "clients
using our services". But Bivings denies any knowledge of the use of its
computer for such a campaign.
This admission prompted the researcher Jonathan Matthews, who first
uncovered the story, to take another look at some of the emails which had
attracted his attention. He had become particularly interested in a series
of vituperative messages sent to the most prominent biotech listservers on
the net, by someone called Andura Smetacek. Smetacek first began writing in
2000. She or he repeatedly accused the critics of GM of terrorism. When one
of her letters, asserting that Greenpeace was deliberately spreading
unfounded fears about GM foods in order to further its own financial
interests, was reprinted in the Glasgow Herald, Greenpeace successfully sued
the paper for libel.
Smetacek claimed, in different messages, first to live in London, then in
New York. Jonathan Matthews checked every available public record and found
that no person of that name appeared to exist in either city. But last month
his techie friends discovered something interesting. Three of these
messages, including the first one Smetacek sent, arrived with the internet
protocol address 220.127.116.11. This is the address assigned to the server
gatekeeper2.monsanto.com. It belongs to the Monsanto corporation.
In 1999, after the company nearly collapsed as a result of its disastrous
attempt to thrust GM food into the European market, Monsanto's communi
cations director, Philip Angell, explained to the Wall Street Journal:
"Maybe we weren't aggressive enough . . . When you fight a forest fire,
sometimes you have to light another fire." The company identified the
internet as the medium which had helped protest to "mushroom".
At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly the company's director of
internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had
used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites
listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology.
Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of
them established by Monsanto's PR firm Bivings). He told them to "think of
the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your
competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed".
While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow
that he "spends his time and effort participating" in web discussions about
biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he "ensures his company
gets proper play". AgBioWorld is the site on which Smetacek launched her
The biotech companies know that they will never conquer new markets while
activists are able to expose the way their operations damage food security
and consumer choice. While working with USAID to open new territory, they
also appear to have been fighting covert campaigns against their critics.
Their products may not be poisonous, but can we say the same of their
The Guardian, www.monbiot.com