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The Uncle Tom Award
by Jonathan Matthews
A couple of years back I wrote a piece called “The Fake Parade.” It was about a march at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg that had been widely reported as a protest by poor Third World farmers in support of GMOs. A leading light of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) declared the march “a turning point” because “real, live, developing-world farmers” had begun “speaking for themselves.” What they had to say seemed pretty unpalatable to the environmental and development NGOs that have raised concerns over GM crops. A commentary on the march in The Times (London) was headlined, “I Do Not Need White NGOs To Speak For Me,” while, during the march itself, a “Bullshit Award” was presented to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva for being “a mouthpiece of western eco-imperialism.”
“The Fake Parade” showed the march was a charade. For instance, the main “developing-world farmer” quoted by the man from BIO turned out never to have farmed in his life. Instead, Chengal Reddy headed a lobby for big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh that aspired to becoming the operational arm of the trade association for the agrochemical companies active in India. Similarly, the “media contact” for the march and for the “Bullshit Award” was the daughter of a US lumber industrialist who had worked out of various free market NGOs such as the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. Her specialty was “counter protest.”
Of course, such attempts to position biotech’s soap box behind a black man’s face neither began nor ended in Johannesburg. In late 1999, for instance, a street protest against genetic engineering in Washington, DC, was disrupted by a group of African-Americans bearing placards such as “Biotech saves children’s lives.” A Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood, the New York Times revealed, had been paid by Monsanto’s PR firm to bus in the counter-demonstrators. Johannesburg does seem to have been a kind of watershed. Since then, Monsanto’s fake parade has really begun to hit its stride. From US administration platforms to UN headquarters, from Capitol Hill to the European Parliament, we’ve been treated to a veritable minstrelsy of lobbying.
Let’s pick up the trail amidst the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observances in New York City this January. That was when the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) invited some 700 diplomats, scientists, journalists, and Gotham High School students to come and consider the “implications and reality” of biotechnology at UN headquarters. CORE’s “World Conference” was presided over by His Excellency Aminu Bashir Wali, the Ambassador of Nigeria.
After lunch came the premiere of the film “Voices from Africa,” showcasing the results of “CORE’s fact-finding trip to Africa.” The film opened and closed with comments by CORE’s National Chairman, Roy Innis, who explained that it was his concern about hunger in Africa that led him to go there to see for himself and to investigate the potential for biotechnology. The film concluded with Innis saying, “We have to do everything possible to ensure that the African farmer has access to this new technology which potentially can do so much to improve his quality of life.”
In a talk on biotechnology at the Natural History Museum in London in May 2003, the world-renowned American botanist Dr. Peter Raven noted CORE’s strong concern about the obstruction of technological advancement. “Last month, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of America’s most venerable and respected civil rights groups, confronted Greenpeace at a public event and accused it of ‘eco-manslaughter’ through its support of international policies limiting development and the expansion of technology to the developing world’s poor.”
Niger Innis described that counter-protest as “just the first step in bringing justice to the Third World.” In September 2003, Innis presided over a mock awards ceremony at the World Trade Organization meeting in the Mexican resort of Cancun. The ceremony included participants carrying “Save the Children” placards while the awards went to those whom Innis termed advocates of “lethal eco-imperialism.” “Their opposition to genetically engineered foods, pesticides and energy development,” Innis explained, “devastates families and communities and kills millions every year.”
Cyril Boynes, Jr., the Director of International Affairs for CORE, said the ceremony was important “to draw attention to the destructive and murderous policies of these eco-terrorists.” Four months later CORE organised a teach-in in New York entitled, “Eco-Imperialism: The Global Green Movement’s War on the Developing World’s Poor.” In a press release, Innis said that, after the teach-in, “eco-imperialism” would be a household word, adding, “We intend to stop this callous eco-manslaughter.”
CORE’S rhetoric has been shaped by PR man Paul Driessen—CORE’s white Senior Policy Advisor, who moderated two of the panels at its “UN World Conference” on biotech. Driessen is the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power—Black Death. This book, which has a foreword by Niger Innis, lays at the door of the environmental movement “the hunger and suffering of millions of the world’s poor who are denied the benefits of genetically engineered food.”
