viernes, mayo 14, 2010

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Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety

On more than one occasion I have run into biotechnologists from the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus (RUM) who after informing me of their work in developing genetically modified organisms (GMO's) they quickly assure me, apparently anticipating a tirade from me, that “it's not Monsanto biotechnology”, that they have nothing to do with that detestable corporation, and that their GMO's are not functional to the commercial interests of big biotech. Inevitably, the conversation leads then to a discussion over whether biotechnology (meaning GMO's) is good or bad per se. They say, as a well memorized speech, that technologies are neither good nor bad as of themselves, that they are neutral and therefore all that matters is who utilizes them and with what purpose.

After that, they launch into a recital of myths: that Norman Borlaug and his green revolution saved countless millions of lives, and that agroecological production methods could never achieve the bountiful yields of agrochemical-intensive industrial agriculture (I've heard all these unfounded affirmations a thousand and one times already). Regarding the inherent human health hazards of GM foods, total ignorance. I won't even ask them if they have ever heard of Jeffrey Smith, G.E. Seralini or Arpad Pusztai. With regards to the inevitable genetic pollution caused by the uncontrollable dispersion of pollen and seeds from GM crops, they either regard is as unimportant or they deny it altogether (if the tenured PhD's do not know it, any campesino can inform them that the nature of the seed is to propagate itself). About the historic Chapela-Quist study, they still haven't learned about it, or they say erroneously that it has been discredited. Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow have nothing to fear from the “critical” discourse of the progressive biotechnologists. On the contrary, it suits them perfectly.

RUM biotechnologists proclaim with great pride that they are developing a GM cassava (also known as yucca or manioc) with increased nutritional content, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The test field of this “wonder yucca” is in a UPR experimental substation in the municipality of Isabela, in the island's northwest. It is located on the north side of road #2, very close to the neighboring town of Aguadilla. And, what a coincidence! Right across the road are the offices of Monsanto Caribe and over 325 acres of their GM crops. And just west of the substation there is a large lawn, possibly as large as the substation itself, dotted with military antennae, which form part of an emergency global communications network to be used by the Pentagon in case of a nuclear war. I do not mean to say that one thing is related to the other, but I find it very educational to see right next to each other two symbols of the colonial opression we Puerto Ricans live under: the military industrial complex and the corporate biotech “life sciences” industry, two reminders that we have no authority in our own land and no say in our destiny.

GM advocates can talk all they want about how these novel seeds help fight hunger, but they cannot deny the following fact: after a decade and a half of GM crops there more hungry people now than ever before in history. With the 2008 food crisis, in which the prices of basic foodstuffs shot up, the number of hungry people has exceeded one billion for the first time.

The causes of this disaster have been discussed exhaustively, with GRAIN, the Oakland Institute, Food First and Via Campesina offering the most insightful and timely analyses. The causes have little or nothing to do with an increase in world population or in the demand of India and China, as the Bush administration tried to make us believe, and much to do with speculation and market deregulation; bad loans from the World Bank; years of structural adjustment plans imposed on poor countries by the International Monetary Fund; neoliberal and free trade policies forced by the World Trade Organization and bilateral agreements; and the use of millions of acres of farm land to make ethanol and biodiesel for the cars in rich countries. GM crops cannot and could never address these problems, which are the root causes of the food crisis. Therefore, this technology will never be able to end hunger, or even reduce it, even if it were controlled by progressive technicians, no matter how much social conscience they may have.

But the pro-biotech discourse is stubborn and transforms its appearance with the same ease as the villain in the film Terminator 2. The more farsighted advocates of the “biotech revolution”, particularly Rockefeller Foundation president Gordon Conway, are now saying that we are right on a number of key issues. They acknowledge that herbicide-tolerant crops do not help in the fight against hunger, and that patents on life and “Terminator” suicide seeds are contrary to the interests of the world's poor and hungry. They also admit that the control of a handful of transnational corporations over agricultural biotechnology means that it will only be used to increase these corporations' profit margins at the expense of any humanitarian or environmental consideration.

