By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Biotech Ambassadors

Biotech Ambassadors accuses the State Department of pushing genetically engineered crops on nations around the world.

The U.S. State Department has been aggressively pushing GMO crops on countries around the world, using embassy connections to sway governments to adopt policies friendly to giant biotech firms like Missouri-based Monsanto, according to a new report by Food & Water Watch.

Based on an analysis of 926 State Department cables released by  Wikileaks, the report reveals  that U.S. embassies arranged dozens of conferences, speeches and policy meetings to extol the value of biotechnology and GMO-foods as the solution for an increasingly populated world facing land and water shortages.

The diplomatic cables examined discussed biotechnology or biotech seed companies. They were culled from a larger pool of State Department cables released by Wikileaks and were written in 2005 to 2009, when the State Department offered special funding to embassies to promote biotech crops.

The cables reveal that the State Department  lobbied for the acceptance of biotech agriculture by holding forums and conferences; lobbying against labeling laws and arranging junkets for officials to showcase biotechnology research in the U.S..

This was “a rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology” and a challenge to the “commonsense safeguards and rules” set up against GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods in other countries, wrote Wenonah Hauter, director of Food & Water Watch, in releasing the report, “Biotech Ambassadors.”

U.S. embassies should be working on food and agriculture issues,  according to the report, but their promotion of controversial GMO technology as the key solution amounts to “picking winners and losers” among agricultural techniques.

U.S. Promotion of GMO Foods Vital or “Outrageous”?

“We think it’s outrageous that the State Department spent more time talking in the cables about Monsanto and promoting genetic engineering than they did talking about food,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based non-profit.

Biotech agriculture, specifically genetic modification of plants to resist certain pesticides, is a controversial practice that builds in a dependence on chemicals that damage soil and water. It’s been banned in many nations over those concerns, and worries that the GMO (also known as GE for genetically engineered) foods produced may not be safe.

A State Department spokesperson responded to the Biotech Ambassadors report, saying that global diplomacy demands that U.S. embassies work to improve access to all types of foods as well as to the latest science.

“While we cannot speak to the authenticity of any documents referenced in the report [the leaked cables], it is important to note that the State Department works to ensure market access for all U.S. agricultural products, including organic, conventional and GE crops. We work in partnership with agencies across the federal government to promote biosafety regulatory systems in developing countries to enhance access to new agricultural technologies.”

U.S. embassies promote “the adoption of transparent, predictable, science-based regulations overseas” because it “increases market access for all U.S. products, including agricultural products, but it also promotes innovation in developing countries and encourages investment,” the spokesman said.

This promotion of the latest food science is vital, he said, because agricultural production “will need to increase by 60 percent or more by 2050 as the global population goes from 7 billion to 9 billion people.”

That projected jump in food needs gets to the heart of the core issue under debate:  How can countries relieve “food insecurity” and grow enough food for the future?

Monsanto Fail, Union of Concerned Scientists

Many groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, are beginning to question the value of genetically modifying crops to resist pesticides, because it has led to increased pesticide use and poisons beneficial insects, like butterflies.

Biotech multinationals promise to produce higher yielding, drought-resistant crops that use fewer pesticides. But critics of “Big Biotech” say that promise has not been realized in practice, and that pesticide-drenched croplands in the U.S. may be losing viability as weeds develop resistance to herbicides and chemicals change the structure of the soil.

At least one study has found that pesticide use increased between 1996 and 2011, the years when genetically modified corn, soybeans and cotton took over their commodity markets. Weed resistance has forced growers to turn to new chemicals, keeping them on a “chemical treadmill,” according to critics, which include groups such as the Organic Consumers Association and the Rodale Institute and many regional farm and food organizations.

These critics say a better approach would be to grow foods in chemical-free, sustainable soils and to strengthen local agricultural networks and traditional cultivation techniques to make sure crop improvements fit the region — especially in developing nations.

