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An Open Letter to Oxfam Regarding Biotechnology

#Articles & Analysis
April 2010


Grassroots International recently joined a growing list of colleagues and food sovereignty activists who have signed an open letter to Oxfam America calling on the organization to take a stance to oppose biotechnology. The action comes following the recent release of a book detailing research commissioned by Oxfam. The book endorses biotechnology as key to agricultural development and ignores contradictory studies published by several significant sources, including the International Assessment of Agriculture, Science, Technology and Development (IAASTD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Along with the African Center on Biodiversity (South Africa), Bharatiya Krishak Samaj/Indian Farmers Association (India), Center for Food Safety (US), Coordination Nationale des organizations Paysannes CNOP/ National Coordination of Peasant Organizations (Mali), Food First, the Oakland Institute and many more (see below) we signed an open letter to Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director of Oxfam International and Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America.   As colleagues who share the principles of Oxfam’s mission to create “lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice,” we are deeply troubled that the study based on Oxfam America’s project and its scientifically questionable (at best) conclusions, falsely support practices that hinder rather than help efforts to end poverty, hunger and injustice. Along with all the signers, we hope Oxfam America will retract its stance on biotechnology and join the global farmer, environmental, and justice movements united around the world calling for an end to corporate domination and contamination of our food.   Below is the entire text of the Open Letter to Oxfam America on its Stance on Biotechnology   Mr. Jeremy Hobbs Executive Director, Oxfam International 266 Banbury Road, Suite 20 Oxford OX2 7DL United Kingdom   Mr. Ray Offenheiser President, Oxfam America 1100 15th St., NW, Suite 600 Washington, DC 20005 United States of America   April 12, 2010   Dear Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Offenheiser:   We the undersigned, as part of the global food justice and food sovereignty movement, are writing to you to express our grave concerns with the recent position publicized by Oxfam America in support of agricultural biotechnology as a viable solution for addressing poverty faced by resource poor and subsistence farmers in developing countries. We deemed necessary to write to you not just because of a recently released book, but also because Oxfam America appears to be positioning itself as a ‘good broker’ for independent research on Bt cotton in West Africa with support from the Gates Foundation   Recently released, Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers, reports on the outcome of an Oxfam-America project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The book, edited by Robert Tripp, assesses the socio-economic impacts of genetically modified cotton on smallholder farmers in India, China, Colombia, and South Africa. Although the book alleges its neutral stance on biotechnology, it appears very biased in favor of transgenic crops. Its conclusion “transgenic crops offer enormous possibilities” not only contradicts several major assessments conducted by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. (IAASTD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), it also ignores a significant body of natural and social science literature on the topic. As colleagues who share the principles of Oxfam’s mission to “influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods,” we are deeply troubled that the study and its scientifically questionable (at best) conclusions, falsely support practices that hinder rather than help efforts to save lives, end poverty, and promote social justice. The publication betrays the vibrant global movement that is demanding a more ecologically sustainable and socially just agriculture, free from corporate control.   In reviewing the publication we find it problematic for the following reasons, which we elaborate upon in this letter:

  1. False advertising on appearing neutral while endorsing GM crops
  2. Incomplete research using selective information to arrive at a pro-GM conclusion
  3. Its focus on GM crops as a solution to help resource-poor and subsistence farmers climb out of poverty

