'Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger,' Monsanto UK's director of corporate affairs, Tony Combes, told the Sunday Herald newspaper in June 2003. But that same weekend Canada's National Post reported, 'Genetically modified crops are the key to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World, says a leading African biotechnology expert.'
That expert is Dr Florence Wambugu and such comments are far from an embarrassment to companies like Monsanto. In fact, Val Giddings, a vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, has said, 'I wish we could clone her.'
The industry has certainly done everything it can to help her project her unambiguous message. 'In Africa GM food could almost literally weed out poverty', she told New Scientist. In the journal Nature she wrote that biotechnology was urgently needed to counter 'famine, environmental degradation and poverty'. Resistance to GM, she put down to a 'strong anti-biotechnology lobby that actively promotes misinformation'. 'Africa must enthusiastically join the biotechnology revolution,' she says. Such a revolution, she told a Canadian newspaper in 2003, could pull 'the African continent out of decades of economic and social despair'.
Dominic Glover of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex sees such arguments as simplistic. They imply GM can magic away the problems facing poor farmers 'without addressing the complex and intractable issues of poverty, land rights, lack of access to credit and weak extension services.' The Director-General of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, has added to the list, saying irrigation and road-building are more urgent priorities in improving Africa's agriculture than encouraging the introduction of GM crops. (African farmers need water not GM crops)
Glover writes, 'Kenyan scientist Florence Wambugu has asserted that GM crops are ideally suited to poor farmers because "the technology is in the seed". In fact, however, the transgenic crops that are actually on the market all require a package of expensive inputs and special management practices, which pose special challenges and risks for poor farmers. They also tend to be crops and traits designed for industrialised, capital-intensive, temperate farming. This is primarily because they have been developed by private firms for wealthy northern markets'. (IDS Briefing 10)
Whatever the limitations of her prescription for Africa's 'economic and social despair', Florence Wambugu is a rising star. As well as writing for Nature, she has written for The New York Times, and appeared on CNN as well as several American TV shows. In an issue of Forbes magazine in December 2001, she was named one of fifteen people from around the globe who will 'reinvent the future.' In 2002 she was appointed to the Science Board of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative. She is also a DuPont Biotech Advisory Panelist, a two-times Monsanto Company Outstanding Performance Award winner, and author and publisher of the book Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology Can Benefit the Poor and Hungry: A Case Study from Kenya .
Florence Wambugu began her career studying zoology and botany at the University of Nairobi. She continued her education in the United States, graduating with a master's degree at North Dakota State University before obtaining a doctorate at the University of Bath in England (1991). She was then picked and trained by Monsanto for its GM virus-resistant sweet potato project. It is around this project that Wambugu has built her reputation, capturing massive positive publicity for GM crops in the process.
Post-Monsanto Wambugu became the first Director of the AfriCentre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in her native-country, Kenya. ISAAA is a U.S.-centered, GM promotion and technology transfer agency funded by AgrEvo, Bayer, Cargill, Dow, Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer, Syngenta, in addition to foundations and Western governmental funding agencies, including the BBSRC. Its Board of Directors has contained leading biotech industry executives from both Monsanto and Novartis (now Syngenta).
The AfriCentre's focus was projects that assisted the introduction of GM into Sub-Saharan Africa. As part of their mission, Wambugu and ISAAA spun off a number of innocuously named pro-GM fronts, such as the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), of which she is the Vice Chair, and the African Biotechnology Trust.
In January, 2002, Wambugu established her own, becoming Chief Executive of A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International (AHFBI). AHBFI's Communication Program is supported by CropLife International - an organisation led by companies such as BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta.
The main focus of the Communication Program is 'to increase awareness about the benefits of biotechnology and to generate and disseminate knowledge that empowers stakeholders - including farmers, policy makers, and the public - to make informed decisions about agricultural biotechnology for sustainable development.'
According to Aaron deGrass of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, 'Pro-biotech Western aid agencies have joined with these [front] organizations to quietly conduct one-sided conferences at up-scale venues around the continent, such as Kenya's Windsor Golf and Country Club, aimed to swing high-level officials in favor of GM. But critics charge these forums are facades for large corporations.' They also charge that these NGOs are far from being as representative as they suggest, merely consisting of a website and a few staff.
