Monsanto's Use of Humanitarian Projects to Open Global Markets to GMOs

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Monsanto's Use of Humanitarian Projects to Open Global Markets to GMOs describes how, since at least 1990, Monsanto has used humanitarian projects, such as developing crops that it feels would be useful in to poor farmers in the Global South, to open international markets to its products and to improve the company's image.

Monsanto Is Introduced to the Idea by Outsiders

"The fate of the world's poorest farmers certainly did not weigh heavily on the minds of Monsanto's executives as they dove into biotechnology during the 1980s. Outsiders brought those concerns to the company's front door. Three names stand out: Gary Toenniessen, Luis Herrera-Estrella, and Clive James."[1]

Toenniessen worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, Herrera-Estrella was a researcher at the University of Ghent who had "been among the pioneers in the genetic manipulation of plants," and James was the former deputy director of the Center for the Improvement of Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT) who went on to lead the ISAAA.[2] At the Rockefeller Foundation, Toenniessen began funding a research program on rice in 1984, just a year after the first genetically engineered plants were created. James played the role of "[trying] to enlist companies as allies... persuading them to donate their tools and expertise to researchers working on crops grown by the poor."[3]

In 1990, James visited Toenniessen "and came away with the promise of funding" for a project "that would match the desires of a developing country with the capabilities of the biotech industry."[3] On Toenniessen's recommendation, James got in touch with Herrera-Estrella, who had returned to Mexico. Herrera-Estrella proposed working on virus-resistant potatoes. Typically, farmers must purchase certified seed potatoes if they want to ensure their potatoes are free of disease. For a farmer who cannot afford to purchase seed potatoes, Herrera-Estrella felt that genetically engineered virus resistant potatoes would solve the problem.

"Herrera-Estrella pointed out that it would be a simple matter to ensure that their project would never take any sales away from Monsanto. The Mexican researchers could apply the technique only to traditional varieties of potatoes grown by small-scale subsistence farmers."[3]

In 1990, Herrera-Estrella and James met with Monsanto's Earnest Jaworski ("the godfather of plant biotechnology himself"), who was supportive of the project.[4] In addition to the clear humanitarian goals of the project, there was another benefit for Monsanto:

"As part of the project, the Rockefeller Foundation would fund efforts to set up regulatory institutions in Mexico to handle genetically engineered crops. The potato might thus smooth a path for other, more commercially valuable products emerging from Monsanto's laboratories."[4]

While Jaworski's interest in humanitarian concerns is likely genuine, Herrera Estrella also notes the project's public relations value for Monsanto. "The interest of Monsanto was, they were always claiming that genetic engineering would help solve the food problems of the world. This was a very good opportunity for them to show that this technology could indeed help a developing country.[4]

Monsanto Gains U.S. Government Support

According to a 2005 report by GRAIN:[5]

"In 1990, two Monsanto executives [Horsch and his colleague Earnest Jaworski] got in touch with Joel Cohen, the Senior Biotechnology Specialist for USAID (the US Agency for International Development). Monsanto wanted USAID to help develop a GM crop for Africa that would give GMOs a good name. Cohen, who had come to the agency from the US seed industry, turned to USAID’s most trusted research institute in Africa-- the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). The three men set up a meeting with KARI and began to put their plan into action.
"They decided to work on sweet potato, a crop neglected by seed companies and scientists but for which there were some promising GM applications being developed in the US. KARI had the perfect person for Monsanto to collaborate with - Florence Wambugu, a KARI scientist who had just completed a PhD programme on sweet potatoes. Monsanto immediately hired Wambugu to work in the United States on a GM sweet potato resistant to the sweet potato feathery mottle virus. Fourteen years later, it is pretty clear that Wambugu’s sweet potatoes are far from ready for the fields of Kenya’s farmers; in recent field studies the GM crop failed to resist the virus and underperformed compared to non- GM local varieties.
"But getting the GM sweet potato out to farmers was not the real intention anyway. The overriding goal was to open doors to GM, and in this it was a great success... Most importantly, the project served as a vehicle for driving forward a regulatory framework conducive to GM crops. And this is where USAID is making it’s mark - getting Southern countries to set up the regulatory frameworks and the technical capacity that US corporations require to build-up global markets for their GM crops."

In another account, Jaworski offered to USAID that "Monsanto would donate its expertise and technology if USAID could fund the rest of the project" of providing virus resistance to potatoes in Africa.[4] "Within one year, with money from USAID, a Kenyan scientist named Florence Wambugu arrived at Monsanto for two years of training."[4] For USAID, this was the start of Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) I.


The Genetically Engineered Sweet Potato Debacle

Once brought to the United States by Monsanto and USAID, Florence Wambugu began by working on virus-resistant cassava. However, when that proved difficult, she switched to work on sweet potatoes. "Wambugu rapidly became Africa's leading expert on genetically engineered crops. Monsanto's public relations department, meanwhile, regularly featured her in brochures and videos promoting the benefits of such crops."[6]

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  1. Daniel Charles, Lords of the harvest: biotech, big money, and the future of food, p. 264.
  2. Daniel Charles, Lords of the harvest: biotech, big money, and the future of food, p. 265.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Daniel Charles, Lords of the harvest: biotech, big money, and the future of food, p. 266.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Daniel Charles, Lords of the harvest: biotech, big money, and the future of food, p. 267.
  5. USAID: Making the world hungry for GM crops, GRAIN, April 25, 2005, Accessed October 14, 2011.
  6. Daniel Charles, Lords of the harvest: biotech, big money, and the future of food, p. 268.

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