March 22, 2015
Donors to one of Britain’s largest humanitarian aid charities have been unwittingly funding an aggressive anti-GM food campaign in Africa that misleadingly warns farmers that eating the crops could give them cancer.
A senior official working for ActionAid in Uganda told The Independent that the charity shows farmers pictures of rats with tumours as part of its campaign to prevent GM technology from being made legal in the country. Scientists say the campaign spreads fears that have no basis in fact.
ActionAid has also commissioned radio commercials warning of the dangers of eating GM foods despite a ruling by the World Health Organisation that they have “no effects on human health”.
The charity, which raises millions of pounds in small donations in the UK and provides funds to ActionAid Uganda, makes no mention of the Ugandan anti-GM campaign on its UK website or in its annual report.
GM projects are backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Getty)
The move is particularly controversial because the GM projects being developed in Uganda are philanthropic and supported by NGOs such as subs have turned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. ActionAid UK’s most recent accounts show it raises around £47m a year in Britain – a lot of it from small donations – and gives £1.43m in grants to ActionAid Uganda to support its local work programmes.
Last night, the UK arm of the charity told The Independent that the health warnings – which have been issued for at least 16 months – “should not have happened and have been stopped”.
Scientists in Britain said it was not an isolated incident and that some NGOs had been using “wildly inaccurate scientific allegations” as a campaigning tool to stop projects that could improve food security.
Dale Sanders, head of the John Innes centre for research and training in plant and microbial science, said: “I find it very sad that NGOs whose stated aim is to improve food security and prevent malnutrition should be making false suggestions that GM crops are any less safe than conventional breeding. GM technology offers huge potential to improve yields and combat disease in crops that millions of people rely on.”
Green banana plant is a staple food in Uganda (AFP/Getty)
Ottoline Leyser, a professor of plant development at Cambridge University, said: “There have been a number of these humanitarian NGOs who have been propagating misleading safety claims about GM. It is wrong for humanitarian NGOs like ActionAid to make wildly inaccurate scientific allegations about the safety of GM in what is basically a political argument about the use of that technology.”
The Independent visited Uganda and spoke to ActionAid as part of an investigation into the current state of GM technology nearly 20 years after the first commercial crops were developed. The country is at the forefront of the battle over GM and a law that would allow a genetically modified version of the country’s staple food – matoke, or green banana plant – to be grown by farmers.
Scientists have developed the plant, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to give it resistance to a bacterial disease – known as “banana wilt” – that has devastated crops. Anti-GM campaigners claim that it is a backdoor for big biotech companies such as Monsanto to enter the Ugandan market.
Fredrick Kawooya, the policy and campaigns manager at ActionAid Uganda, told The Independent that the organisation was trying to mobilise opposition to the GM plant from farmers and the public. “In our communication we use the simplest message you can take to the farmer to understand the risk,” he said.
“I am saying [to farmers] that eating GM food could potentially cause cancer. There is a photo of the rats that had cancer. Then I explain that research has been done and they used the rats and this was the result. We say because of the uncertainty we can also conclude that if this food is not safe and can cause it in rats, it can also cause it in the human. And that’s it. Research has been done.”
But scientists point out that the study referred to by Mr Kawooya has been retracted by the journal that published it three years ago after it was criticised for its lack of statistical analysis, its ambiguous results and small sample size.
Asked whether he believed personally that GM food could cause cancer, Mr Kawooya said: “You get arguments either way. There is an argument that has been presented and I suspect it might be true.” But this is rejected by scientists who say it is now established to be as safe as conventional breeding.
When The Independent contacted ActionAid UK and asked about Mr Kawooya’s comments it immediately distanced itself from the campaign. In a statement, ActionAid UK said: “Thank you for letting us know that ActionAid in Uganda has been telling farmers that GM could potentially cause cancer.
“That should not have happened and has been stopped. ActionAid’s expertise lies in tackling rural poverty through the promotion of sustainable agricultur. As such, country programmes are asked not to take a position on the health impacts of GMOs… There remain very large concerns about the roll out of GM technology in poor countries.”