The cornerstone of Florence Wambugu's career has been the GM sweet potato project. She has presented the sweet potato as a crop grown in her childhood by her mother. 'The sweet potato is a woman's crop,' she says. Wambugu has also presented the project, which in 2001 moved out of Monsanto's labs into the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute as very much her own and essentially a Kenyan affair. Some newspaper accounts of the project have not even mentioned Monsanto.
But the project was not Wambugu's brain child. It was that of three American men: Robert Horsch and another colleague at Monsanto in consort with Joel Cohen from USAID. It was the three Americans who recruited Wambugu, who had just completed her doctoral thesis, for their project using USAID money to pay for a three-year post-doctoral position(1991-1994) for her with Monsanto.
Robert Horsch has said his role at Monsanto is to 'create goodwill and help open future markets'. Wambugu reinforces the point: 'it [the GM sweet potato] has no commercial value to Monsanto, except as PR.' Over the years Wambugu has more than repaid Monsanto's PR investment, working hard to publicize the project and securing a career as an influential advocate for GM crops in the process.
To grasp the extraordinary character and scale of the media coverage Wambugu has generated in her role as biotech advocate, it is useful to do a Google search on Wambugu + "sweet potato". It throws up hundreds of articles, mostly in the Western press.
Following a visit by Wambugu to Australia, one commentator asked, 'is it too cynical to suggest that having a black African as the face of a multinational chemical company is a spin doctor's dream? This seems to have lobotomised some journalists who have treated her views like the tablets from the Mount. Even the normally rigorous Jon Faine interviewed her in a way that was almost fawning.' (GM science can be blinding, Rankin McKay, Herald Sun, July 30, 2003)
Uncritical media coverage of a lobbying trip by Wambugu to Canada also drew critical coment, 'A black African woman in colourful traditional dress delivering a sermon on feeding the hungry of Africa is a real show stopper. And the right-wing press love it. They dont bother to ask about the sources of the sensational numbers she throws about, they dont ask to see the research studies to back up her claims for biotechnology or the world of African farmers that she paints in simplistic terms. They dont ask who is paying her way around the world. Perhaps they just dont want to appear impolite, even if truth is the victim.'
So what is the truth about the showcase project Wambugu built her career around? According to a piece in the Toronto Globe & Mail in July 2003, 'Dr. Wambugus modified sweet potato... can increase yields from four tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes.' A piece in Canada's National Post repeats the same figures, 'Dr. Wambugu, who continues to act as an advisor on the project, said the modified sweet potato seeds should be able to produce 10 tonnes of vegetables per hectare compared with a natural Kenyan crop that yields four tonnes per hectare.' (GM crops touted to fight poverty) However, back in 1999 in an article in Nature, Wambugu wrote, 'the production of sweet potato [in Kenya], a staple crop, is 6 tonnes per hectare', (Why Africa Needs Agricultural Biotech, Nature 400, July 1, 1999 )
Whatever the correct point of comparison, Wambugu's GM crop appears a run-away success. The only problem is, none of Wambugu's figures add up.
In 2003 Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Devlopment Studies examined all the available data for a detailed report on GM crops in Africa. He noted, 'Accounts of the transgenic sweet potato have used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation. An early article stated 6 tons per hectare - without mentioning the data source - which was then reproduced in subsequent analyses. However, FAO statistics indicate 9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4."
In other words, Wambugu's figures on average non-GM yields appear to massively understate the reality by anywhere between 40-60%. By contrast, if, as Wambugu claimed, her GM sweet potato were producing 10 tonnes per hectare, then rather than roughly doubling normal yields, the GM sweet potato would be performing no better than the conventional crop.
This is where we come to the nub of the problem. Despite the hundreds of items referring to the success of Wambugu's project, until early 2004 there was no way of knowing the actual yields of the GM sweet potato. No peer reviewed reports or official figures were published during the three years of the trials in Kenya. Thus, d espite all the claims of Wambugu and others, such as CS Prakash , about the enormous success of the project during that period, deGrassi noted in his 2003 report, 'At the farm level, there is currently no evidence about the performance of transgenic sweet potatoes.' The researchers, deGrassi wrote, simply 'refused to state how the trials, now in their third year, have performed.'