But their basic idea remains the same: they want to blanket the world's farmland with GM crops. The argumentation they present now is that GMO's will work for humanity's better interest if they are developed by nonprofit institutions that devote their resources to developing crop species that are of little interest to biotech transnationals but of great importance to the survival of the poor, and that work to develop traits of relevance to tackling hunger, like improved nutritional content. And of course, the miracle seeds resulting from this R&D will not be patented and will be instead distributed free to all small poor farmers. In their view, no one can possibly present a reasonable objection to such a selfless undertaking.

The development of these “goodwill” GMO's is part of the philanthro-capitalist project of the 21st century. The philanthro-capitalists are high-profile entepreneurs like Bill Gates, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson and the Google billionaires, and their modality of philanthropy-on-steroids is rationalized by the elitist Davos forum and by international personalities like the influential Jeffrey Sachs and the comical Bono. This doctrine holds that governments, UN agencies and political ideologies have all failed to put an end to hunger and poverty and that it is therefore imperative that a group successful capitalists take charge and use the efficiency of private enterprise to save the planet.

Monopolist-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates has shown an interest in hunger in Africa that can only be described as morbid, especially in light of the fact that there are many more hungry people in Asia. In coming to the rescue of famished Africans, Gates has joined forces with the Rockefellers, who also know a great deal about monopolies. Besides, they have a whole century of experience in funding agricultural research, and practically invented modern philanthropy and the green revolution. Together, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations formed the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Through its Grand Challenges in Global Health project, Gates is funding Biocassava Plus, an 11-institution consortium (which includes RUM) that works to improve the nutritional content of cassava, essential for Africa's nutrition, through conventional breeding and GM biotechnology.

As if hunger in Africa were caused by bad seeds, and not by economic inequality (enforced through state terror), neocolonial trade relationships (WTO, bilateral trade agreements), the unpayable external debt and genocidal wars (which revolve around access to mineral and fossil fuel resources).

As if there weren't any Africans opposed to GMO's and to the plans of Gates and Rockefeller.

As if African civil society hasn't presented, over and over again, alternative proposals based on community seed banks, agroecology, food sovereignty and land reform.

We are told that this humanitarian cassava being tested in Isabela has nothing to do with big biotech's profit interests. But how independent is this wonder tuber?

Biocassava Plus is directed from the Danforth Plant Science Center in the US city of St. Louis. And what else is in that city? Monsanto's corporate headquarters. And they are not merely in the same city, they are across the road from each other. Monsanto's office and laboratory complex is in the suburb of Creve Coeur, south of route 340, and Danforth's building is right on the north side. The 40-acre parcel where the Danforth Center is, valued at $11.4 million, used to be Monsanto's, and was donated by the company. At its founding in 1998, the Danforth Center received a $70,000 donation from the Monsanto Fund. Hugh Grant, not the actor but the Monsanto CEO, sits on Danforth's board of directors.

Another Danforth Center board member to watch is Mexican tycoon Alfonso Romo-Garza, a man who always shows up wherever and whenever biotech capital is on the move. He founded Grupo Pulsar, a holding company with interests in biotechnology and seed development, with operations in over 110 countries, and also founded Seminis, an agroindustrial giant that was the world's biggest fruit and vegetable seed company in the world before being gobbled up by Monsanto in 2005 for a neat $1.4 billion.

The Center's founding president, biologist Roger Beachy, worked with Monsanto developing the first GM plants when he was a professor at Washington University, also in St. Louis. Last October US president Obama chose Beachy to head a new office at the Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). This institute was founded on the recommendation of the Danforth Task Force, a work group led by none other than Ralston-Purina heir and former Washington University chancellor William Danforth, after whom the Danforth center is named. And the task force's members were apppointed by Anne Veneman, agriculture secretary during the first Bush Jr. administration. Before heading the USDA she had been on the board of directors of biotech company Calgene, now a Monsanto subsidiary.

