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August 05, 2008

GM potato is no good for small scale farmers

Dear Editor,

I would like to raise a concern I have about Hans Pienaar's article, 'SA's GM Spud awaits approval', which was re-published on your webpage on July 27, 2008 under the heading 'South African GM potato a step closer to market.' My concern is with the superficial coverage the article provides and what I would see as clear PR manipulation of the journalist.

The article is based overwhelmingly around the views and comments of Hans Lombard who is described in the article simply as "a GM expert." The article begins with the statement, "Africa's first locally developed genetically modified crop has finished it's field trials." It goes on to say, "The potato was developed for local conditions by an Agricultural Research Council team led by Dr Kobie de Ronde." It reports his view that the GM potato is a "homegrown project developed by SA scientists using an American design."

I have the greatest respect for the ARC and it's neutral, independent and objective scientific research. I would therefor be interested in Dr de Ronde's view on the development of this potato.

My concern is that the article fails to place any of these claims in context. For instance, the potato concerned is the patented Dutch hybrid Spunta, which was first registered in 1967 by J. Oldenberger. This potato is grown from True Potato Seeds (TPS).

Unlike ordinary potatoes which are grown by planting the tubers, these potatoes develop true seeds enclosed in tomato like pods. The significance of the hybrid Spunta is that the sale-able quality of the offspring of these seeds or the tubers will degenerate if collected and replanted by farmers. This means that growers will be unable to reproduce from parent crops as they have done from time immemorial and will be locked into repurchasing seeds annually.

The unfortunate part is that the patented genes will not degenerate and the risk of contamination of other varieties by the offspring remains at a high level.

While the article does make reference to "an American design" it does not mention that the "design" incorporates patented genes owned by two major GM seed corporations, namely Syngenta and Monsanto. http://iia.msu.edu/project_potato.html

This information seems important in the context of claims made in the original article that this is the "first African GM crop" and that it is "developed by South Africans"; the implication being that no foreign patents are involved.

The truth is that exactly the same Dutch-patented Spunta potato with the Syngenta patented Bt gene and the controversial Monsanto patented anti-biotic resistant npt11 marker gene was tested for eight years by AGERI, the Egyptian equivalent of our ARC. It may have been coincidental, but tests conducted on Bt potatoes by the Egyptian University in 1998 indicated structural changes to the ileum of mice.
The Egyptian Government subsequently refused approval of this very same Spunta GM potato. http://www.liberationafrique.org/IMG/pdf/usaid-04-2005-en.pdf

Powerful forces within the seed industry lobbied South Africa and with promises of huge R&D grants the project was restarted in South Africa. It was registered in the name of Golden Genomics, a company solely owned by Muffy Koch. Muffy was well respected and a highly placed GM lobbyist who had previously served on SAGENE, the authority which at that time granted approval for field trials of genetic crops in South Africa. http://www.lobbywatch.org/print-profile1.asp?PrId=271.

From the above it is clear that it is a dishonest deception to claim that this is an African or a South African GM potato.

Hans Lombard is a press and advertising agent. He bills himself as a 'consultant to the biotech industry'. Most of his work centers around the large Corporate GM Seed companies and their front Africabio. It is worth noting that most of the organisations which he represents have come under criticism for the way in which they promote their projects.

It is not only "GM-activists" who have noticed the inaccuracies of their claims, but also concerned Medical Doctors and Veterinarians regarding the downplaying of the dangers of anti-biotic resistant marker genes in the GM -potato for human consumption. http://www.emea.europa.eu/pdfs/human/opiniongen/5693707en.pdf

Agent Lombard contradicts himself when he says the potato tuber moth costs the food industry R40-million annually but then goes on to say, correctly, that because the damage takes place during storage, large scale farmers and firms do not have to fight tuber moths as their potatoes are processed quickly. He claims the GM-potato is specifically for small scale African farmers and will reduce their costs. But he fails to inform the public that African farmers have their own indigenous knowledge storage methods, such as the izisele method, whereby natural ammonia gas from the cattle kraal is channeled to the storage area to immediately eradicate potato tuber moth larvae.(National Dept of Agriculture/ARC http://www.nda.agric.za/docs/grain/grain.htm).

The truth of the matter is that there is no added value to this GM crop for small scale farmers, as there are simple and more cost effective methods of eradication during storage.

The Farmers Weekly, 25 July 2008, page 14 reports that Potatoes South Africa (PSA) will oppose the application for the release of the GM Spunta potato onto the market for commercial use. The PSA has also requested mandatory labeling of GM potatoes. Some months back the Cape Times reported that both Woolworths and Pick & Pay had also stated that they would not sell these potatoes. Yet Agent Lombard expects small scale farmers to grow these potatoes that have been rejected by consumers all over the world.

In two other recent cases the South African Advertising Authority have ordered Monsanto to withdraw adverts with misleading claims regarding the safety testing of GM foods. http://www.flag-sa.org/blog/2008/01/falsified-gm-food-safety-claims.html

I appreciate that your journalists will be generalists dealing with a whole range of topics, but this is an important global issue with potentially major implications for the future of agriculture in many parts of the world. I am sure that your journalists will therefore want to provide coverage that is balanced and informative.

To help deal with the issue of manipulation by lobbyists, SpinWatch - to whom I am copying this letter - is developing a database that may be of interest to your journalists and may help them to pose pertinent questions - http://www.spinwatch.org. The US-based Center for Media and Democracy operates a similar database: SouceWatch - http://www.sourcewatch.org.

Yours faithfully,
Trevor Wells
Farmers' Legal Action Group-South Africa

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