Rift Valley Diary

14 Jul 2009

The red pick-up drives fast heading north, past Nakuru, towards the heart of the Rift Valley. On the left side of the road, tea fields as far as one can see ranging from light blue-green to deep, depending on the inclination of the hills. On the right side, colourful women scattered around an endless coffee plantation.

When the road begins to descend, the environment around abruptly changes. The tea and coffee plantations disappear, the soil loses part of its characteristic blood-red colour and emaciated goats look along the road for something to graze on. As we drive further, the tarmac road turns into rough, dusty soil. All around is aridity: a vast plain dotted with trees, bushes and rocks.

“Pole, Pole!” – slow down – says everyone standing by the track, while trying to protect themselves from the dust. The driver seems restless and every group of people we encounter quickly disappears into a thick cloud of red dust. “Drought,” the driver says with a grin. “We’ve missed the short rains ofDecember.”
This is the Kenyan Rift Valley when the rains fail to come: an arid area with little food left. Animals grow skinnier as days pass by,and the people of the countryside grow hungrier. They cling to small plots of land that have hardly managed to survive the disaster.

For many African countries, a drought means the complete loss of harvest, hence famine. This is especially true for Kenya, which – as the government declared some weeks ago – is experiencing a serious food crisis involving at least a third of the country’s population. This is not surprising since, as the World Bank reminds us, East African countries face regular fluctuation in food supplies dependent upon rainfall. However, the very actions needed to solve, or at least mitigate, the current situation, have not yet been taken by the Kenyan government.

The policies of the Kenyan Minister for Agriculture, Mr. William Ruto, are engraved in the Biosafety Bill of 2008. They consist in legalising the use of biotechnologies, to turn Kenya into the second African country – after South Africa – to implement GMOs. “There are no miracles,” claimed Mr. Ruto in an interview with the The Daily Nation newspaper.
“If we have to produce more, we must embrace technology. As a country, we have the option of adopting it to fight hunger or rejecting it and perish.”

Minister Ruto is not alone, his view being supported by a number of different agencies based in Nairobi. In 2006 – as the African Centre for Biosafety pointed out in a report dated January 2007 – both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation contributed 150 million USD to the promotion of a “Second Green Revolution”, giving rise to the partnership called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Officially not directly interested in the promotion of GMOs, AGRA’s aim was presented as the eradication of both poverty and hunger, achievable through the implementation of chemicals and biotechnologies in agriculture. The direct use of GMOs was not officially advertised, but its implicit inclusion has not passed unnoticed, nor has the fact that this initiative has strong links with the multinational seed and fertilizer company Monsanto. AGRA, the report says, is under direct supervision of the Global Development Program (GDP). The senior president of GDP was Dr Robert Horsch, who worked 25 years in the scientific team that developed Monsanto’s Round Up technology. What kind of approach to agriculture AGRA really does support thus becomes quite clear.

There are a number of people and organisations that oppose this approach. One of them is Mr Samuel Karanja, the Kenyan coordinator of the Network for Ecofarming in Africa (Necofa) and Slow Food International Councillor. He warns that, “These GM crops will not solve the problem, they will only bring a minor increase to total food production. Rather, it will give rise to further marginalisation of small producers living in rural areas hooked to multinational corporations”, he adds. “How is a small farmer supposed to buy expensive seeds for every planting season?”

The dispute over biotechnologies in agriculture in developing countries is very often a political one. This also true of Kenya, where a mixture of bad policies, poor governance and low investments in small-scale agriculture has created an extremely unstable situation. Not long ago, the country went through post-election violence, which resulted in the burning down of houses, food stores and fields ready for harvesting, and with the displacement of half a million people.

“To handle the crisis, the government decided to push for biotechnologies,” explains Mr. Karanja. “However, it is crystal-clear that it is not high-input agriculture based on monocultures that will save the country. The only possible way it is to re-empower small-scale farmers and give them the possibility to broaden the number of crops to farm. This will create a natural insurance, so that if one crop fails the other will compensate. That is the only way forward.”

Even though Kenya boats a diverse agro-ecology, ranging from snow-capped mountains to deserts, it is nonetheless dependent on very few crops, most of which are not even indigenous and are not drought- resistant. The best example of this is maize, which is also the most widely cultivated crop in the country. This is a tragedy, when droughts like last December’s happen. The price of flour rose sharply as a result of damage caused to the crops by the protracted lack of water and the post-electoral violence.

The government’s answer was the establishment of a Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) of maize flour. However, the inappropriateness of this initiative became clear at the beginning of January, when around 100,000 bags of maize devoted to Kenya’s starving farmers (worth more than £ 1 million) disappeared. The Daily Nation reported that these bags might have been on their way to Southern Sudan where they would have been sold for a higher price.

Further investigations uncovered that, among the millers appointed, there was one who had been out of business since the previous August. Later on, some MPs accused others of incompetence. The accused MPs were the same ones who had been busy campaigning for GMOs. It is still unclear whether those allegations had any foundation, especially whether such a scandal was only moved by personal greed or by a larger interest.

What unites most of the GM-dissident associations and NGOs is the fear of falling into a second AGRA-led ‘Seeds of Hope’ campaign. This program had already been conceived and implemented by Monsanto in the poorest provinces of South Africa during the 1990s. It targeted low-income smallholders who had a potential purchasing power as a group. The main idea was to introduce boxes of material containing hybrid maize seeds, fertilizer and herbicides.

The package was designed for small-scale farmers who, following Monsanto’s proposed technique, would not have to plough the soil deeply. This would have maintained the properties of the terrain and cut the cost of buying a tractor.

However, this way of farming was not a panacea for farmers only. A “no low till” technique in fact implies an increase in the use of herbicide and of seeds that can survive it. This could thus be defined as Monsanto’s RoundUp technology. Unfortunately, studies carried out in 2002 by the Organic Consumer Association have indicated that RoundUp herbicides are a threat to human health, since it is “not only a hormone-disruptor, but is also associated with birth defects in humans”.

Agribusiness has a large political dimension, since multinationals are lobbying with governments of the global south that are seeking an easy way of solving organizational and policy problems. This is a growing phenomenon, as much as a growing business.
Biotechnology giants have declared for years that their real aim is to save the world from hunger. Meanwhile, however, they have been patenting their seeds just to make sure that no one would breach intellectual property laws and steal their profit. Reality seems gloomier than propaganda, and this gambling with food does not promisea brighter future for Kenya – nor for the rest of the developing world.

Paolo Cravero is a freelance journalist

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