Modifying protests: how the biotech industry is garnering support

| 1st February 2003
After years of failing to make its modified products do its bidding, the biotech industry is changing tack – now its modifying the protestors. Jonathan Matthews reports from South Africa

The protesters were the poorest of the poor. Virtually all black and mostly women, the street traders and farmers conveyed an unpalatable message to the Earth Summit in Johannesberg. These were real poor people marching in the streets demanding development. Nothing surprising there. But a second glance revealed the demostraters were opposing the eco-agenda of the Green Left in support of the biotech industry. This was the environmentalists’ worst nightmare.

In the days that followed, the world’s media latched on to the march. Seldom can the views of the poor, in this case a few hundred demonstrators, have been paid so much attention. Articles highlighting the march popped up the world over – in Africa, North America, India, Australia and Israel. In the UK The Times ran a commentary entitled ‘I do not need white NGOs to speak for me’.


With the summit’s passing, the Johannesburg march, far from fading from view, has taken on a deeper significance. Writing in the Journal of Nature Biotechnology, Val Giddings, a vice president at the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), argued that the event marked ‘something new, something very big’ that would make us ‘look back on Johannesburg as something of a watershed event – a turning point’. What made the march so pivotal, he said, was that for the first time, ‘real, live, developing-world farmers’ were ‘speaking for themselves’ and challenging the ‘empty arguments of the self-appointed individuals who have professed to speak on their behalf’.


Phoney farmer


To help give them a voice, Giddings singled out a statement made by one of the marchers, Chengal Reddy, the leader of the Indian Farmers Federation. ‘Traditional organic farming,’ Reddy said, ‘led to mass starvation in India for centuries … Indian farmers need access to new technologies and especially to biotechnologies.’


Giddings also noted that the farmers expressed their contempt for the ‘empty arguments’ of many of the Earth summiteers by honouring them with a Bullshit Award made from varnished cow dung. The award was given to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, in particular, for her role in ‘advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and hunger’. A powerful rebuke, no doubt. But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is the president of BIO, for almost every element of the spectacle he described was carefully contrived and orchestrated.



Take Reddy, for instance, the ‘farmer’ that Giddings quoted. Reddy is not a poor farmer, nor even the representative of poor farmers. Indeed, there is precious little to suggest he is even well-disposed towards the poor. The Indian Farmers Federation that he leads is a lobby of big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On occasion Reddy has admitted to knowing very little about farming, having never farmed in his life. He is, in reality, a politician and businessman whose family are a prominent right-wing force in Andhra Pradesh. (His father once famously said: ‘There is only one thing Dalits [members of the untouchable caste] are good for and that is being kicked.’)


If it seems doubtful that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the poor speak for themselves, the identity of the march’s organizers does not breed confidence. It is ironic, given the The Times’ headline, that the media contact on the organisers’ press release was Kendra Okonski. The daughter of a US lumber industrialist, Okonski has worked for various right-wing anti-regulatory NGOs – all funded and directed, needless to say, by ‘whites’. These NGOs include the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington-based think tank with a multi-million dollar budget that comes from such major US corporations as BIO member Dow Chemicals. Okonski also runs the website, where her speciality is helping right-wing lobbyists take to the streets to mimic popular protesters. Delving deeper, it is apparent that there was a network of organisations involved in events that surrounded the march.




It hardly needs saying that the Bullshit Award was far from the imaginative riposte of impoverished farmers to India’s most celebrated environmentalist, as Giddings suggests. It was, in fact, the creation of another right-wing pressure group, the Liberty Institute, which is based in New Delhi and well known for its fervent support of deregulation, GM crops and Big Tobacco.


The Liberty Institute is part of the deceptively-named Sustainable Development Network (SDN) which was repsonsible for organising the Johannesburg rally. In London the SDN shares its offices and key personnel (including Okonski) with the International Policy Network, a group which in Washington has the same address as the CEI. The SDN is run by Julian Morris, who also claims the title of environment and technology programme director for the Institute of Economic Affairs which has advocated that African countries should be sold off to multinational corporations in the interests of ‘good government’.


The involvement of the likes of Morris, Okonski and Reddy does not mean, of course, that no ‘real’ poor people were involved in the Johannesburg march. American journalist James MacKinnon witnessed the march first hand and saw many impoverished street traders, who seemed genuinely aggrieved with the authorities for denying them their usual trading places in the streets around the event. In the magazine, Adbusters, he reported that the march had organisers played on this grievance by distributing a flyer that presented the march as a chance to demand ‘freedom to trade’. The flyer made no mention of biotechnology, development or any other issue on the agenda of the Green Left.


For all that, there were some real farmers present as well. Mackinnon says he spotted some wearing anti-environmentalist T-shirts with slogans like ‘Stop Global Whining’. This aroused his curiosity, since small-scale African farmers are not normally to be found among those jeering the ‘bogus science’ of climate change. Yet here they were with slogans on placards and T-shirts: ‘Save the Planet from Sustainable Development’, ‘Say No to Eco-Imperialism’, ‘Greens: Stop Hurting the Poor’ and ‘Biotechnology for Africa’.


