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Biotechnology and dispossessions in Kenya

Khadija Sharife

10 / 2010

Kenya’s agriculture has a history of producing for lucrative exports while the government upholds the marginalisation of dispossessed groups and reports of famines, writes Khadija Sharife. Resources that should be sustainably used to tackle Kenya’s famines are depleted, Sharife argues, as part of a disturbing, broader trend which sees land completely dominated by elite interests and in which ‘[o]wnership that could be allocated to those requiring land for food production is instead shifted to those with capital (foreign) or political access.’

From 1998–2000, when food aid constituted almost 25 per cent of total imports, and 23 per cent of children were classified as underweight, just 10 per cent of Kenya’s large-scale farms were productive. The rest remained idle for speculative purposes, such as foreign investment. More than a decade later, at a time when horticulture has become the country’s most viable industry, exporting 450,000 tonnes annually worth of fruits, flowers and vegetables such as baby corn, tomatoes and green beans (2009), the Kenyan government declared famine a state of emergency, thanks to the drought affecting one in ten Kenyans, specifically Maasai pastoralists.

Historically, until the commoditisation of land, Maasai peoples structured grazing according to drought patterns. Land privatisation initiated by the World Bank and DfID (UK Department for International Development) evidenced the appropriation of 40–60 per cent of Maasai grazing land, locking the Maasai peoples to small sections of Kenya’s Rift Valley, including the banks of Lake Naivasha, the country’s third-largest lake, and a traditional grazing area. The private ranches, established for the privilege of foreign investors and Kenya’s elite, was the latest legally enforced acquisition negotiated by political representatives that gave no more than a cursory glance to the marginalisation of the Maasai.

Over 100 years earlier, the Maasai were deprived of the right to land via a colonial agreement between the British government, represented by the East Africa Syndicate, amongst other corporate entities, thanks to a seemingly random medicine man Laibon Leinana, who, ironically enough, was not vested with the authority to do so. The ‘chief’ provided the settlers with the right to land on Maasai land. The Maasai, cumulatively evicted from 90 per cent of traditional land, were shifted to annexed land termed ‘protection areas’ or reserves, a move similar to the bank and DfID’s purported ecological motives.

By 1911, after losing 325,000 acres of land, Maasai had been evicted from the reserves when a further 2,300 square miles of the northern reserves were appropriated. These areas constitute the backbone of modern Kenya’s dairy and beef industries, primarily exporting to Europe. By 2004, Brookside Dairy Ltd and Delamere Farms Ltd dominated the industry. Delamere’s colonial ancestor had received 100,000 of the original 325,000 acres of Maasai land. These days, the Maasai – the face of Kenya’s hunger, depleted water sources (affecting 70 per cent of wells: 2009), dying cattle (150,000: 2009) and malnourished children – are confined to the driest, overgrazed lands in Kenya and are unable to graze in sync with Kenya’s climatic patterns.

In fact, Kenya hosts some of the world’s best farmland (Bowden), thanks to the combination of fertile volcanic soils and perfect climatic conditions, with temperatures of 20 to 25 degrees celsius all year round.

During the famine, more than 100 tonnes of water-intensive non-native flowers continued to be exported daily, without disruption, to Dutch buyers. In April 2010, when Iceland’s volcano resulted in the temporary closure of European air space[/url], the Fresh Producers Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK), exporting 1,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetable daily, would report a loss of US$3 million per night, accompanied by 3,000 tonnes of perished flowers. Kenya’s industrial floriculture industry via some 30 commercial farms, comprises one of the agri-industry’s top two primary sources of foreign exchange, estimated at US$1.3 billion (2009). FPEAK, composed of 150 growers, claimed that 82 per cent of exports were imported by the European Union. Included in these shipments are 88 million tons of flowers annually, located for the most part around Kenya’s fertile Lake Naivasha region.

By 2008, the Kenya Flower Council announced that floriculture raked in US$585 million, led by companies such as Sher Agencies and Kenya Roses. These companies, exporting 97 per cent of fresh-cut flowers to Europe, command 25 per cent of the world’s global market, a continuing trend that emerged at the turn of the millennium. But the industry, employing 50,000 people, is also in the business of exporting virtual water. Thanks to the country’s 40-year-old floricultural industry, the lake has shrunk to 10,700 hectares, roughly half its size.

