Thursday, October 05, 2006

Monsanto: Africa's Johnny Appleseed?

For readers who may not know who Johnny Appleseed is, let me explain. Johnny Appleseed is an American legend. Say Johnny Appleseed, and almost any American who attended school in the U.S. or watched cartoons will know who you are talking about. The legend is based on an actual person, John Champan, who traveled around much of the American Midwest in the early 1800s spreading his apple seeds. Basically, he taught people how to grow apple trees. He became a legend, according to his wikipedia entry, "largely because of his kind and generous ways."

Well, according to a post at The Globalisation Institute's blog, it sounds like Monsanto is becoming the Johnny Appleseed of Africa. In all fariness, "How global business is inceasing crop yields in Africa," the title of the entry, merely reports on the results of a study by the Enterprise Africa! project, part of George Mason University's Mercatus Center. According to the report, "the 'combi-pack' - a package containing hybrid maize seed, fertilizer and herbicide for subsistence farmers - is helping to tackle hunger in Africa."

From the report's summary, the benefits of the combi-pack sound unassailable:
Farmers in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces who use Combi-Packs along with no-till, or minimum-till, agriculture have increased maize yields. Now, the farmers raise enough maize that they can feed their families and then sell the excess, earning money to fix homes, buy clothes, and pay school fees.

Furthermore, Combi-Packs combined with no and minimum till agriculture have had beneficial effects for the environment, reducing erosion, and conserving water. Swelekile Alina Nkosi, a farmer in Mlondozi in rural Mpumalanga, enjoys these benefits. “I’m so happy with this way of farming. What will happen when I’m old I don’t know, but one thing is good, and that is now there’s no water cutting through, so my soil is conserved.”
If you doubted the benevolence of the combi-pack, here's the clincher: "Farmers call the combi-pack 'Xoshindlala,' a Zulu word that means "chase away hunger."

But wait, what is the most incredible thing about the combi-pack?
The striking thing about the combi-pack is that it is not produced or distributed by aid workers - it is sold by the Monsanto Company to the farmers for a profit. Many critics of globalisation argue that multinationals will never help the poor, because it is not in their financial interests to do so - but Monsanto is proving them wrong. The sale of combi-packs is a mutually beneficial transaction: both parties are made better off by the sale than they would have been otherwise. It is also an excellent example of markets helping the poor.
I don't want to be too cynical, so I'm not going to suggest that anything about this report is untrue. But with just a little digging, I discovered that among Enterprise Africa!'s partners are several free-market think-tanks like the Free Market Foundation and the Institute of Economic Affairs. With a little more digging, I wonder if one might discover that Enterprise Africa! gets a little of its funding from Monsanto or some of Monsanto's "philanthropic" partners.

And even if it is all true, the cynic in me is saying that there must be some sort of catch. At the very least, as these farmers earn income from the surplus that the combi-pack helps them grow, I suspect Monsanto will be right there waiting to sell them the next level of seed/fertilizer/herbicide pack, with the promise that they can grow, and earn, even more.

If the combi-pack is everything that this report makes it out to be, and if my suspicions are wrong, then let's hope Monsanto is developing a combi-pack for India's farmers. Oh, and as long as Monsanto is being so magnanimous, perhaps they can compensate all of the people around the world who have suffered the health effects of exposure to some of the toxic chemicals Monsanto has blessed us with.

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gaddeswarup said...

This seems to be a very tricky topic for me with experts and journalists giving very different opinions. I tried to learn a bit about BT cotton seeds
and here are my impressions. There seems to be aggressive marketing and litigation from the beginning. See
for a case in USA and
for a recent bribery case which Monsanto lost.
On the otherhand, at least in the short term there seem to better yields (also more investment) but long term effects are not clear. The Chinese experience over a few years is described in:
Moreover, there is no one seed but a number developed over years. My impression is that it is an evolving technology ( now adopted to other seeds) with aggressive marketing and without careful long time research. One hope is that the problems that arise may be overcome with new research. In a country like India there are variations marketed by other companies who got the license from Monsanto and some illegal ones and it is not clear how carefully their developments arte monitored. In countries like Australia CSIRO seems to be monotoring and modifying the seeds over a number of years. Now with competetion from other companies with the second generation of BT seeds and the technology spreading to other crops, only hope is that differenent governments ( because these are sensitive to soil and climate conditions) will keep monitoring the long term effects of different aspects of this technology. One cannot expect too much help from Monsanto for this; see the case involving Fox reporters in the Wikipedia article and also their efforts in the internet.

Kamla said...

Thanks for that post.

Monsanto from what I have read so far has been involved for quite sometime, especially cotton seeds and corn.

I would be curious to hear what you have to say on this subject?

Also could you spell out at a basic level what are the long-term consequences of using genetically modified seeds?



kamla said...

I left my previou comment incomplete.

I was referring to Monsanto's involvement in India.



Steve Zavestoski said...

Thanks for your comment, Kamla. I'll try to post a more thorough answer to your question soon. The short answer, of course, is that GM crops are so new that we don't yet know the long-term implications.

Yes, as far as I know, Monsanto was one of the first biotech companies in India. There were at least a couple studies 5-6 years back of the responses of Indian farmers and activists to the testing that Monsanto began 7-8 years ago.

I'll try to cover all this in more detail in a future post.

Jimmy said...

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

I see nothing wrong with Africa experimenting on genenically 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 requisitioned locally. 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, todate, 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, itself eat them day in day out.
GMO Africa Blog

Steve Zavestoski said...


Thank you for your comment. 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 GMOs. 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. in 2002 (seehere for a press release from an organization praising the Government of Zambia for its decision to protect Zambia's small farmers). 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 4 hectares) 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.

Anonymous said...

Hello all.

Found a parody of the Monsanto logo being used for protest tee shirts:

I got one (before they take em off)