Thursday, April 15, 2010

GM crops: U.S. branch of Oxfam being used to force the adoption of GM crops

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of Oakland Institute

By J. Chandler
Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TORONTO (IDN) – “I never resist temptation because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”: this citation from George Bernard Shaw’s Apple Cart does not hold true for Oxfam America.

In its quest of long-term solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice, the eminent organization has set “a very dangerous precedent” by endorsing agricultural biotechnology as a viable solution for resource poor and subsistence farmers in developing countries.

The U.S. branch of Oxfam is “being used by the industry in their struggle to force the adoption of GM crops in spite of strong global resistance,” according to the Oakland Institute and six farmers and biodiversity organizations from around the world.

The Oakland Institute, headed by Anuradha Mittal, engages in three main areas of interrelated program work: bringing a social and economic human rights lens to organizing and policy work, reframing the debate on security, and building strategic alliances to strengthen popular struggles nationally and internationally.

In an open letter, the seven organizations say: “We hope Oxfam America will retract its stance on biotechnology and join the global farmer, environmental, and justice movements united around the world calling for an end to corporate domination and contamination of our food.”

The non-governmental organizations that have joined the U.S.-based policy think-tank are: African Center on Biodiversity (South Africa), Bharatiya Krishak Samaj/Indian Farmers Association (India), Center for Food Safety (U.S.), Coordination Nationale des organizations Paysannes CNOP/National Coordination of Peasant Organizations (Mali), Grassroots International (U.S.), and Thamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam/Farmers Association Of Tamil Nadu (India).

“We deemed necessary to write because of a recently released book, Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers, which appears very biased in favor of transgenic crops and contradicts the findings of major assessments and research,” says the open protest letter to Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America.

“Also Oxfam America appears to be positioning itself as a 'good broker' for independent research on Bt cotton in West Africa with support from the Gates Foundation,” the letter of April 12, 2010 points out.

The book reports on the outcome of an Oxfam America project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Edited by Robert Tripp, it assesses the socio-economic impacts of genetically modified cotton on smallholder farmers in India, China, Colombia, and South Africa. “Although the book alleges its neutral stance on biotechnology, it appears very biased in favour of transgenic crops,” says the letter.

Its conclusion “transgenic crops offer enormous possibilities” not only contradicts several major assessments conducted by the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), it also ignores a significant body of natural and social science literature on the topic, the seven signatories to the letter say.

As colleagues who share the principles of Oxfam’s mission to “influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods,” the seven organizations are “deeply troubled that the study and its scientifically questionable (at best) conclusions, falsely support practices that hinder rather than help efforts to save lives, end poverty, and promote social justice”.

The letter adds: “The publication betrays the vibrant global movement that is demanding a more ecologically sustainable and socially just agriculture, free from corporate control,”

In reviewing the publication the seven organizations find it problematic for the following reasons, which they elaborate upon in this letter:

- False advertising on appearing neutral while endorsing GM crops;
- Incomplete research using selective information to arrive at a pro-GM conclusion;
- Its focus on GM crops as a solution to help resource-poor and subsistence farmers climb out of poverty.


The book claims its neutral stance on Bt cotton and purports that the study is “located outside the polarized debate”. The editor states strongly up front that “The narrow focus will not allow sweeping judgments certifying that transgenic crops are good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate.” Yet judgment about the benefits of Bt cotton is pervasive throughout the book.

Conclusive statements lauding Bt cotton are made, such as, “Transgenic cotton producing insecticidal toxins is a highly effective technology in the battle to control pest damage to cotton,” and “the technology has proven generally successful in providing additional protection against several important cotton pests.”

Each chapter features sweeping claims, such as that provided for the Chinese case study: “Bt cotton has made a significant contribution to Chinese cotton production… the new technology provided effective pest control and allowed farmers to increase their productivity.”

According to the book, in South Africa “research has clearly shown that the Bt cotton technology works.” The authors conclude that in India “Bt hybrids contribute to cotton productivity.”

Although the chapter on Colombia takes a more measured approach by positing that “it is not possible to attribute all of the productivity gains of Bt growers to the transgenic technology but it would certainly appear that it has made a positive contribution to those who have been able to use it.”

None of the above can be characterized as being neutral. Furthermore, review of a very limited volume of existing data on the topic to draw its conclusions is not neutrality, but rather indicates a clear bias, states the letter.


The book omits critical empirical data and analysis that would otherwise lead to a widely different conclusion about the alleged productivity and success of Bt cotton. Also the findings within each country case study are contradictory.

The book cites the Makhathini Flats experience in South Africa as the model example which “has been hailed as proof that GM crops can benefit smallholders in Africa.”

