Comment on Bill Gates vows to defeat hunger & diseases in Ethiopia: Could entrenched political interests allow him? – PART IV 2 MAY BY KEFFYALEW GEBREMEDHIN by Girum

The strong foreign interests of the last five years in Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) agriculture, especially the huge financial flows into commercial agriculture, are evidence of the high promises the region’s agriculture holds for the future—not only for Africa but perhaps also beyond.

SSA’s agro-ecological diversity, its enormous possibilities and untapped resources have become irresistible attractions to the non-African world in measures unseen before since the end of the colonial era.

Especially since the 2008 food prices crisis the interests and imaginations of many nations, including that of high dreamer individuals, have found expressions in one form or another in Africa’s agriculture — food production or biofuels or agri-businesses, or activities related to livestock.

Putting this persevering attraction intelligibly and from carefully examined personal perspective, Karuturi Global’s Chairman Ramakrishna Karuturi recently told The Telegraph, “Roses have been the bread and butter for the company but agriculture is the future.”

If we take this investor as one example, Karuturi’s potentials have become enormous. He found his footing in Ethiopia, coming with small funds in his kitty and high hopes as his compass. Today, he is the largest land-renting Indian nearly for free anywhere in the world. Karuturi leases farmlands in name but literally owns now 100,000 ha, or 4 percent of the troubled Gambela in western Ethiopia, which ahs been cleared of its humble occupants. By the terms of his agreement, he is liable to pay $1.15 per yr/ha for 50 years, when his tax holidays are over.

The interesting thing is that, Article 8.1 of this agreement he has signed with the Meles Zenawi regime states, “This land lease Agreement shall be renewed on the same terms and conditions”, i.e., $1.15 per yr/per hectare—after 50 years. Bear also in mind that Mr. Karuturi now controls 10 percent of the global production and trade from Ethiopia, this one by the political and economic capital city.

This is not the whole story of how the government has been mismanaging Ethiopia’s natural resources. Karuturi is also the holder of another deal on 200,000 hectares, 8 percent of Gambela. He has signed lease agreement for 99 years under the same terms — renewable for $1.15 per yr/ha. He is free to start work on it anytime, if his means allow him.

Consequently, now perched on assets he calls “green gold”, donning the title Ethiopia recently proffered on him as its Honorary Consul in India, Karuturi asserted, “I want to be among the top four or five integrated agri-product companies in the world. And I will implement this vision out of Africa.” Unfortunately, for a man that now controls that many virgin farmlands, it rather appears as indicator of the depth of the insightless politics that has exposed the country to unmitigated risks and loses.

Such negligence on the part of governments of the region has made Africa ‘the jewel in the crown’ of every aspiring mogul from outside Africa— worst of all speculator investors.

Therefore, in the light of the above, without far reaching mental, attitudinal and systemic transformations and a higher degree of accountability, SSA should not expect to see progress nor presume it could manage to grasp that hopeful future resident in its agriculture. Certainly, this path of commercial agriculture is not in Africa’s interests! Down this route there is nothing optimistic about SSA’s agricultural development!

Science and technology as the new inlet into African agriculture

Another new vista into Africa’s agriculture has opened. African governments are being coaxed, to move agriculture into science and technology, as are enticed African citizens at the popular levels. This is presented to SSA as the Holy Grail that can ensure Africa’s future through its agriculture. They say this now is the path to a development that can eradicate hunger, poverty and diseases.

There are a number of groups working in this area, not all of them crooks nor entirely selfless.

The efforts by Bill Gates fall into this latter category. As I made it clear in the last series of articles under this title, the way I see it, I am hesitant to think that he is working for monetary gains. He certainly is working to ensure that capitalism gets firm footing in developing countries, a vision predicated on the thinking and belief that the world could be made a better and safer place, to a reasonable degree, by reducing poverty and hunger and, if possible, no diseases.

I salute him for the courage of his conviction. Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation has not been beyond criticisms for its lack of transparency. Also Mr. Gates stands accused of pushiness, in trying to get everyone lining up for his science and technology. The extent of his impatience toward those that resist his push or scrutinize him has been discussed almost everywhere and all the time.

In response, on January 24, 2012 he explained he protested the resistance to new technology in his hometown paper The Seattle Times, where he said this is “again hurting the people who had nothing to do with climate change happening”.

Too bad for him, his views in general have not swayed his critics, even if he likened the efforts underway to the agricultural revolution of the 1970s. On February 27,2012, The Seattle Times ventilated a widely-held view that dismissed Gates’ solution for world hunger as source “of concern to those of us involved in promoting sustainable, equitable and effective agricultural policies in Africa.” This response came to the paper with a South Africa dateline, representing the views of a number of grassroots organizations.

It is unfortunate that today ordinary citizens could not even take cover behind these. While acknowledging the selfless desire of grassroots movements to help and all the rallying behind a cause offer no means to prevent the ugly reality of hunger, poverty and deaths in Africa.

