AFRICA: TARGETTED BY GENETIC ENGINEERING GROUPS
By Judith Achieng
NAIROBI, Dec 3 (IPS) - Africa is being targeted by multinational corporations desperate for a market to sell genetically engineered products which have been rejected elsewhere, environmental groups have warned.
Liz Hosken of the UK-based environmental watchdog, Gaia Foundation, said due to resistance in Europe and parts of Asia, large corporations involved in genetic engineering are now viewing Africa as a potential market for their products which include food and seeds.
'Africa is a soft spot because people are not yet aware of the dangers posed by genetic engineered products,' she told the first Euro-African Green Conference held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi this week.
'We are hoping that the European reaction will help Africa realise the dangers of genetic engineering and hence speed its own resistance,' she said.
Hosken warned African countries to watch out against a new breed of seed being developed by multinational corporations with the help of American and Japanese governments which, she said, would make African governments dependent on the corporations for seeds.
The seed, which is produced through the so-called 'terminator gene' technology, can be planted only once, the second- generation seed cannot germinate.
Hosken claims the terminator technology has been designed to prevent farmers from saving their own seeds, thus forcing them to buy from the corporations each time they want to plant.
Hosken and other Green officials say they have been monitoring the initial research of the terminator technology and have been campaigning to block the trial of an altered Soya bean seed variety in Europe, for fear that the gene may affect other crops.
The biggest threat, however, lies in the privatisation of the state-owned seed distribution companies currently taking place in Africa which are being taken over by the same multinationals involved in genetic engineering, they say.
The conference brought together environmental groups and Green parties from around Africa who expressed concern about the in-roads being made into Africa by multinational corporations some of who are already controlling the seed distribution and supply systems. 'We don't know yet if this technology (terminator gene) is already being used in Africa, but it looks that they are already creating the necessary structure through which they can supply their technology,' said a delegate from Mali.
Only Malawi has resisted attempts by groups like the US-based 'Monsanto' from taking over its seed supply and distribution system, according to another delegate.
In Zimbabwe, for example, all government-owned seed companies have been taken over and are now controlled by commercial concerns, which produce only hybrid seeds, according to Patience Goredema.
'There are many problems related to inappropriate seeds that are not suited to the climate and soil,' she said.
Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai not only believes that up to 90 percent of imported food consumed by the elite in Kenya's urban centres are biologically engineered, but also that Monsanto has taken over a banana-engineering project at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agricultural Technology (JKUAT).
She says she fears that seeds could be used as a political weapon by the corporations to 'starve' poor countries. 'The trouble with the terminator technology is that it can easily be used as a political weapon against poor countries, just like our people are dying because they cannot afford the cost of AIDS drugs,' she said.
Trade in genetically engineered products is supported by the Trade-Related Aspects of the Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) agreement of the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation (WTO).
TRIPs, which came in force in 1995 and sets up the first global intellectual property rights on biological diversity, also obligates all WTO member states to agree to the application of either patents or monopoly rights over plant varieties in countries by companies or individuals.
Failure to implement the terms of the agreement, which must be implemented in developing countries by the year 2,000 and least developed countries by 2005, would result in trade retaliation against offending countries, delegates fear.
Maathai, who recently defied the government to lead a group of Kenyans in replanting trees on the outskirts of Nairobi, told IPS that Africans can only conserve their biological resources by protecting their forests from destruction. 'One of the reasons why we have been fighting to save the forests is that it is where all our biological resources are,' she said.
Despite the alarm, there is still hope for Africa, according to Methin Zewdu of the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research (IBCR) in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia recently took the initiative to draft a framework on community rights and access to biological resources, based on the earlier Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for the African region and which was this year passed by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), he said.
CBD recognises, in contradiction of TRIPs, the rights of communities or even countries over their own biological resources.
African countries are backed in the campaign by the London-based Consumer International which is leading campaigns to get genetically modified goods labelled. 'If the producers are sincere about the advantages like longer shelf life in their products, then they should also label them, it is the consumer's right to know what they are eating,' said Amadou Kanoute of Consumer International.(END/IPS/ja/mn/98)