The lack of water-sharing agreements enables flower companies based around the lake to essentially self-regulate the volume of piped in, and the volume of toxic pesticides, fertilisers, fumigants and other chemicals dumped back into the lake. Many of these chemicals, such as DDT and dieldrin, are no longer allowed for use in the industrialised world.

The resources that should be sustainably utilised for Kenya’s recurring famines are depleted: toxic chemicals have caused chronic problems not only for those subsisting off the lake’s water, but also eutrophication: excessive concentration spawning algal blooms, resulting in a corresponding decrease in oxygen levels, killing and contaminating en masse fish, cattle and even humans. Lake Naivasha, previously one of the world’s top-ten bird sites, is now characterised by pollution, overpopulation and overuse.

The lake itself has seen a drastic rise of permanent inhabitants during the past four decades of floriculture development, from 7,000 (1970) to 300,000 (2008) due to the industry acting as one of Kenya’s primary employers. As the roses manager at Oserian, a major corporation stated: ‘It’s going to be a challenge to maintain the environment of the lake. The population around the lake have no sewage facilities, people are washing their clothes in the lake. They’re all coming because of the flower farms.’

And it is the flower farms alongside the export industry set against the canvas of Kenya’s systemically corrupt, structurally unjust land commoditisation and ‘tenure’ policy that has catalysed much of Kenya’s hunger.

No one country is fertile in every region. But when confronted with famine in arid regions is a recurring reality, it is basic logic that fertile regions be used, in part, to ensure food sovereignty.

In the short term, this could be accomplished by mapping the peak hunger seasons of pastoralists (August–October) as well as other regions (November–January south-east and coastal areas) against the seasonal calendar. In the long run, it could be broadly accomplished by reform, ranging from direct agriculture aspects such as infrastructural development, idle farmland and government subsidised costs to political economy factors such as investigation of corrupt land acquisitions affecting some 300,000 titles according to a land report produced in 2004 by Paul Ndungu. Kenya’s incumbent president controls a land conservatively estimated at 30,000 acres; former president Daniel arap Moi, for instance, held 100,000 acres, while the family of Jomo Kenyatta controls over 1 million. Paper records, rendering ‘high politics’ forgery easy, was the norm as late as 2008.

The political causes of this rampant and increasingly recurring famine are rarely placed in its true political context: Ownership that could be allocated to those requiring land for food production is instead shifted to those with capital (foreign) or political access. As such, land idleness, landlessness, underutilisation of land, artificial land shortages and land conflicts are manufactured and even sustained in order to fulfil aid requirements, concealing the root causes of famine. Communal tenure has often been directly substituted by private tenure, a privilege of the wealthy.

Key questions that need to be asked as a matter of urgency include an identification of the poverty of politics: Who are the destitute? Where are they located? What has been their historical experience? What is the level of access to political and economic tools, ranging from money to land titles? And most importantly, to what extent are they intentionally marginalised?

According to a study entitled ‘Beyond land titling for sustainable management of agricultural land’, published in the Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development (2002), 70 per cent of farmers residing in the semi-arid Ndome, Ghazi and Taita-Taveta district operated under tenure insecurity, primarily based on a lack of title deeds. The report states that a lack of land titles led to the direct proliferation of land conflicts (70 per cent). An estimated 80 per cent continued to use disputed land, but just 33 per cent of such land was subject to conservation measures.

The report noted that poverty, farming and land tenure were closely connected in Kenya, suggesting that land titling policy enhance four key objectives to alleviate poverty countrywide: using as much land as possible for agricultural needs; equitable redistribution of land; effective approaches to control degradation of land; and deliberate preservation of agricultural land.

Cited for urgent attention: ‘As a rule of thumb, priority for the use of prime land should be food production, given the importance of food security in economic and ecological development of the country. Any other alternative use of such land, must be pegged on its relative contribution to the above objective.’

This begs the question: Why has the government endorsed the inherited land system? Referring to a land tax, Lands Permanent Secretary Dorothy Angote revealed in 2009 that colonialism, ‘introduced an alien concept of property relations in Kenya … We want Kenyans to move away from buying land and having it as an end in itself. People assume the acquisition of land is like the accumulation of medals to be worn on the chest.’