We also hear today fiery ‘sermons’ from people such as Dr. Webster Tarpley. They are only good at giving everyday folks goose pimples with their conspiracy theories. Of all of them, he is the most articulate and persistent of them, with a bent on the intellectual side and generous gifts for details. He has forcefully arrayed his forces against Bill Gates and the philanthropy machine.

A couple of times, he has managed to compel most of us to repeatedly ask, whether the billionaire is sworn to conspiratorially work against the southern hemisphere. Fortunately, it is easy to see that for Dr. Tarpley there is nothing sacrosanct. Day and night, he preaches for people to be watchful of the coming damnation and destruction if not by this or by that, including GMOs. He also speaks on behalf the southern ‘hemispherites’, urging them to be alert about the measures underway by Bill Gates and the crew of scientists he has assembled against fertility.

More transparency from Gates Foundation and seed companies needed

I touched the various aspects of the issues, above, just to show the extent of the pulls in every direction. Surely, some are serious and others attention seeking, a few of them not unreasonable. It is ignoring these that have encouraged and strengthened misgivings about Bill Gates and his efforts.

The adverse effect of this is that society is now embroiled partly with its spillover onto the philanthropic mission the Gates have embarked upon to turn things around in countries such as Ethiopia, whose people are in constant sufferings from both want and fear.

Unfortunately, getting a good feel or sense of whether this Bill Gates intervention is the real thing—like penicillin—or a scheme for the few to get richer is rendered difficult by the lack of sufficient transparency.

Bill Gates insists, “Most of the seed research paid for by his foundation involves conventional plant breeding. In those cases, DNA research allows scientists to pinpoint which genes are responsible for desirable traits. He compares the work to changes in modern libraries.”

Nonetheless, Raffaella Delle Donne claim remains unaddressed. In Seeking diversity, resilience and farmer control: putting the rights seeds in small farmers’ hands is vital, which appeared on AGRA (the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) webpage on June 19, 2009, she says, “AGRA falls under the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, whose senior programme officer is Dr. Robert Horsch – an employee of biotech giant Monsanto for 25 years and part of a team that developed Roundup Ready GM crops.”

In explaining that the NPR quotes farmers in the United States saying, “Roundup Ready is a line of gene-modified seeds that inoculate plants against a herbicide, Roundup, also made by Monsanto, that kills just about everything else.”

Good as it sounds, the catches of using its seeds are: (a) farmers are contractually prohibited from saving seeds and planting them the following year. If they violate that, they face lawsuits since they are not owners of the seeds technology; (b) the cost of seeds shoots up, event up to 50 percent from the previous year in the US, and (c) seed company could stay in business only offering seeds with Roundup Ready in it, “doing what Monsanto tells them to do.” Those that refused went bankrupt and closed shop.

When Addis Fortune’s Tamrat G. Giorgis took Sylvia Mathews for a ride on a grueling interview in Addis Abeba In July 2011, she said, “The intellectual property for all the works that MONSANTO does on drought-resistant gene is free. The company is losing money on this effort. We keep our investments and the work of the Foundation separate. It is what we choose to do, as we believe, the Foundation should focus on the issues we are discussing here.”

Ms. Mathews is President of the Global Development Program, and the turbocharger behind the Gates Foundation. The other important thing she underlined is the existence of choice for countries. To the question by Addis Fortune, “I am sure you are aware of these criticisms”, her response was unambiguous:

Yes, we are aware, but we always want to hear more. I think some of the criticisms stemmed from issues with the initial green revolution. Whereas the initial green revolution saved millions of lives, it had some problems related to sustainability defined by environmental concerns. There is also a valid criticism on how the water table has been exhausted in India. We are working on all of those issues. We are probably the largest single and private donor for organic farming.

We believe there are a range of solutions for the smallholder farmer that need to be examined and we are investing in a variety of them.

A second area that we, as an institution, receive criticism for is on the agricultural front; namely, on our engagement with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). We believe that there are suitable solutions that farmers need; and when we engage in breeding, we do everything from conventional breeding to what is called marker-assisted breeding, which gives us the ability to understand what things a plant has to offer.

And then, we do transgenic, which is the part that I think many people have a problem with, but we believe it is a part of the solution. We believe it needs to be safe; that countries need to make their own decisions; and that these countries need the regulatory capability to make those decisions. We have funded Michigan State University, along with NePAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development), to provide grants and technical assistance here in the continent of Africa for those countries, which seek regulatory assistance, so that their scientists have the capability and equipment to conduct testing.

There is a third, which has to do with the question of how hybrid seeds relate to corporations and companies that sell it. But, again, we believe that choice is up to the farmer.