Yet the trials, with all of their unknowns, were presented by Wambugu as an agricultural revolution in Africa. To quote the Forbes article about Wambugu reinventing the future, 'While the West debates the ethics of GM food, Florence Wambugu is using it to feed her country.' (MILLIONS SERVED; FLORENCE WAMBUGU FEEDS HER COUNTRY WITH FOOD OTHERS HAVE THE LUXURY TO AVOID, December 23, 2002) The implication was that this trial technology was already benefiting the people of Kenya.
The article reported that the results were 'astonishing', 'The sweet potato is sub-Saharan Africa's first genetically modified crop, and its yields so far are double that of the regular plant. Potatoes are bigger and richer in color , indicating they've retained more nutritional value.' (emphasis added) For hungry Africa, we were told, 'Wambugu's modified sweet potato offers tangible hope.'
But then at the end of January 2004 the results of the 3 year trials were quietly published in Kenya showing that none of this was true. Kenya's Daily Nation, reported, 'Trials to develop a virus resistance sweet potato through biotechnology have failed. US biotechnology, imported three years ago, has failed to improve Kenya's sweet potato.' (GM technology fails local potatoes ,January 29, 2004)
Instead of Wambugu's extravagant media claims of doubled yields, the results revealed that the non-GM sweet potatoes had yielded significantly more than the GM: 'the report indicates that during the trials non-transgenic crops used as control yielded much more tuber compared to the trangenics'. The GM crop had also been found to be susceptible to viral attack - the very thing it had been designed to avoid .
New Scientist also reported the project's failure, 'Monsanto's showcase project in Africa fails' (New Scientist, Vol 181 No. 2433, 7 February 2004) Even before these results were announced, deGrassi drew a contrast with a conventional breeding program in Uganda which was able 'to produce a new, high-yielding resistant variety in just a few years at a small cost that... raised yields by roughly 100%.'
The success of this project gives the lie to another Wambugu claim that 'Conventional breeding research had proved powerless to develop varieties resistant to these viruses'. The conventionally bred virus-resistant variety is also a popular one with farmers, unlike the variety that had been genetically engineered by Wambugu and Monsanto.
Other shortcomings of the Wambugu project pointed to by deGrassi may help to explain what went wrong. Wambugu's yield claims are based on the assumption that the virus her project is targeting is responsible for massive losses. 'Yield losses from the virus can be as high as 80 percent', according to one KARI claim (Transgenic sweet potato could end Kenyan famine). In reality, the virus that Wambugu has focused on - the sweet potato feathery mottle virus (SPFMV) - 'is not a primary constraint on sweet potato production,' says deGrassi, 'nor is it a significant cause of food insecurity, let alone famine. SPFMV is only one relatively small factor among many problems that constrain production.'
The reason the wrong virus has been targeted, deGrassi suggests, is that its selection, 'resulted from pressures by American officials and business, rather than through a participatory process by the Kenyan agricultural research and extension system designed to meet poor farmers needs.'
DeGrassi contrasts Wambugu's project with the successful Ugandan one which has produced a new, high-yielding virus-resistant variety of sweet potato in just a few years and at a small cost. Wambugu's project, on the other hand, ran for over 12 years, involved over 19 researchers - 16 with PhDs, a rarity in Africa. So far, it has eaten up at least $6 million of funding from Monsanto, the World Bank and USAID. Once again this is the exact opposite of the claims made for the project - 'the time and money spent actually developing GM varieties are less than for conventional varieties.'
Nothing could illustrate better a point deGrassi is not alone in making, 'the excitement over certain genetic engineering procedures can divert financial, human, and intellectual resources from focusing on productive research that meets the needs of poor farmers.'
Florence Wambugu's reinvention of the future via genetic engineering exists only at the level of myth. Unfortunately, the Wambugu myth is helping to inhibit change for some of the world's poorest farmers.