  Veiled Endorsement of Biotechnology   The book claims its neutral stance on Bt cotton and purports that the study is “located outside the polarized debate.” The editor states strongly up front that “The narrow focus will not allow sweeping judgments certifying that transgenic crops are good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate.” Yet judgment about the benefits of Bt cotton is pervasive throughout the book.   Conclusive statements lauding Bt cotton are made, such as, “Transgenic cotton producing insecticidal toxins is a highly effective technology in the battle to control pest damage to cotton,” and “the technology has proven generally successful in providing additional protection against several important cotton pests.” Each chapter features sweeping claims, such as that provided for the Chinese case study: “Bt cotton has made a significant contribution to Chinese cotton production… the new technology provided effective pest control and allowed farmers to increase their productivity.” According to the book, in South Africa “research has clearly shown that the Bt cotton technology works.” The authors conclude that in India “Bt hybrids contribute to cotton productivity.” Although the chapter on Colombia takes a more measured approach by positing that “it is not possible to attribute all of the productivity gains of Bt growers to the transgenic technology but it would certainly appear that it has made a positive contribution to those who have been able to use it.” None of the above can be characterized as being neutral. Furthermore, review of a very limited volume of existing data on the topic to draw its conclusions is not neutrality, but rather indicates a clear bias.   Incomplete Research Using Selective Data   The book omits critical empirical data and analysis that would otherwise lead to a widely different conclusion about the alleged productivity and success of Bt cotton. Also the findings within each country case study are contradictory.   The book cites the Makhathini Flats experience in South Africa as the model example which “has been hailed as proof that GM crops can benefit smallholders in Africa.” Most informed observers know well that Makhathini Flats is considered a Potemkin village for the biotech industry whose lobbyists swoop down in delegations to visit a handful of carefully nurtured farmers with scripts extolling the wonders of Bt cotton. The book claims, “The majority of the literature has reported impressive adoption rates and positive economic returns.” How the authors arrived at such a sweeping claim of Bt cotton’s success is baffling.   The study ignores significant scientific findings that arrive at a substantially different outcome. According to a five-year study of farmers in Makhathini Flats conducted by Biowatch South Africa, the majority of small-scale farmers did not benefit from Bt cotton. In fact, in their drive to purchase Bt cottonseeds—which are double the price of conventional seed—farmers amassed on average $1,322 in debt. Of the 36 farmers studied, only four made a profit, whereas 80 percent defaulted on their loans.   Another study published in 2006 in the academic journal Review of African Political Economy found that widespread adoption of GM technology in the Makhatini Flats was the result of limited choices for farmers. The adoption rate was high in the first years because farmers had no other option – one company provided both credit and seeds. Although Bt cotton was supposed to reduce farmers’ dependence on pesticides, the study found that this was not the case due to the emergence of secondary pests, like jassid. Ignoring these findings, the book based on Oxfam’s project concludes “Research has clearly shown that the Bt cotton technology works and that both large-scale and smallholder farmers can benefit.”   The chapter on China cites a 2002 and 2004 study (Huang et al) that found that “farm-level surveys in northern China show that the adoption of Bt cotton has raised cotton yields and allowed farmers to reduce their insecticide use.” The authors, however, fail to include findings from a major 2006 Cornell study jointly conducted with the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and Chinese Academy of Science. The team of researchers included Per Pinstrup-Andersen, the 2001 Food Prize Laureate and former Director General of IFPRI. The Cornell study found that seven years after the initial commercialization of Bt cotton in China, the profits enjoyed by Bt cotton growers quickly diminished due to the emergence of secondary pests. Another finding was that Bt cotton farmers spent more on secondary pest control as their conventional counterparts: $16 per hectare for Bt growers, versus $5.70 per hectare for non Bt farmers. By 2004, Bt cotton growers earned 8 percent less than their counterparts because GM seed cost triple the amount of conventional seed. It is also worthy to note that even before adoption of Bt cotton, pesticide use among Chinese farmers was already quite high in China, which does not bode well for current rates.   In the case of India, the study omits other findings that counter its conclusions. The authors write, “The introduction of Bt cotton has coincided with increasing cotton yields and production in the past few years.” Summary of the book states, “although Bt cotton contributes to yield increases, its original purpose was to lower the requirements for insecticide use…The Bt growers spray less frequently than the non-Bt growers for bollworm… the Bt growers make somewhat fewer total insecticide applications and use a considerably lower quantity of insecticides….”   