On approaching the protesters, however, MacKinnon discovered that the props had been made available to the marchers by the organisers. He reported that when he tried to speak to some of the farmers about their pro-GM T-shirts, they could only smile. None of them could speak or read English.


Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers – Giddings claims there were farmers from five different countries at the rally – afforded the journey to Johannesburg from as far away as the Philippines and India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion.


In late 1999 the New York Times reported that a street protest against genetic engineering outside a Food and Drug Administration public hearing in Washington, DC, was disrupted by a group of African-Americans carrying placards saying such things as ‘Biotech Saves Children’s Lives’ and ‘Biotech Equals Jobs’. The paper reported that Monsanto’s PR company Burston–Marsteller had paid a Baptist Church from a poor neighbourhood to bus in these demonstrators as part of a wider campaign to get groups of church members, union workers and the elderly to speak in favour of genetically engineered foods.


In this kind of rent-a-crowd approach, the industry’s fingerprints are all over Johannesburg. Reddy, who for over a decade has featured prominently in Monsanto’s promotional work in India, was brought to Johannesburg by AfricaBio which itself has been closely aligned with Monsanto’s lobbying for its products.


Heart of the matter


And here lies the real key to the president of BIO’s account of the march and specifically to the attack on Vandana Shiva. Monsanto and BIO want to project an image that the Third World accepts GM technology. That is why Monsanto’s website used to be adorned with the faces of smiling Asian children. So when an Indian critic of the biotech industry gets featured as an environmental hero on the cover of Time magazine, as Shiva was recently, the brand is under attack and has to be protected.


The counterattack takes place through a contrarian lens, one that projects the attackers’ vices onto their target. Thus the problem becomes not Monsanto using questionable tactics to push its products onto a wary Developing World, but malevolent agents of the rich world obstructing Monsanto’s acceptance in a welcoming Third World. For this reason the press release for the Bullshit Award accuses Shiva of being ‘a mouthpiece of Western eco-imperialism’. And the media contact for this symbolic rejection of neocolonialism? Okonski – an Amercian. In other words the mouthpiece denouncing an Indian environmentalist as an agent of the West is … a Western mouthpiece.


The careful framing of the messages and the actors in the rally in Johannesburg provides one especially gaudy spectacle in a continuing fake parade. In particular, the internet provides a perfect medium for such showcases, where the gap between the virtual and the real is easily erased.


Faking it


Take, which promotes itself as ‘the web’s most complete source of news and information about global food security concerns and sustainable agricultural practices’ and claims to be ‘an independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world’. Despite its global reach,’s only named member of staff is its African director Dr Michael Mbwille, a Tanzanian doctor who is forever penning articles defending Monsanto and attacking the likes of Greenpeace.


The news and information at is largely pro-GM, often bitterly abusive, and boasts headlines like ‘The Villainous Vandana Shiva’ and ‘Altered Crops Called Boon for Poor’. When one penetrates beyond the news pages, the content is limited. A single message graces the message board, posted by, the domain name of the Bivings Group, an internet PR company that numbers Monsanto among its clients. There is also an event posting from an Andura Smetacek, recently identified by The Guardian as an e-mail front used by Monsanto to run a campaign of character assassination against its scientific and environmental critics. The site is registered to one Graydon Forrer, currently the managing director of Life Sciences Strategies, a company that specialises in ‘communications programmes’ for the bioscience industries. A piece of information that is not usually disclosed in Forrer’s self-presentation is that he was previously Monsanto’s director of executive communications. Indeed, he seems to have been working for the company in 1999, the same year the site of this ‘independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world’ was first registered. And incidentally, Foodsecurity’s African director Dr Mbwille is not in Africa at the moment. He is enjoying a sabbatical observing medical practice in St Louis, Missouri, the home town of the Monsanto Corporation.


Web of Deceit is one of a whole series of websites with undisclosed links to biotech industry lobbyists or PR companies. Although the president of BIO has this virtual circus oscillating about him, if he were really interested in hearing poor ‘live, developing-world farmers … speaking for themselves’, he would need to look no further than Reddy’s home state of Andhra Pradesh.


Here farmers and landless labourers were consulted as part of a ‘citizens’ jury’ on World Bank-backed proposals to industrialise local agriculture and introduce GM crops. Having heard all sides of the argument, including the views of Reddy, the jury unanimously rejected the proposals, which were likely to force more than 100,000 people off the land. Citizen’s juries on GM crops in Brazil and the Indian state of Karnataka have come to similar conclusions, something that the president of BIO is almost certainly aware of.


But rainchecks on the real views of the poor count for little in a world where ‘something new, something very big’ and ‘a turning point’ in the global march towards our corporate future, turns out to be Monsanto’s soapbox behind a black man’s face.


Jonathan Matthews is editor of the Norfolk Genetic Information Network website.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2003

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