In Kenya, the problem solvers are also the most powerful people in the country, and the biggest landowners. Instead of equitable land reform, tackling corruption and the prevention of exploitative industries, hunger has been delinked from context: the proposed solution is genetically modified (GM) crops, specifically drought-resistant maize. Maize, grown in over 10 countries, constitutes a primary staple for over 300 million in Africa. Monsanto’s technology facilitates a process where ‘the leaves of the fully grown maize plant curled up in dry conditions’, after a particular piece of DNA in bacillus subtilis (cspB) is injected into the ordinary maize seed. The result? Less water lost to evaporation, rendering the crop resistant to Kenya’s crippling drought seasons.

Thanks to the corporate philanthropy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the most contentious problems usually associated with the deployment of GM technology in Africa, royalties, is circumvented by distributing seeds royalty-free. For now, that is. According to seed suppliers Monsanto, ‘We’re not here because of charity. If you help small farmers, today they may not be good customers. But in 10 years, they may be good customers.’

Monsanto’s strategy has already paid off: In 2007, 87 per cent of global GM and hybrid areas, including seeds and traits, were controlled by the company. The company accounted for 23 per cent of the global proprietary seed market, while the top ten seed companies control 67 per cent of the global market. Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta control almost 70 per cent of the global maize market, including that of Africa.

‘There is a deliberate move to transfer controversial technologies like genetic engineering into Africa to colonise our food security/sovereignty’, said Anna Maina of Kenya’s Africa Biodiversity Group. ‘We have also seen a move towards harmonised and biosafety laws, these are aimed to open the doors to the penetration on GMOs into Africa even when doubts remain over their safety the world over,’ she said (interview with author).

‘Through USAID, in collaboration with the GE industry and several groups involved in GE research in the developed world, the US government is funding various initiatives aimed at bio-safety regulation and decision-making in Africa, which, if successful, may put in place weak bio-safety regulation and oversight procedures,’ said Mariam Mayet of the Africa Centre for Biosafety.

At what cost? By 2014, the global agro-chemical industry, dominated by a handful of vertically integrated mega-corporations, is estimated to be worth US$196 billion, much of it generated by the in-built requirements of GM seeds. Fertilisers, imported by developed countries at exorbitant costs, contributed 57 per cent of the profit. The interlocked, vested interests connecting GM seeds and the agro-chemical industry, intimately intertwined with the ‘aid market’, enabled Monsanto to cash in on the global food crisis of 2008 that forced 100 million people below the poverty line when staples such as wheat and maize became too costly for those with limited budgets. Monsanto reported a profit increase from US$1.44bn to US$2.22bn.

In 2008, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the United Nations General Assembly, commented on the situation saying: ‘The essential purpose of food, which is to nourish people, has been subordinated to the economic aims of a handful of multinational corporations that monopolize all aspects of food production, from seeds to major distribution chains, and they have been the prime beneficiaries of the world crisis.

‘A look at the figures for 2007, when the world food crisis began, shows that corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, which control the cereals market, saw their profits increase by 45 and 60 per cent, respectively; the leading chemical fertilizer companies such as Mosaic Corporation, a subsidiary of Cargill, doubled their profits in a single year.’

The example of Malawi is certainly instructive. Like Kenya, Malawi’s inherited and endorsed colonial land policy manufactured the commoditisation and privatisation of land, marginalising inhabitants via the expansion of commercial agricultural estates. Not only was a new class of landless peoples created, but the best ecosystem resources were earmarked for sectors such as tobacco, tea, coffee and other export-oriented cash crops, subject to artificial depreciation in the market, liberalisation and debt. Four decades after independence, land acquisition favouring commercial estates and political elites evidenced the transfer of 1 million hectares of communal lands, plunging Malawi’s rural population into poverty through many of the same factors affecting Kenya’s Maasai.

Of the country’s 9.4 million hectares of land, 5.3 million hectares, or 56 per cent, is cultivable. The fertile south is inhabited by small growers able to access just 0.33 hectares of land. Farmers in the south reported in 2009 that while there was no maize whatsoever in their district, the government had declared bumper harvests with enough for export. The cited reason was political. Malawi remained ‘self-sufficient’ in staples; the 1980s and the introduction of structural adjustment programmes saw the removal of subsidisation, price controls and currency devaluation. Since 1990, life expectancy in the country has dropped by almost a decade to 40 years. ‘In 2007–8 the programme distributed 217 million tonnes of subsidised fertiliser,’ revealed GRAIN.