In the first week of March, biotech agriculture giant Monsanto admitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India, that field monitoring of the 2009 cotton season showed that pink bollworm has developed resistance to its genetically modified (GM) cotton variety, Bollgard I, in Amreli, Bhavnagar, Junagarh and Rajkot districts in Gujarat. This admission verified 2004 findings of the scientists at the Central Institute of Cotton Research in India who warned of the risk of pest resistance to Bt varieties in a paper published in the Indian Academy of Science publication. The authors established a theoretical model to predict resistance development in bollworms due to overuse of the cry1Ac gene.   In a recent report submitted to Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister before Monsanto’s admission, K.R. Kranthi of the Central Institute for Cotton Research had cautioned that bollworms are developing resistance. The report also warned that not only has Bt cotton been rendered ineffective, it has also led to detection of some new pests never before reported from India, which are causing significant economic losses. Two reputable Indian publications, The Hindu and India Today, recently established that cotton productivity dropped from 560 kg lint per hectare in 2007 to 512 kg lint per hectare by 2009. While the Oxfam study found that “Bt growers make somewhat fewer total insecticide applications and use a considerably lower quantity of insecticides,” the two Indian publications reported an increase in pesticide expenditure by cotton farmers from Rs. 597 crore in 2002 to Rs. 791 crore in 2009.   The chapter on Colombian farmers’ experiences with GM cotton concludes “it has made a positive contribution to those who have been able to use it.” This conclusion, however, is not backed by the data presented by the authors. For one, if Bt cotton was so successful, then why did the percentage of land devoted to Bt cotton production drop from 70% in 2005 to 40% by 2009? The Oxfam study admits that GM seeds did not save “farmers significant investment in insecticides,” but claims that “the technology’s principal advantage appears to be its yield enhancement.” But higher yields were not uniform across the areas studied. How can the authors conclude BT cotton to be a success when they found higher uses of insecticides for GM seed that costs three times the price of conventional seed? With a more complete and unbiased review of the extensive literature, the book may have drawn different conclusions.   Focus on GM Misses the Mark, Deflects from Real Change   We are troubled by the book based on Oxfam’s project, not only because of its veiled endorsement of biotechnology based on selective data, but because it diverts attention from real solutions for smallholder and subsistence farmers: structural reform and ecologically based agriculture. We are alarmed by the emphasis on the promise of transgenic crops and advocating for greater institutional support to facilitate the technology. The study concludes that “Transgenic crops may make an important contribution, but even their most ardent supporters should agree that many other things must be in place in order for farmers to take full advantage of the technology.” This dangerously misses the mark if the goal is to achieve small holder-farmer viability and agricultural development. As we’ve countered in this letter, the Oxfam study’s narrow focus on short-term economic performance and yield productivity (based on faulty and selective data) without factoring in externalities clearly undermines any limited gains by farmers growing Bt cotton. It goes against Oxfam’s own advice that policymakers need two types of information to weigh transgenic crops: externalities and the impact on farmers and the agricultural economy.   Unfortunately, the study focuses narrowly on yields and profit (using selective data) and “does not provide a rigorous assessment [of] environmental, health, and gender impacts.” Yet it contradicts itself. According to its March 18th press release, “An innovation such as a transgenic crop is not simply a technical solution, it is an intervention with social, economic, and political consequences.” Yet none of these effects are weighed, such as the long-term viability for small-scale farmers, the impact of increased use of insecticides on the health of farmers, their families and the ecosystem, high cost of GM seeds, and dependency on private companies for seed.   According to the book, “The exceptional controversy engendered by agricultural biotechnology has pushed us into asking the wrong kinds of questions and engaging in the wrong types of debate.” Yet Oxfam America’s study misses the mark and deflects growing attention from real solutions now being discussed at the highest official channels (IAASTD and the UN) to grassroots food justice communities around the world.   The Oxfam study does not challenge the consequences of resource-poor farmers’ dependency on seed that is vulnerable to the vagaries of pricing set by three multi-national corporations. According to the USDA National Statistics Service, biotech soybean seeds have more than doubled in price from 2001 to 2009 from $23.90 a bushel to $49.60 a bushel. According to a report by Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering, royalties paid to Monsanto for the Roundup Ready trait in soybeans has also nearly tripled in the last decade from $6.50 in 2000 to $17.00 per bag by 2009.   