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The Covert Biotech War

The real problem with engineered crops is not so much the health risks, but that they permit the big biotech companies to place a padlock on the food chain.
 
 
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The president of Zambia is wrong. Genetically modified food is not, as far as we know, "poison." While adequate safety tests have still to be conducted, there is as yet no compelling evidence that it is any worse for human health than conventional food. Given the choice with which the people of Zambia are now faced -- starvation and eating GM -- I would eat GM.

The real problem with engineered crops is that they permit the big biotech companies to place a padlock on the food chain. By patenting the genes and all the technologies associated with them, the corporations are maneuvering themselves into a position from which they can exercise complete control over what we eat. This has devastating implications for food security in poorer countries.

This is the reason why these crops have been resisted so keenly by campaigners. The biotech companies have been experimenting with new means of overcoming their resistance.

Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all of which are suffering from the current famine, have been told by the U.S. international development agency, USAID, that there is no option but to make use of GM crops from the United States. This is simply untrue.

Between now and March, the region will need up to two metric tons of emergency food aid in the form of grain. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says that there are 1.16 tons of exportable maize in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Europe, Brazil, India and China have surpluses and stockpiles running into many tens of millions of tons. Even in the U.S., more than 50 percent of the harvest has been kept GM-free. All the starving people in southern Africa, Ethiopia and the world's other hungry regions could be fed without the use of a single genetically modified grain.

But the U.S. is unique among major donors in that it gives its aid in kind, rather than in cash. The others pay the world food program, which then buys supplies as locally as possible. This is cheaper and better for local economies. USAID, by contrast, insists on sending, where possible, only its own grain. As its website boasts, "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans."

America's food aid program provides a massive hidden subsidy to its farmers. But, as a recent report by Greenpeace shows, they are not the only beneficiaries. One of USAID's stated objectives is to "integrate GM into local food systems."

Earlier this year, it launched a $100m program for bringing biotechnology to developing countries. USAID's "training" and "awareness raising" programs will, its website reveals, provide companies such as "Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto" with opportunities for "technology transfer" into the poor world. Monsanto, in turn, provides financial support for USAID.

The famine will permit USAID to accelerate this strategy. It knows that some of the grain it exports to southern Africa will be planted by farmers for next year's harvest. Once contamination is widespread, the governments of those nations will no longer be able to sustain a ban on the technology.

All that stands in the way of these plans is the resistance of local people and the protests of environment groups. For the past few years, Monsanto has been working on that.

Six months ago, I wrote about a fake citizen named Mary Murphy, who had been bombarding internet listservers with messages denouncing the scientists and environmentalists who were critical of GM crops. The computer from which some of these messages were sent belongs to a public relations company called Bivings, which works for Monsanto. The boss of Bivings wrote to the Guardian, fiercely denying that his company had been running covert campaigns. His head of online PR, however, admitted to the BBC's Newsnight that one of the messages came from someone "working for Bivings" or "clients using our services." But Bivings denies any knowledge of the use of its computer for such a campaign.

This admission prompted the researcher Jonathan Matthews, who first uncovered the story, to take another look at some of the emails which had attracted his attention. He had become particularly interested in a series of vituperative messages sent to the most prominent biotech listservers on the net, by someone called Andura Smetacek.

Smetacek first began writing in 2000. She or he repeatedly accused the critics of GM of terrorism. When one of her letters, asserting that Greenpeace was deliberately spreading unfounded fears about GM foods in order to further its own financial interests, was reprinted in the Glasgow Herald, Greenpeace successfully sued the paper for libel.

Smetacek claimed, in different messages, first to live in London, then in New York. Jonathan Matthews checked every available public record and found that no person of that name appeared to exist in either city. But last month his techie friends discovered something interesting. Three of these messages, including the first one Smetacek sent, arrived with the internet protocol address 199.89.234.124. This is the address assigned to the server gatekeeper2.monsanto.com. It belongs to the Monsanto corporation.

In 1999, after the company nearly collapsed as a result of its disastrous attempt to thrust GM food into the European market, Monsanto's communications director, Philip Angell, explained to the Wall Street Journal: "Maybe we weren't aggressive enough... When you fight a forest fire, sometimes you have to light another fire." The company identified the internet as the medium which had helped protest to "mushroom."

At the end of last year, Jay Byrne, formerly the company's director of internet outreach, explained to a number of other firms the tactics he had used at Monsanto. He showed how, before he got to work, the top GM sites listed by an internet search engine were all critical of the technology. Following his intervention, the top sites were all supportive ones (four of them established by Monsanto's PR firm Bivings). He told them to "think of the internet as a weapon on the table. Either you pick it up or your competitor does, but somebody is going to get killed."

While he was working for Monsanto, Byrne told the internet newsletter Wow that he "spends his time and effort participating" in web discussions about biotech. He singled out the site AgBioWorld, where he "ensures his company gets proper play." AgBioWorld is the site on which Smetacek launched her campaign.

The biotech companies know that they will never conquer new markets while activists are able to expose the way their operations damage food security and consumer choice. While working with USAID to open new territory, they also appear to have been fighting covert campaigns against their critics. Their products may not be poisonous, but can we say the same of their techniques?