CORE took its “first step in bringing justice to the Third World” on May 8, 2003. Within two weeks, George W. Bush accused Europe of undercutting efforts to feed starving Africans by blocking genetically modified crops because of “unfounded, unscientific fears.” Bush also called on European governments to “join, not hinder, the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.” The following day, the Bush administration announced plans to sue the European Union at the World Trade Organization unless it opened up its markets to American GM products.
The WTO case was filed by the US in the name of Africa, although Egypt—the only African country which could be persuaded to sign up in support—promptly disassociated itself from the US action. Egypt’s defection prompted American retaliation: the US withdrew from planned bilateral trade talks.
At the press conference at which the WTO case was announced, the US Trade Representative, Robert B. Zoellick, introduced a number of people of color who expressed their support for the lawsuit. One was a South African farmer, T.J. Buthelezi, who is exceptionally well traveled. In the last couple of years, Buthelezi has been brought not just to Washington but to Brussels, Pretoria, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and London for GM promotionals. He was also at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where he took part in the Fake Parade.
Unlike Chengal Reddy, Buthelezi is a real farmer—just not the kind of farmer he is made out to be. Buthelezi is exhibited as a “small farmer” leading a “hand-to-mouth existence,” or a “small farmer struggling just at the subsistence level,” as the head of USAID put it when introducing him to US congressmen. In fact, with two wives and more than 66 acres, Buthelezi is one of the largest and wealthiest farmers in his area, and Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies suggests Buthelezi’s accounts of his experiences with GM cotton might be embellished, since they are suspiciously similar to Monsanto press releases.
“These South African farmers,” deGrassi says, “...are plucked from South Africa, wined and dined, and given scripted statements about the benefits of GM.” Critics have coined the nickname “Bt Buthelezi” to illustrate this farmer’s unconditional support to Bt cotton. During a trip to Monsanto’s headquarters in St. Louis, Buthelezi was quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t care if it were from the devil himself.”
The “principal orator” at Zoellick’s press conference was C.S. Prakash, a biotech professor of Indian origin at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Prakash travels the world promoting GM crops on behalf of the US State Department. He also serves as the principal investigator of a USAID project “to promote biotechnology awareness in Africa.”
He is best known, however, for his AgBioWorld campaign, by which he has sent a stream of petitions and press releases in support of GM crops to international bodies and meetings, as well as to science journals and the media. AgBioWorld presents itself as a mainstream science campaign “that has emerged from academic roots and values” but its co-founder and “Deputy President” is Greg Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), whose multi-million dollar budget comes from corporations like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Exxon/Mobil. CEI was among the organizers of the Cancun event where CORE’s Niger Innis handed out awards to the advocates of “lethal eco-imperialism.” Conko was also an invited guest at Zoellick’s press conference.
Conspicuous in its absence from Zoellick’s guest list was the corporation that stood to gain most from the WTO action. When it came to honoring Bush’s election strategist at CORE’s celebratory dinner at the New York Hilton, Monsanto was certainly no ghost at the feast. The CEO of Monsanto, Hugh Grant, presided as chairman of the occasion. A little black-washing at an MLK event was a PR opportunity too good to pass up, particularly in light of other recent events.
Only days before Grant’s appearance, news had broken that his company was to pay $1.5 million in penalties under US anti-bribery laws for passing $50,000 to a senior Indonesian environmental official in an unsuccessful bid to amend or repeal the requirement for an environmental impact statement on new crop varieties. The bribe in question was just the tip of the iceberg: Monsanto has admitted to paying over $700,000 in bribes to more than a hundred officials over a five-year period. The Monsanto executive in charge of Indonesia at the time the bribery got underway was none other than Hugh Grant.
Grant was not the only controversial invitee to CORE’s King Day celebrations. Others have included the Austrian politician and Nazi sympathizer Jorg Haider and the right-wing radio host Bob Grant, who once called Martin Luther King a “scumbag.”
CORE itself has become increasingly controversial, and, in some ways, downright strange, since Roy Innis took its helm. Innis once branded opponents of racial segregation in the US “house niggers” and dismissed the struggle against Apartheid as “a vicarious, romantic adventure” with “no honest base.” When asked in 1973 why CORE supported Idi Amin despite the Ugandan president’s hatred of Jewish people and praise of Hitler, Innis is reported to have said, “We have no records to prove if Hitler was a friend or an enemy of black people.”