The study’s narrow focus completely ignores structural inequalities faced by small-scale and subsistence farmers in the Global South, such as the massive subsidization of agribusiness corporations in the EU and US, forced trade liberalization policies, and legacies of colonialism. This study gives the green light to biotechnology instead of challenging corporate control over our food systems. Instead of promoting a holistic approach built on ecologically based farming systems where extensive studies have demonstrated a wide swath of environmental, social, and economic benefits that hold great promise in resolving the ongoing food crisis and the adverse impacts of climate change, Oxfam America hails biotech.   Conclusion   Oxfam America’s endorsement of biotechnology sets a very dangerous precedent of being used by the industry in their struggle to force the adoption of GM crops in spite of strong global resistance. The book based on the outcome of Oxfam America’s project and the shocking endorsement of transgenic crops in the face of diverse and voluminous literature countering their stance, threatens to damage Oxfam’s relationship with longtime allies and its reputation as an independent organization. Oxfam, with this study, appears to be siding with corporations, who have used cotton in their efforts to promote GM crops as a whole. Bt cotton is a Trojan horse for future GM crops, including sorghum, cassava, maize, rice and all the staple crops in the world.   This reckless move also raises questions whether Oxfam America’s position endorsing GM crops is a result of significant funding from the Rockefeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. The Rockefeller Foundation provided financial support for Oxfam America’s Biotechnology and Development report. In November 2009, Oxfam America received a $491,270 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to support the monitoring of bacillus thuringiensis cotton impact in West Africa.” These two foundations are explicit promoters of biotechnologies. The Gates Foundation has important ties with Monsanto, the leading company in the biotechnology industry, which has been using ‘revolving doors’ with Foundations and Government Agencies, to erase obstacles and reach its current leading position on the market. Unfortunately, historically and today, agroecological research and development receives a fraction of what biotechnology R&D receives, which this grant by the Gates Foundation perpetuates.   Furthermore, Oxfam America supports the Global Food Security Act of 2009, also known as the Lugar-Casey Act, and claims it will “improve long-term food security by investing in long-term agricultural development.” The section 202 of this Act includes “research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including gm technology.” This bill gives favored treatment of biotechnology that is controlled by two or three companies, mostly by Monsanto which has invested over $8.6 million in lobbying Congress last year to pass the Lugar-Casey Act.   Oxfam America is surrendering to the biotech industry and their corporate extensions and private foundations. By doing so it is selling out those it has committed to help and support, including resource-poor farmers, and all those defending health, biodiversity, and the environment. We hope Oxfam America will retract its stance on biotechnology and join the global farmer, environmental, and justice movements united around the world calling for an end to corporate domination and contamination of our food.   Sincerely,   African Biodiversity Network African Centre for Biosafety, South Africa Biowatch, South Africa Bharatiya Krishak Samaj/Indian Farmers Association, India Cathy Rutivi, IAASTD Advisory Bureau Member, Sub Saharan Africa Center for Food Safety, US CNOP (Coordination Nationale des organizations Paysannes/ National Coordination of Peasant Organizations), Mali Consumers Association of Penang (CAP),Malaysia Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), West Bengal, India Earthlife Africa, South Africa Family Farm Defenders, US Food First, US Global Village Cameroon(GVC), Cameroon GRABE, Benin GRAIN, Spain Grassroots International, US International Development Exchange (IDEX), US Institute for Sustainable Development, Ethiopia Surplus People’s Project, South Africa Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, India Kalanjium Unorganised Worker’s Union, India Kalanjium Women Farmer’s Association, India Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab, India Dr Mira Shiva, Initiative for Health , Equity and Society, Diverse Women for Diversity, India Ndima Community Services, South Africa PLANT (Partners for the Land and Agricultural Needs of Traditional Peoples, US Tamilnadu Resource Team, India Tamilnadu Women’s Collective, India The South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeAGE), South Africa Safe Food Coalition, South Africa Thamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam/Farmers Association Of Tamil Nadu, India The Oakland Institute, US Vandana Shiva, Navdanya, India

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