On the other hand, on 25 May 2011 addressing AGRA gathering Bill Gates told the audience:

What’s going on right now in Africa and South Asia is not a collection of anecdotes about improvements to a few people’s lives. This is the early stage of sweeping change for farming families in the poorest parts of the world. It’s an historic chance to help people and countries move from dependency to self-sufficiency – and fulfill the highest promise of foreign aid. In the past we’ve invested aid in Brazil and India and South Korea, and they are all now dynamic actors in the global economy – some even joining us in giving aid to others. This is our hope for the countries of Africa and South Asia as well.

If that is the case, it would be wiser to look into the experiences of the three countries he touched upon—Brazil, India and South Korea. Perhaps there would be something to learn from their experiences.

Brazil

Brazil has been open to GMO for a long time, with prohibition officially ending in 2005. However, after years of experiences, for various reasons the number of Brazilians wanting to return to GMO-free food production is reported to have increased overtime.

In an article entitled Biggest Brazil soy state loses taste for GMO seed, Reuters in March 2009 reported that farmers in Mato Grosso, the country’s top soy state, are shunning once-heralded, genetically modified soy varieties in favor of conventional seeds after the hi-tech type showed poor yields.

A soy and corn grower Jeferson Bif says, “We’re seeing less and less planting of GMO soy around here. It doesn’t give consistent performance.”

Reuters also observes that another reason for Mato Grosso’s ongoing shift away from GMO-soy is that trading houses and meat processors, conscious that some consumers strive to avoid GMO foods, prefer conventional soy and will pay a premium for it.

Moreover, Alexsander Gheno, agronomist at APAgri consultancy tells Reuters, “Companies have been focusing their research on GMO soy more than on conventional ones. So in 10 years we could have 100 percent of the area planted with GMO soy not because this was farmers’ choice exactly but because development of new conventional varieties is getting scarce.”

Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that there are not those that speak favorably about GMOs and Brazil becoming a GMO country, as the technology improves.

From the preceding, the lesson to be drawn from Brazil for Ethiopia’s benefit is that things are not moving along a single lane. In a country that is technologically advanced, the region of Mato Grosso is disappointed with GMO, because the production expected was not worth the problems it entailed to producers and other businesses.

Korea

South Korea bought its first GMO corn food for the first time in February 2008. It imported, according to Reuters, 50,000 tons of U.S. genetically-altered corn in May for manufacturing starch and sweeteners.

In July 2008, Seoul imported from South Africa again 1.2 million tones of corn for food, partly as a response to the rising prices of food.

This importation has created differences between the government and the public. South Koreans oppose it because they believe that the import is a result of pressures and trade deals with Washington. A Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) accused the government as having “spontaneously destroyed the system aimed at protecting Koreans”.

In April 2012, the South Korean government purchased 25,000 tonnes of non-genetically modified soybeans from Archer Daniels Midland company for arrival in 2013, according to Reuters.

India

India’s is the best example of GMO laws, practices and expectations about the future in two respects. Firstly, they have the appropriate laws the objective of which is protection and improvement of the environment. The Indian law has four aspects:

Category I comprises routine recombinant DNA experiments conducted inside a laboratory;

Category II consists of both laboratory and greenhouse experiments involving transgenes that combat biotic stresses through resistance to herbicides and pesticides;

Categories III and IV comprise experiments and field trials where the escape of transgenic traits into the open environment could cause significant alterations in the ecosystem.
The second important aspect of the law is that through the biosafety regulations, they established a three-tier regulatory structure at the central level in New Delhi comprising focusing on: (a) The Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST); (b) The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF); and (c) The Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) under DBT/MoST.

In effect, the law in India has hardly opened the door wide-open nor did it totally close it on the future of science. The only complaint civil society organizations have against it is about weak liability regime

There are options how Ethiopia should approach this thing. I am also encouraged by the choice that Bill Gates and Sylvia Mathews spoke of, although we live at a time when citizens do not have faith in their governments either to tell them the truth or protect them or their environment. In the circumstances, the only option is to hold Bill Gates to be true to his promises that counties have choices, as citizens continue to scrutinize everything.

The most serious mistake would be to close the door on all sciences and innovations. Especially smallholder farmers in the case of Ethiopia have no other alternatives than benefitting from improved seeds and the appropriate types of fertilizers, suitable to the country’s soil types.

In the meantime, I see wisdom in the editorial in the 28 April 2011 issue of SciDev.net. To my mind, it has rightly framed the issue of GMOs and how countries and citizens tailor their choices. It stated:

Yet by focusing on biosafety, the political debate on GM crops may overlook the broader — and more significant — issue of how such crops will be used in practice. This includes the extent to which they will meet the needs of poor farmers, who are responsible for a large proportion of Africa’s agricultural output.

The big challenge ahead for those engaged in the GM debate in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa is not how to promote (or block) the technology, or even demonstrate its safety, although this is clearly important.

Rather, it is to find ways to ensure that GM crops benefit the rural poor, not just the shareholders of multinational corporations who are increasingly looking at African agriculture as a profitable investment.

The options before our country would be discussed in the next installment.

(To be continued)

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