Innis has had no corresponding difficulty working out the enemy of black people when it comes to biotech. At Cancun his son Niger, a protégé of Armstrong Williams, handed out “lethal eco-imperialism” awards to the European Union and Greenpeace.
***“Facts don’t really matter. In politics, perception is reality.”
There was another award—an “Uncle Tom” award presented in front of an audience of grinning corporate lobbyists and libertarians to the Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific. PANAP is an organization that works with small-scale and family farmers, peasants’ movements, indigenous people, landless laborers, and women in countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Innis denounced PANAP for “selling out its own people.” Their crime? Opposing pesticides and biotechnology in exchange, Innis claimed, for funding from wealthy foundations.
CORE, by contrast, supports pesticides and biotechnology in exchange for funding from its wealthy “corporate partner.” As to “selling out” the people of the developing world, it’s worth recalling Monsanto’s history in Indonesia. So strong was the popular opposition to genetically modified crops in Indonesia that Monsanto decided to bring its GM seed into the country under armed guard. The farmers who bought into the company’s promises and grew that seed did considerably less well from it than the officials who took the bribes.
The GM cotton crop succumbed to drought and a pest population explosion that bypassed other cotton varieties. When the crop failed to produce the results Monsanto had boasted about, the farmers found that their poor yields had trapped them in a debt cycle, leading one farmer to comment, “The company didn’t give the farmer any choice, they never intended to improve our well being, they just put us in a debt circle, took away our independence and made us their slave forever.”
This is not an unknown situation. Sales of GM seeds, which are more expensive, are often supported in the developing world with special credit arrangements. In T.J. Buthelezi’s South Africa, for instance, farmer indebtedness has sharply escalated in the area where GM cotton has been introduced. In Indonesia, Monsanto’s GM cotton proved so unsuccessful that within two years the Indonesian Minister of Agriculture was announcing that the company had pulled its GM seed out of the country. The company’s legacy there is broken promises and systematic illegality.
That’s not, of course, the kind of story detailed in CORE’s “Voices from Africa,” where GM crops are presented as the only hope of salvation for resource poor farmers. Neither is it the kind of story told by CORE’s Paul Driessen in his syndicated op-ed pieces, which were timed to coincide with CORE’s UN “World Conference.” Driessen informed his readers that “these safe, delicious foods” were vital for Africa because they could “replace staples devastated by disease—including Kenyan sweet potatoes.” Interestingly, just a week or so before Driessen made that claim, the Kenyan journalist Gatonye Gathura received a Kalam award for journalistic excellence for his article on the sweet potato project, “GM Technology Fails Local Potatoes.” Gathura’s piece blew the whistle on the abject failure of Monsanto’s showcase project in Africa—a project that had garnered literally thousands of column inches of positive press.
Aaron deGrassi, in a detailed analysis of such projects*, confirms that the benefits from GM crops are much lower than can be obtained “with either conventional breeding or agro-ecology-based techniques,” both of which require just a fraction of the investment in research that GM does. He notes, for instance, that conventional sweet potato breeding in Uganda was able, in a much shorter time and with a small budget, to develop a well-liked, virus-resistant variety that had yield gains of nearly 100%. Any excitement over GM crops in the developing world, deGrassi argues, stems largely from the biotech industry’s PR campaign, which is designed to increase GM’s public legitimacy and to reduce trade restrictions, biosafety controls, and monopoly regulations.
Near the end of “Voices from Africa” there’s a telling moment. Over the image of a woman menacingly beating a club in the palm of her hand someone says, “We cannot just harshly or violently oppose this technology.” The film presents no evidence of violent opposition to GMOs in Africa, and in truth there has been none, only courage and resilience. But then, as Paul Driessen’s boss at CDFE reminds us, “Facts don’t really matter. In politics, perception is reality.”
Jonathan Matthews is the founder of GM WATCH and of http://www.lobbywatch.org
* Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Assessment of Current Evidence by Aaron deGrassi, published by Third World Network, Africa, is available at http://www.twnafrica.org/.
[22 feb 06]