Environmentalists protest against GM seeds multinational
BY LEYLA DOSS Cairo – Dozens of Egyptians protested in Cairo and Alexandria on Saturday, in solidarity with a Global March in 436 cities worldwide, against Monsanto, a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation which produces genetically-modified seeds.
The march comes on the heels of an advocacy stunt organised by the Bezoor Balady Campaign days before in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, and supported by environmental NGOs Nawaya, Greenpeace, Nabta and Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE).
Bezoor Balady promotes sustainable and organic farming using local seeds and crops. In previous action, the group fired local “seed bombs” in an urban initiative to make the city greener and eco-friendly.
Last week’s stunt saw the organisers place a large 2×10-meter banner on a billboard facing the Ministry of Agriculture. “GM Seeds are a crime against farmers and consumers,” it said.
On Saturday protesters demanded the suspension of all Monsanto-related activities in Egypt, including the import of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.
According to data from the African Center for Biosafety, in 2008 both Egypt and Burkina Faso became the second and third African countries to commercially cultivate GM crops.
In addition to genetically modified seeds, Monsanto also produces herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals.
In 2012 Monsanto sold $800 million worth of seeds, making it the world’s largest supplier of vegetable seeds by value. According to their website they sell “4,000 distinct seed varieties representing more than 20 species.”
“There is enough economic interest, locally and worldwide, for the genetically-modified organisms industry,” says Hoda Baraka from Greenpeace. “They are finding ways to penetrate the global food-chain system at all levels.”
In a bid to mock and protest Monsanto’s colossal worldwide power, one of the protesters dressed up as a monstrous dragon eating a cob of maize.
Protesters chanted: “The crops of our country are the solution, Monsanto means humiliation.”
Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds are able to withstand many external conditions. One of the most common traits in Monsanto’s GM crops is a pest-resistant protein strain, such as the crystalline insecticidal protein from Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt.
Protesters claim that having exact clones of seeds and plants can create a dependent monoculture of crops, which become more vulnerable to weather, droughts and other external factors.
“Recently the land has become more arid and is being eroded by chemicals,” says Habib Ayeb, a researcher at the American University in Cairo. “We are losing biodiversity and nutrients such as grass, so bacterial and survival mechanisms are depleted.”
Genetically modified seeds are mostly in the maize, cotton and soya industries, but have traces in many other foods and even medicine, which can affect crop production and may have detrimental impact on human health.
“GM seeds infiltrate many products and are not limited to the cultivation and production process,” says Baraka. “Research suggests that traces of maize can even be found in a Snickers chocolate bar.”
Protesters also demanded greater transparency and regulation of the seeds industry in Egypt.
Although Egypt had signed the Convention of Biological Diversity, which demands environmentally sustainable practices, protesters claim it has not been implemented legally in Egypt.
In 2012 40 tonnes of Monsanto GM seeds were seized from ships on the way to Egypt. Under public pressure, the Ministry of Agriculture said genetically modified seeds would no longer be sold in Egypt.
“There is no real data, or track-record about GMOs in Egypt,” says Betty Khoury from Nawaya, a local non-for-profit agricultural NGO.
In a recent report, the African Center for Biosafety claimed that GM crops are still produced in Egypt, and that test trials are currently taking place on many organisms, including drought-tolerant wheat crops.
“We have became slaves of multinationals and the foreign governments that support them,” says Ahmed Salah, from the Popular Socialist Alliance. “With the current economic crisis, it has become clear that we need to be self-sufficient and produce our own crops and seeds.”
The production of genetically modified agricultural products has also impacted small farmers producers.
Many farmers are forced to buy seeds from the Ministry of Agriculture. These seeds often require a specific type of chemical fertiliser and pesticide, which can be expensive.
“My family has worked on this land for generations, and it is only in the last few years that I have witnessed a dramatic change,” says Mohammed Farag, a farmer and member of the Egyptian Farmer’s Union. “The land is arid and over-used and more crops are dying earlier.”
Members of environmental and agricultural NGOs at the protest also claimed that genetically modified seeds could be harmful to farmers’ economic independence.
“We want to raise awareness among farmers about their rights and more importantly, what alternatives they have,” says Hala Barakat, a researcher on the right to food at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“It’s a monopoly which favors large multinationals, while small farmers suffer,” says Shahenda Maklad, a veteran activist and deputy head of the Egyptian Farmer’s Union.
The Bozoor Balady campaign stressed the existence of alternative farming solutions, such as using local organic seeds.
“Local seeds are adapted to our environment,” says Khoury. “History has shown that plants and crops utilise natural systems of biodiversity to adapt to changing conditions.”
Khoury also claimed that farmers have been using sustainable survival mechanisms for centuries.
“Traditionally, farmers can adapt to changing conditions, by buying seeds and growing crops depending on surroundings and availability,” says Khoury. “Now, they are forced to adhere to government and corporate demands.”
Many farmers are also forced to turn to banks for large loans to pay for the seeds.
With scarce access to subsidised fertiliser, they are forced to pay fees as high as LE 200 per 50 kilogram from the black market.
“Many farmers end up in debt for most, if not all, of their entire life,” says Barakat.
With countries worldwide moving towards a total ban on the use and production of GMOs, Egyptian protesters are demanding similar legislation locally.
As of this year, eight European Union countries, including Poland, Germany and Greece, have banned the cultivation of GM crops.
According to US federal law, GM Organisms only need 90 days trial to be approved. “This amount of time is dramatically less than the legal approval for medicines, yet it ends up in traces in our crops, food and medicines,” says Khoury.
Barakat also stressed the importance of labelling all genetically modified foods and produce.
“We are no longer in control over what we grow and eat,” she says. “We are protesting here today to change that.”