“If the (biotech) agenda that’s being pushed is adopted, you’re  radically going to change the food system in a lot of developing countries that is probably not good for the people that are there now, but it’s very good for Monsanto,” Lovera said.

“To make poor farmers in Africa farm like farmers in Iowa doesn’t make any sense for anybody except for Monsanto and John Deere.”

Given the debate over both the success and the environmental toll of biotech crops, the U.S. State Department should not be pushing them so hard in nations that might be better off sticking with native, organic  practices, Lovera said.

“This is selling a product, a controversial product, especially when you’re looking at developing countries, for the benefit of a handful of giant companies,” she said.

 “Science Diplomacy” or Shilling for Seed Companies?

The Food & Water Watch report accepts that the State Department’s diplomacy mission fairly extends to educating others about new science and technology.

But after reviewing the 926 cables, Lovera and others concluded that the department’s “science diplomacy” appeared to be “closer to corporate diplomacy on behalf of the biotechnology industry.”

Africa -- improved crops, cowpea-field-trial

Africa faces extreme food security issues. Advocates for sustainable solutions say crop rotation, biological (natural) pest management and genetic modification for drought tolerance and higher yields can help; but not the synthetic pesticides and monocultures promoted by of multi-national corporations.

The cables addressed biotechnology and the desire to further it around the world, but little was said about conventional food aid or cultivation, Lovera said.

The spokesman for the State Department rebutted that criticism, saying the embassies work with many food groups and also promote organic growing methods, though when asked for details about the organic programs, he did not respond.

As evidence that State Department officials favored biotech over other methods, the Biotech Ambassadors report cited cables that mimic biotech “talking points” and promote “a pro-biotech message that reads right out of the biotech industry playbook.”

“The  biotech industry promises that GE crops will increase farm productivity, combat global hunger and strengthen  economic development opportunities, all with a lighter environmental footprint. In reality, the shift to biotech crops in the United States has delivered increased agri-chemical use and more expensive seeds. Although many scientists, development experts, consumers, environmentalists, citizens and governments dispute the benefits of this controversial technology, the State Department merely spouts industry talking points.”

When the talking points fail to represent reality, the cost on the ground can be significant, the report contends. It details how efforts to cheer lead for biotech in Kenya, with the hope of making the country a role model for other African nations subjected that region to some  “spectacular” agricultural failures.

A GE sweet potato developed for Kenya with $6 million from the World Bank and USAID (US Agency for International Development), failed to develop the hoped-for disease resistance or increase yields.

Meanwhile, conventional researchers in Uganda succeeded in developing a high-yield, virus-resistant sweet potato at much lower cost.

Still biotech promoters pushed ahead with their plan for Kenya and encouraged the country to develop biotech-friendly policies, despite opposition from the Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum and the fact that moving to GE cultivation could jeopardize Kenyan exports to Europe, which bans GMO and GE food imports, according to the report. (Kenya’s future relationship with biotech remains in limbo. it is on target to plant GE corn and cotton in 2014, but has halted the import and sale of GE foods while awaiting a certification of their safety, the report explained.)

 Monsanto Mindset   

How did Monsanto — and its fellow biotech giants, including Pioneer and Dow Chemical (in the U.S.) —  convince the U.S. government to lead their crusade to dominate the globe?

In a nutshell,  they’re large companies with deep pockets, Lovera said.

“The global value of biotech seed alone was $13.2 billion in 2011, with the end product of commercial grain from biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at roughly $160 billion per year,” the U.S. Commerce Department reports (based on 2011 figures).

And that’s not counting the value of the chemicals being sold to growers. Monsanto’s flagship RoundUp is the top selling herbicide worldwide.

“This is an industry, the biotech industry — Monsanto’s their poster child, but there’s a whole industry pushing biotechnology, especially in agriculture — and they throw their weight around in Washington.”