‘The big winner here is Monsanto, which holds more than 50 percent of the hybrid seed market in Malawi.’ In 2007, the seed and fertiliser subsidy cost US$70 million, more than doubling to US$186 million in 2008–09 via the government’s farm input subsidy programme, earmarked for 1.7 million small growers, running from November to April.

According to Alick Nkhoma, a representative from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) (IRIN), ‘the fairly good rains and the subsidy input programme contributed a lot [to the maize harvest], especially as the inputs were very expensive, because planting occurred when oil prices were near record highs.’

AGRA’s (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) key joint founder and collaborator, the Rockefeller Foundation, not only derived its billions from oil (Standard), but was a crucial architect of the ‘green revolution’ concept formulated in the 1960s by the philanthropic arms of corporations, using DuPont scientist Norman Borlaug amongst others. The term was coined by William Gaud, the former executive vice-president of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, also formerly of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), who backed GM technologies, stating ‘These [GM technologies] and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution … I call it the Green Revolution.’ The result was the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), formerly co-opted by the World Bank in the early 1970s, joined several decades later by the Gates Foundation. The CGIAR constitutes the world’s largest gene bank. Meanwhile, ‘leaked minutes of a meeting between the aid agencies and USAID officials, documented by GM Watch, reveal the political muscling that constitutes aid: Agencies are told to immediately report to the local USAID mission receiving governments questioning the GM content of food aid shipments. USAID promises to take action that has been interpreted by African officials as sanctions of various hues extending to restrictions of lending by multilateral agencies such as the World Bank.’

‘The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) appears to be at the forefront of a US marketing campaign to introduce GE food into the developing world. It has made it clear that it sees its role as having to “integrate biotechnology into local food systems and spread the technology through regions in Africa”,’ said Mayet (ACB: 2004).

No wonder then that Monsanto has created and funded various programmes (including the terribly respectable international scholars programme in honour of Borlaug) targeting some of the world’s biggest markets.

But while this may spell good times for oil and agro-chemical corporations, the blessings do not necessarily filter down to ordinary citizens.

Nkhoma disclosed that the cost of the subsidised programme, backed by DfID, was not sustainable. While the bumper harvest had increased maize, it had not produced cheaper maize meal.

Erica Maganga, secretary of the country’s agriculture and food security unit, disclosed that organic fertilisers and conservation agriculture was on the menu for consideration.

As a food security specialist noted to IRIN, off the record, increasing maize volume was as simple as targeting commercial farmers, capable of doubling production. Though the government’s subsidisation programme identified part of the problem, the solution was diagnosed to fit the interests of corporate actors.

The vehicle? Intellectual property rights (IPR), enabling Monsanto to sue for patent infringement at will and divesting farmers of control and ownership of crops. Monsanto’s silent goodwill partner, Gates, made his fortune through IPRs and remained a consistent backer in the corridors of power, from state to boardroom. In 1999, for instance, three of the world’s four richest owed their wealth to Microsoft’s IPR, according to a survey by Forbes.

Given that most intellectual property is handled through corporate entities located in secrecy jurisdictions, better known as tax havens – as Microsoft’s multi-billion Irish-based Round Island One Ltd was formed to do – it is highly unlikely that links between Microsoft as a corporate beneficiary of Monsanto using secrecy jurisdictions would ever be accounted for. This is because not only are corporations able to avoid and evade billions owed in taxes by shifting tax liability and laundering profits, but disclosure of company accounts, beneficiaries and ownership need not be disclosed thanks to deliberate ring-fenced regulation servicing foreign clients.

Monsanto itself is registered in one of the world’s leading secrecy jurisdictions, Delaware.

Over 80 per cent of Malawi’s domestic agricultural production is grown by small-scale farmers, markets that companies like Monsanto have not yet been able to tap in to. In 2005, Monsanto donated 700 metric tonnes of hybrid maize through a network of NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

As such, one crucial vehicle, underpinning the Lugar-Casey Global Food Security Act (2009) and approved by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is aid, more specifically, technology transfer through agricultural development via restructured aid agencies and long-term agendas. According to Senator Lugan, the US’s national security is dependent on the food security of countries like Sudan and Iraq – key untapped markets. Supporting the bill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as documented by AGRA Watch, were a host of systemically important power players including Bill Clinton, one of Washington’s main GM-cheerleaders, and Bill Gates. Lugan revealed that he was ‘excited by [the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s] vision.']]

