Greenwashing biotech


by Lucy Sharratt

Ten years ago, Monsanto tried to convince the world – Europe, in particular –that genetically engineered (GE) crops were needed to ‘feed’ the hungry. At that time, the message was largely greeted with derision as a cynical ploy to sell a product that no one, including people in developing countries, wanted.


Now, the biotech industry is regrouping and re-branding itself, but the PR message looks very familiar. Food and climate change – two urgent global crises – are the context for a second major public relations push for genetic engineering. This time, however, there is an added twist: biofuels and the promise that biotechnology can fuel the world as well as feed it.

This month, the Agricultural Biotechnology Industry Conference (ABIC: September 12-15) “Bridging Biology and Business” kicks off in Saskatoon with a “Flower Power Biodiesel Workshop” aimed at the public. During this conference, we will likely see more media stories about how GE crops are needed to solve the major crises of our time. Conference sponsors include Bayer CropScience, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Genome British Columbia, Novozymes and Ag-West Bio Inc.

Believe the hype?

The biotech industry is attempting to participate in sounding the alarm over the global food crisis. One of ABIC’s keynote speakers, Julian Cribb, a journalist from Australia, will present a talk entitled “The Coming Famine: risks and solutions for global food security.” (This is also the name of his new book.) Cribb will stress that the urgent “global food security problem” is one of resource scarcity: we are running out of water, farmland and oil and that these and other factors, like the collapse of fisheries and changes in local climates, will all constrain our ability to meet future food needs. He is right, of course, and this is where the biotechnology industry wants to insert itself. No one disagrees that there is a world food crisis so the industry can argue this point without debate and try to take the moral high ground. Controversy arises, however, due to the corporate agenda to sell patented GE technologies as the solution, at a profit.

While industrial agriculture receives ever increasing criticism, from which it cannot defend itself, the biotech industry is strategically trying to paint its technologies as ecological and equally compatible with other smaller, less-intensive models of farming. “There is an urgent need, not only to redouble the agricultural research effort worldwide but to develop a new ‘eco-agriculture’ that is sustainable and less dependent on heavy use of energy, water, nutrients and other increasingly scarce industrial inputs,” says Cribb.

Recently, the biotech industry tested the eco-PR waters with articles arguing that genetically engineered crops should be accepted in organic agriculture (GE is currently prohibited in organic farming), a move that stands as testimony to the growing strength of organics and the coming showdown between organics and GE where only one will survive.

Cribb goes on to say that creating the new eco-agriculture is “humanity’s most pressing scientific challenge.” This characterization of the problem as a scientific one is the perfect description for the biotech industry because it invites them to put their GE crops and GE trees forward as the solution. Not surprisingly, ABIC’s closing keynote address is entitled “The Global Challenges Ahead in Energy, Security and Food.”

He blinded me with science

ABIC is a Canadian creation from the industry-associated Ag-West Bio Inc., which describes itself on its website as being “at the forefront of Saskatchewan’s bio-economy.” Ag-West members include the now defunct Canadian GM crop company Performance Plants Inc., medical giant Pfizer Canada Inc., biotech and pesticide corporation Dow AgroSciences Canada as well as government departments Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, Industry Canada and the Department of international Trade. The premier of Saskatchewan is scheduled to participate in the opening ceremonies.

ABIC will offer workshops from industry, academia and government, which highlight GE and related research and inventions under the three themes “Energy & Bioproducts, Health, Sustainability.” Genetic engineering is not the only technology on the table, however, as the presentation entitled “Synthetic Biology Solutions” makes clear. One of the major sponsors of ABIC 201, the company Novozymes, is experimenting with synthetic biology to create enzymes to more efficiently break down feedstocks into biofuels. The presentation “Agbiotech: The Global Sustainability Challenge” by Dr. Prem Warrior of the Gates Foundation – which is spending millions to establish what it calls a “Green Revolution for Africa,” despite the protest of African farmers – is sponsored by Novozymes.

The goal of industry conferences is that of networking and selling ideas. The conferences are designed to get everyone on board with a common communications strategy and to reaffirm the industry’s ideological position for corporate employees and scientists.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture, for example, is sponsoring a presentation called “Addressing Environmental Sustainability Through Biotechnology” by Clive James of the ISAAA (International Service of the Acquisition of Agri-biotechnology Applications). Every year, ISAAA publishes global GE crop statistics in reports that should be objective, but which are actually based on industry reporting and steeped in narrative in favour of the industry.

ISAAA has recently completed “a biosafety and biotech communication skills enhancement training” for Philippine government officials in a training that was part of a series of “capacity building and technology acceptance initiatives” related to GM eggplant product development, the product that farmers and consumers in India have soundly rejected. The communication workshop module “allowed the participants to improve their skills to effectively share information, respond proactively to inquiries and anticipate public’s information needs in relation to issues raised about the Bt eggplant technology.”

Real solutions are in the hands of farmers

In its “Proposals for family farm-based, sustainable agriculture,” La Via Campesina, the international movement of small scale farmers, states, “The major impediment to achieving sustainable ways of producing food is not the lack of appropriate technologies or the lack of knowledge of people working the land. The biggest obstacle is the way in which international and national policies, as well as the agro industry, are interfering in the food production system, forcing farmers to adopt unsustainable methods of production through a model of competition and ongoing industrialization.”

Across the world, small farmers are fighting to retain their knowledge and skills for the future. Dr. Melaku Worede, world-renowned director of Ethiopia’s National Gene Bank, argues, “Plant genetic resources are seldom ‘raw materials.’ They are the expression of the current wisdom of farmers who have played a highly significant role in the building up of the world’s genetic resource base.” Dr. Worede says, “Talk to the farmers. Go to their fields. Their knowledge of diversity and their selection criteria for different traits are the keys.”

Regassa Feyissa, director of the Ethio-Organic Seeds Association agrees, noting that farmers are sharing their detailed knowledge of how plants adapt to their soils and local weather with government researchers. “After a couple of days among farmers during a workshop in the Ethiopia highlands, the researcher from the national agricultural institute cried. They were tears of joy and sadness… In all his years of study in labs and formal research stations, no one had taught him to seek out the most important action in the food system: a farmer,” Feyissa recounts. According to Feyissa, lack of farmer involvement in research is often the cause of problems in the first place.

The criticism faced by Monsanto and other corporations – that their GE crops are inappropriate for small farmers and local conditions – have led corporations to pay some lip service to working with small farmers, particularly in developing countries. Because they are trying to sell their GE crops in Africa and Asia and have come across the political and cultural power of small farmers, the biotech industry is trying to paint a kinder, gentler image of itself as a cooperative research partner.

The ABIC Foundation states, “Helping the developing world through agricultural biotechnology is a complex challenge. An all-encompassing solution to this enormous challenge could only be achieved by the joint efforts of all those presently trying to find an answer. That’s precisely ABIC’s main focus: building a better world.” ( “Helping” with GE, however, is precluded by the centrality of the profit motive and the reality that the technology is patented.

At best, genetic engineering is a distraction that diverts resources and attention away from the real solutions; the worst-case scenario is that it actually destroys the possibility of creating those real and long-lasting solutions. The more we rely on high-tech solutions, the more we place ourselves at the mercy of those corporations that own and sell them. Faris Ahmed of USC, Canada’s oldest development agency, argues, “Most of all, food sovereignty is about making choices that will keep land, resources, and food production practices in the hands of those who know their landscapes best: farmers.”

The future of food relies on the level of control in the hands of farmers while the success of the biotechnology industry fundamentally requires eradicating that control.

Lucy Sharratt is the coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

Leave a comment