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A Professor's Perspective on the Biotech Industry

Last week, I bumped into a blog entry by Stephen Zavestoski. Mr. Zavestocki authors the blog, The Curious, and is an Associate Professor and Chair, Sociology and Environmental Studies, at the University of San Francisco.

In his latest post entitled, Monsanto: Africa's Johnny Appleseed? Mr. Zavestocki questions the companyís phrenetic drive to introduce Combi-pack - a package containing hybrid maize seed, fertilizer and herbicide - to African farmers. Mr. Zavestocki jokingly challenges Monsanto to extend its benevolence to India, as if it's not already there with genetically modified (GM) Brinjal.

I would be overstating facts if I confess to have successfully deciphered Mr. Zavestockiís motive of authoring this entry. But I do suspect that he was driven by the anti-multinational biotech companies rhetoric that has become too much common to many people.

Upon reading Mr. Zavestockiís post I did make a comment, not in defense of Monsanto, but in support of Africa's right to experiment on new agricultural technologies such as biotechnology.

This is what I wrote:

"I really can't understand why people like you make noise when companies
likeMonsanto, DuPont, and Sygenta seek African markets for GMOs. Critics of
geneticallymodified food like you seem to be at home when Monsanto and others
sell theirhigh yielding genetically modified seeds to American, Mexican,
Chinese, Spanish,Argentineans, name them, farmers.

I see nothing wrong with Africa experimenting on genetically modified crops. After all, Africans have and continue to eat genetically modified foods from America. America is, perhaps, the largest donor of relief food. American laws dictate that all relief food must be requisitionedlocally. And it happens that most crops grown in the US are genetically modified. What's wrong with Africa growing its own genetically modified crops instead of relying on the US?

I have not heard of any America rush to ER for consuming genetically modified food. And no scientist, to date, has produced a scientific report attesting to the dangers of genetically modified food.

All this fuss about Monsanto and other multinational biotech companies attempting to dominate Africa's agriculture is too much ado about
nothing. And by the way, we Africans don't need anti-technology activists from
the West to tell us what's good or bad for us to eat. Apparently, the noisiest
gang on GMOs, themselves, eat them day in day out.

GMO Africa Blog

Visibly stung by my comment, Mr. Zavestocki, did send me this reconciliatory e-mail. And because there was no disclaimer not to share it with a third party, I hereby republish it:

"Dear James,
Thank you for your comment on my post at The Curious Stall. I have never been to Africa, and although I do my best to buy and eat only organic (i.e., non-GMO) food, it is inevitable that I consume food that came from GMO grains. So you are right, I am in no position to tell Africans what kind of crops they should or should not plant, and I hope that my post did not sound as if this was my intent.

Also, you may be right that no one has died of a disease related to eating food from GMO crops. In terms of human health and the environment, my concerns have to do with long-term impacts, and GMOs simply have not been around long enough for us to know what their impacts will be. As for Africans consuming the GMO grains the U.S. gives as relief, there have been cases of African countries rejecting shipments from the U.S. because they contain GMOs.

I'm thinking of Zambia, which rejected GMO maize from the U.S. in2002. I think GMO seeds have some potential promise, but I would like to see biotech companies find ways to integrate the use of these seeds into existing agricultural systems. Too often the industrial, and therefore very expensive, nature of GMO-based farming means that small-scale farmers ( e.g., less than 4hectares) are either forced to embrace more energy, labor, and land intensive farming practices or to sell what little land they have.

So, ultimately, for me, it is about the use of power. And biotech companies misuse their power in many instances in order to ensure markets for their products. I cannot say whether this has happened in Africa, not having visited there and not having read sufficiently about the use of GMOs in Africa. But in India, I know that this has been the case.

I hope you read my words with an open mind, and know that I am not an anti-technology activist. I am someone who is deeply concerned about the impact that the American way of life is having on people around the world. And I am equally concerned with finding ways to help people in the developing parts of the world live healthier and happier lives.



What comes out of Mr. Zavestockiís e-mail is that some people appreciates the benefits of genetically modified food, but they are reluctant to allow those in need to access them. I see nothing wrong with biotechnology companies marketing their genetically modified seeds to poor regions of the world like Africa.

About the Author: James Wachai is a communication expert, specializing in agricultural issues, and also authors the blog GMO Africa -

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