Most informed observers know well that Makhathini Flats is considered a Potemkin village for the biotech industry whose lobbyists swoop down in delegations to visit a handful of carefully nurtured farmers with scripts extolling the wonders of Bt cotton.

The book claims, “The majority of the literature has reported impressive adoption rates and positive economic returns.” How the authors arrived at such a sweeping claim of Bt cotton’s success is baffling.

The study ignores significant scientific findings that arrive at a substantially different outcome. According to a five-year study of farmers in Makhathini Flats conducted by Biowatch South Africa, the majority of small-scale farmers did not benefit from Bt cotton.

In fact, in their drive to purchase Bt cottonseeds – which are double the price of conventional seed – farmers amassed on average $1,322 in debt. Of the 36 farmers studied, only four made a profit, whereas 80 percent defaulted on their loans.

Another study published in 2006 in the academic journal Review of African Political Economy found that widespread adoption of GM technology in the Makhatini Flats was the result of limited choices for farmers. The adoption rate was high in the first years because farmers had no other option – one company provided both credit and seeds.

Although Bt cotton was supposed to reduce farmers’ dependence on pesticides, the study found that this was not the case due to the emergence of secondary pests, like jassid.

Ignoring these findings, the book based on Oxfam’s project concludes “Research has clearly shown that the Bt cotton technology works and that both large-scale and smallholder farmers can benefit.”

The chapter on China cites a 2002 and 2004 study (Huang et al) that found that “farm-level surveys in northern China show that the adoption of Bt cotton has raised cotton yields and allowed farmers to reduce their insecticide use.”

The authors, however, fail to include findings from a major 2006 Cornell study jointly conducted with the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and Chinese Academy of Science. The team of researchers included Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the 2001 Food Prize Laureate and former Director General of IFPRI.

The Cornell study found that seven years after the initial commercialization of Bt cotton in China, the profits enjoyed by Bt cotton growers quickly diminished due to the emergence of secondary pests.

Another finding was that Bt cotton farmers spent more on secondary pest control as their conventional counterparts: $16 per hectare for Bt growers, versus $5.70 per hectare for non Bt farmers.

By 2004, Bt cotton growers earned 8 percent less than their counterparts because GM seed cost triple the amount of conventional seed. It is also worthy to note that even before adoption of Bt cotton, pesticide use among Chinese farmers was already quite high in China, which does not bode well for current rates.

In the case of India, the study omits other findings that counter its conclusions. The authors write, “The introduction of Bt cotton has coincided with increasing cotton yields and production in the past few years.”

Summary of the book states, “although Bt cotton contributes to yield increases, its original purpose was to lower the requirements for insecticide use…The Bt growers spray less frequently than the non-Bt growers for bollworm… the Bt growers make somewhat fewer total insecticide applications and use a considerably lower quantity of insecticides….”

In the first week of March, biotech agriculture giant Monsanto admitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India, that field monitoring of the 2009 cotton season showed that pink bollworm has developed resistance to its genetically modified (GM) cotton variety, Bollgard I, in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot districts in Gujarat.

This admission verified 2004 findings of the scientists at the Central Institute of Cotton Research in India who warned of the risk of pest resistance to Bt varieties in a paper published in the Indian Academy of Science publication. The authors established a theoretical model to predict resistance development in bollworms due to overuse of the cry1Ac gene.

In a recent report submitted to Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister before Monsanto’s admission, K.R. Kranthi of the Central Institute for Cotton Research had cautioned that bollworms are developing resistance.

The report also warned that not only has Bt cotton been rendered ineffective, it has also led to detection of some new pests never before reported from India, which are causing significant economic losses.

Two reputable Indian publications, The Hindu and India Today, recently established that cotton productivity dropped from 560 kg lint per hectare in 2007 to 512 kg lint per hectare by 2009.

While the Oxfam study found that “Bt growers make somewhat fewer total insecticide applications and use a considerably lower quantity of insecticides,” the two Indian publications reported an increase in pesticide expenditure by cotton farmers from Rs. 597 crore in 2002 to Rs. 791 crore in 2009.

The chapter on Colombian farmers’ experiences with GM cotton concludes “it has made a positive contribution to those who have been able to use it.” This conclusion, however, is not backed by the data presented by the authors.

For one, if Bt cotton was so successful, then why did the percentage of land devoted to Bt cotton production drop from 70% in 2005 to 40 percent by 2009? The Oxfam study admits that GM seeds did not save “farmers significant investment in insecticides,” but claims that “the technology’s principal advantage appears to be its yield enhancement.”

But higher yields were not uniform across the areas studied. How can the authors conclude BT cotton to be a success when they found higher uses of insecticides for GM seed that costs three times the price of conventional seed? With a more complete and unbiased review of the extensive literature, the book may have drawn different conclusions, the seven organizations point out.

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