The result is that a pro-biotech way of thinking has infiltrated government policymakers and agencies, such as the USDA and the State Department, she said. Additionally, the biotech firms fortify their position by funding extensive research at public universities where agronomists who buck the biotech trend can find themselves at the end of their career, she said.

“This is a world view of agriculture and what it should look like. We’re not alleging that anyone (in government)  was compensated or anything like that (for promoting biotech).

“This is now the official thinking, especially at the USDA, despite the window dressing they put on organic and things like that. And now we’re seeing that it’s also at the State Department. They are not neutral. They have picked a side and are promoting it.”

The dominance of the biotech firms would matter a little bit less if they didn’t squeeze out all competitors, including conventional and organic growers whose lands risk being contaminated by GE pollen, critics of GMO methods say.

In addition to spending millions to woo Washington, Monsanto is known for hitting hard against farmers that don’t follow its rule book.

CORN promo size

Monsanto has improved corn yields in the U.S. with corn infused with a natural toxin (Bt) to resist insects and genetically engineered to survive applications of Monsanto’s RoundUp. But environmental groups argue this system is breaking down as insects and weeds develop resistance to the chemicals; requiring more and newer chemicals, creating a “chemical treadmill”.

Monsanto requires that farmers buy new seeds for their crops every year, and sues farmers who try to reuse their patented genetically engineered seeds. The company has even sued farmers who’ve inadvertently grown GMO crops which blew in on the wind, a phenomenon  known as “genetic drift.”

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a farmer who reused leftover GMO seeds for several years violated Monsanto’s patents, depriving the company of its ability to profit from its patents.

Also this year, Congress passed a law, nicknamed “the Monsanto Protection Act,” essentially banning federal lawsuits against Monsanto over its GE crops.

Some critics argue that Monsanto — which controls more than a quarter of the world seed market — is simply too big to interfere with. Its patents cover more than 90 percent of soybean crops and about 80 percent of the corn grown in the U.S.. Livestock producers and food manufacturers depend on those crops, which dominate the American rural landscape.

A look at these numbers suggests that Monsanto, and the U.S., will need open markets around the world, both for exports and to generate new sales.

Yet much of the world has been skeptical of GMO foods, restricting their import and requiring labeling.

Even 17 years after biotech crops were first introduced in the United States in 1996, only five countries cultivated 89.4 percent of biotech crops in 2012 (the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and India).7 The seed companies need the power of the U.S. State Department to force more countries, more farmers and more consumers to accept, cultivate and eat their products,” according to Biotech Ambassadors.

Of course, U.S. State Department officials don’t see themselves as “forcing” countries into biotech agriculture. They view their outreach as helping countries access “new technologies” that will help feed a growing world “in a more sustainable manner, using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides,” as the department spokesman said in an emailed response to questions.

The U.S. embassies helped seed companies in a variety of ways, from bringing local legislators and private biotech representatives together at conferences to organizing travel junkets designed for specific situations. A few examples from the report:

  •  In Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Africa, embassy employees lobbied against labeling laws. Biotech seed companies generally oppose labeling in the belief that it can raise a red flag to consumers, potentially leaving the impression that GMO foods might not be safe. (Which is why labeling proponents want the disclosure.)
  •   In Slovenia, the U.S. State Department produced a pamphlet on “the myths and realities of biotech agriculture.”
  •  In Hong Kong, the consulate send DVDs of a pro-biotech presentation to every high school.
  •  In Poland, the U.S. embassy tried to head off a ban on biotech livestock feed by bringing a delegation of high-level Polish government agriculture officials to meet with the USDA in Washington, tour Michigan State University and visit the Chicago Board of Trade.

The Biotech Ambassadors report urges an end to these programs, because genetically produced crops are being imposed on countries that do not want them, on behalf of seed companies that do not need U.S. taxpayer support.

“That’s a core issue,” Lovera said. “I think most people don’t think we’re paying the State Department to go out and do promotion for a private company or corporation.”

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