The vested ‘beneficence’ noted by Lugan and meticulously documented by AGRA Watch runs deep. The Gates Foundation, for instance, invested several million in an organisation which counts Monsanto as a key funder: the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Though the Gates Foundation was found to hold 500,000 shares of Monsanto stock, this conflict of interest represents the tip of the iceberg.

In Kenya, 70 per cent of grants allocated by the Gates Foundation’s AGRA – formerly in 2006 in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, considered the foundation’s philanthropic brand, in which it is a key funder – were directly connected to Monsanto.

Other prominent links cited by AGRA Watch included revolving door staff, such as Dr Rob Horsch, ‘formerly Monsanto vice president of International Development Partnerships and current senior programme officer of the Gates Agricultural Development Program.’

During Horch’s 25 years with Monsanto, he was part of the scientific team that created RoundUp, the company’s multi-billion dollar herbicide, attached to all proprietary seeds.

The foundation’s type of philanthropy – breeding opportunities for corporate penetration of developing markets – is nothing new. In 2007 the LA Times described how the foundation’s (currently US$33 billion) ‘blind-eye investing’ saw at ‘least 41 per cent of its assets invested in companies that countered the foundation’s charitable goals or socially-concerned philosophy’.

Various companies and foundations engage this market via initiatives such as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), funded by the corporate financed African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Involved parties range Warren Buffet and Jeffrey Sachs to the FAO, World Food Programme and US government using the vehicle of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. ‘The Rockefeller Foundation is a philanthropic arm involved with AGRA. Others are international agrochemical companies, such as Yara and Monsanto, local seed and fertiliser companies, as well as banks, such as Standard Bank and Equity Bank (Kenya),’ said Maina.

‘The illegal importation on over 280,000MT tonnes of GMO maize into Kenya even when legal provisions did not allow it proves the deliberate move to contaminate local varieties,’ she said. The GMO maize was supplied by South Africa, the foothold of agri-chemical corporations such as Monsanto. In 2009, when GM maize failed to produce for hundreds of farmers, with growers experiencing as much as 80 per cent crop failure (Africa Centre Biosafety), Monsanto refused to reimburse farmers who had received seeds royalty-free.

There are a number of socially and ecologically sustainable, citizen-centred solutions available. One such solution, highlighted by Greenpeace (2010), on the conventionally-bred maize variety ZM521, reveals: ‘Scientists from CIMMYT [International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center] drew on thousands of native varieties of corn from seed banks, which were built up through decades of free exchange of landraces around the globe (Charles, 2001). By repeated cycles of inbreeding and selection, the scientists uncovered the previously hidden genetic traits that enable maize to withstand drought. ZM521 is a maize variety that not only exhibits remarkable vigour when afflicted by water shortage, but also yields 30% to 50% more than traditional varieties under drought.

‘Another of the pro-poor advantages of ZM521 is that it is open-pollinated. In contrast to hybrid and GE maize varieties, seeds from open-pollinated forms can be saved and planted the following year. This benefits smallholder farmers who often face cash constraints when buying new seed. ZM521 seeds are now available free of charge to seed distributors around the world and in several African countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, ZM521 has been released for cultivation on farmers’ fields.’

The safety of GM crops is usually doubted by those scientists not on the corporate payroll. As the Scientific American magazine disclosed, ‘Scientists must ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research on genetically modified crops. It is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. This is because agritech companies have given themselves veto powers over independent researchers.’

Such policies are implemented in a bid to protect the biggest myth of all, that GM and hybrid foods are as safe as natural food. There is of course no regulation or investigation in place to assure that this is so, save for near self-regulation.

So what is the point of solutions such as proprietary seeds, ecological destructive agro-chemicals or major water-intensive irrigation projects including the Gibe III mega-dam, already identified as a major source of disruption to Kenya’s Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya, affecting the lives of 500,000 people?

Though Kenya has long since been on the receiving end of GM maize, according to a source, ‘the glass house trials are now taking place at Kenyatta University in Nairobi and they are nearly ready,’ for open trials.

‘The point is profit and more profit,’ said Maina.

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