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October 31, 2010

Uganda: Mr President, stop Monsanto maize trials

by Opiyo Oloya

Dear President Yoweri Museveni,

I am writing to categorically reject the latest effort by Monsanto and others to start testing genetically modified maize in Uganda.

I first wrote to you on the issue on September 17, 2003, outlining my concerns about introducing genetically modified (GM) crops to Uganda. My fears then, as now, centre not on the science of GM which is quite advanced and could be useful in sub-Sahara Africa to boost food production, but rather on the potential enslavement of the end-users, namely, the poor farmers that are eventually forced by multinational giants in America and Europe to relinquish all controls over indigenous seeds that are genetically altered and then re-introduced as new crops.

Despite promises of “no royalty fees”, the multinational companies expect and will enforce the collection of annual fees from the poor farmers now forced to plant the “new crop”. Mr. President, one of the companies behind this maize research is Monsato, the US-based bio-tech company. Now, without being dramatic about it, the aggressive business model of marketing GM seeds around the world was pioneered by Monsanto. This is the same company that sued a Canadian farmer named Percy Schmeiser in August 1998 because the farmer’s crop became cross-pollinated by Monsanto’s genetically modified canola. Monsanto contended that Schmeiser did not pay to use their GM seeds, while Schmeiser argued that he was the victim because Monsanto’s GM canola contaminated his field of indigenous canola. Two lower Canadian courts sided with Monsanto, ruling that Schmeiser owed the big multinational over $200,000 in damages for property infringement.

When the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada in May 2004, five out of nine judges sided with Monsanto saying that indeed the company had every right to protect its property rights, in this case, the GM seeds. But in a carefully-worded ruling, the Supreme Court also ruled that Schmeiser did not have to pay anything because he did not profit from the GM seeds. In 2008, Monsanto agreed to pay the cost of cleaning up Schmeiser’s contaminated field.

Mr. President, Monsanto is in it for the money not to help little poor Uganda farmers make abundant harvests of maize. The case of what became known as the “chapati scandal” illustrates my point very clearly.

In early 2004, Monsanto was awarded American and European patent rights to India’s century-old wheat variety known as Nap Hal which is particularly suited for making delicious chapatis that Indians have enjoyed from the beginning of time. In fact, Monsanto bought the rights to patent Nap Hal from Unilever in 1998, thereby staking its rights to having “invented” part of Nap Hal.

The people of India understandably could not take this lying down, and quite rightfully challenged Monsanto in court, and in every forum. In May 2004, with the possibility of losing face, Monsanto sold its Nap Hal rights to a French company named RAGT Genetiques SA. In September 2004, the European Patent Office (EPO) pulled the plug on the whole thing, revoking the patent rights on Nap Hal wheat, thereby returning the rights to plant Nap Hal back to the people of India who had cultivated it for centuries.

Mr. President, let me put it to you directly this way. The plan to test GM maize in Uganda is a Monsanto project from the beginning to the end. Indeed, the Nairobi-based non-profit African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which made the announcement about the impending trial is a Trojan for Monsanto and other big bio-tech giants like Syngenta, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont. When the AATF was founded in July 2002, two of the prominent members of the design advisory committee (DAC) were none other than Monsanto’s golden boy Dr. Gerard Barry who was instrumental in expanding Monsanto’s business empire in Asia. The other was Dr. Florence Wambugu who, upon getting her PhD doing sweet potato research, was hired by Monsanto to begin research on sweet potato.

Although AATF is very careful to camouflage its connections to bio-tech giants, the footprints in the sand tell a different story. One of its advisors William S. Niebur is listed as Vice President, Product Development, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. What is left out is the fact that Pioneer Hi-Bred was bought by DuPont in 1999, and Mr. Niebur is now a vice-president at DuPont.

Furthermore, Ghana-based Dr. Monty Jones is another AATF advisor who sits on the prestigious Monsanto’s Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program which awards fellowships. Another advisor, Dr. Josette Lewis a consultant for USAID has given at least two lectures at the Syngenta Foundation. But the most unabashed connection to big biotech companies was made by AATF implementing director Eugene Terry.

In a talk he gave at Columbia University in May 2004, Terry was upfront in aggressively promoting AATF by letting it be known that the core mission of the fledgling organisation was to “Enter into contractual agreements with existing institutions that will manage deployment of the technologies”. Translation: A team of lawyers will make sure that bio-tech giants get their money’s worth when their GM technologies are used in Africa.

Mr. President, do three things. One, stop the trial of GM maize immediately. Two, let a team of Uganda policy makers draft a policy that protects the rights of Ugandans, including my mother’s, to use indigenous maize and other indigenous seeds in perpetuity. Three, once and for all, make into law how Uganda farmers will be compensated by these companies when and if through accident or malfeasance, their indigenous crops become contaminated by GM varieties.

I repeat what I said seven years ago—the big multinational agriculture companies can take care of themselves. Your job is to protect Ugandans.

New Vision

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