With such a revolving door between the private sector and public service, one can always land a fine job! Upon entering his new post at NIFA, Beachy spoke in favor of partnerships between universities and corporations, said also that GM foods are perfectly safe and that therefore labeling is unnecessary, and that safety standards that apply to agribusiness should also apply to small farms, including organic ones.

In conclusion, Bill Gates' cassava is not independent of Monsanto's business strategies. Far from being a humanitarian and disinterested endeavor, it is a public relations tool to soften public opposition to GMO's. Also, it aims to facilitate the entrance of big biotech- and its patented seeds- into that great untapped market that is Africa, one of the last places on earth that agribusiness has not yet conquered.

When faced with this information, biotech enthusiasts retreat to their last trench of defense: complaint. They complain that we are being negative, that we are opposed to everything, and that we propose no alternatives other than a romanticized vision of organic farming. For the purposes of this article, I will ask them, and anyone who wants to use their expertise to fight world hunger and are sincerely disinterested, to do one thing only: to get acquainted with the final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), an enormous document that is to world agriculture what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to global warming.

The IAASTD report, written by over 400 experts- from international agencies, the scientific community, non-governmental organizations and the private sector- who compiled data from thousands of other colleagues from all over the world, and subjected to two independent peer reviews, is the most thourough assessment of world agriculture ever undertaken. It was funded by intergovernmental organisms like the World Bank, the UN Environment Program, UNESCO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It concluded, in short, that the current green revolution, industrialized mode of agricultural production is no longer an option. As an alternative, the report's authors recommend small scale agroecological production which uses local resources, precisely what environmentalists had been advocating and organic farmers been practicing all along. With regards to GM crops, the IAASTD report expressed skepticism and recommended caution, which was not to the biotech industry's liking.

This historical and extremely important report has been studiously ignored by the so-called academic experts who, believing themselves to be owners of the truth, have refused to listen to alternative voices and have instead dedicated themselves, in stubborn and foolhardy fashion, to constructing "El Mundo Monsanto". If we do not take action to change this situation, Puerto Rico will be in a ridiculous and tragicomical role: the US colony whose leaders loaned its territory and university graduates for the development of a biotechnology that is unnecessary, bears unacceptable risks and is increasingly rejected all around the world.

Ruiz-Marrero, author, journalist and environmental educator, directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety ( His blog, Haciendo Punto en Otro Blog (, is updated daily.


Aura Alfaro. "Crean 'superyuca' en Mayaguez" El Nuevo Día, February 28 2010.

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Biocassava Plus.

Marian Burros. "Obama agriculture picks sow confusion". Politico, February 11 2010.

Rebecca Carro Figueroa. "Desarrollando yuca transgénica. Científicos se reúnen para mejorar nutrición" Prensa RUM, June 26 2009.

Gordon Conway. “The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for all in the 21st Century” Cornell University Press, 1999.

Danforth Plant Science Center.

Danforth Plant Science Center. Romo-Garza profile.

Food First. “The World Food Crisis. What's Behind it and What we can do about it”, October 3 2008.

GRAIN. “Getting out of the food crisis” May 30 2008.

GRAIN “China not to blame”. Seedling, July 2008.

Grand Challenges in Global Health.

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development.

Lobbywatch. Roger Beachy profile.

Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace. “Farmers can feed the world without technical fixes”, April 1 2010.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Oakland Institute. “Voices from Africa: Africans speak out against a new green revolution in Africa”, March 2 2009.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero. "Guisantes australianos y papas asesinas" February 15 2006.〈=es

Vandana Shiva. “Why Bush is wrong to blame India for the rise in food prices”. Seedling, July 2008.

Jeffrey Smith. "Seeds of Deception: Exposing industry and government lies about the safety of the genetically engineered foods you're eating" Yes! Books/Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003.,

Via Campesina. “Concrete measures are needed to strenghten peasant and farmer-based food production” May 15 2008.

Emily Waltz. Roger Beachy interview. Nature Biotechnology, January 2010.

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