Based in South Africa, AfricaBio lobbies for GM crops in Africa and beyond. Jocelyn Webster is AfricaBio's Executive Director. AfricaBio's board includes Jennifer Thomson, a Professor at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town who is also an advisor to the biotech-industry funded Council for Biotechnology Information in the US, a Board Member of the biotech-industry backed ISAAA and Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which receives backing from the industry and USAID to introduce GM crops into Africa. Thomson's book Genes in Africa promotes the benefits of GM crops for the developing world.
Thomson was also involved in the drafting of the South African Biotechnology Strategy and was Chair of SAGENE, South Africa's orginal regulatory body for GM crops. She is also a member of South Africa's current Advisory Committee, which provides expert technical advice on regulatory decisions. Other members of the Advisory Committee are also said to be members of AfricaBio or to be closely connected to members.
Muffy Koch is a leading member of AfricaBio who is on a sub-committee of the Advisory Committee. Like Thomson she was also once part of SAGENE. Koch is in charge of education issues at AfricaBio. She chairs the AfricaBio Education and Training working group and is also the editor of BioLines, AfricaBio's news service. She also has her own 'biosafety' consultancy firm, Golden Genomics.
AfricaBio is vague about who it respresents and coy about its finances and its main financial backers. This contrasts with other similar bodies - bodies with which AfricaBio is formally aligned. For instance, EuropaBio proclaims itself 'the voice of the European biotech industry'. Similarly, BIO - the Washington DC-based Biotechnology Industry Organization - presents itself simply as the industry's major trade association.
AfricaBio, by contrast, seeks to present itself not as a corporate lobby but as part of civil society -- 'The NGO taking biotechnology to the people of Africa'. The word 'trade' is notably absent in AfricaBio's description of itself as 'a non-political, non-profit biotechnology association'. It even goes so far as to claim to represent, 'All sectors within South Africa involved with, or with an interest in food, feed and fibre'. However, in one of its press releases it frankly stated that it was intended to 'provide one strong voice for lobbying the government on biotechnology and ensuring that unjustified trade barriers are not established which restrict its members'. (Africabio, 2000).
Despite the vagueness in which it sometimes cloaks its agenda, Monsanto is known to be among AfricaBio's backers and Delta and Pine, Novartis and Pioneer Hi Breed are also reported to have been part of the consortium. AfricaBio, though, claims to represent a 'wide spectrum' of support. This is evident, it says, from its founding members who, it claims, include scientists, students and academic institutions as well as biotechnology companies, seed companies, farmer organizations, grain traders, food manufacturers, and food retailers. However, under AfricaBio's membership and voting rights , business members have 5 votes, while research organisations and non-business members have, respectively, 2 votes and 1 vote. It is clear from the list of AfricaBio's backers that in reality industry organisiations dominate AfricaBio. In fact, a company like Monsanto SA would has considerably more than 5 deciding votes as it has South African subsidary companies which are also members.
The corporate alignment, as well as backing, of this pro-GM lobby group are fairly apparent. According to an article in the science journal Nature, 'AfricaBio, along with agribiotech companies and other pro-biotech campaigners, is now fighting tooth and nail, often by somewhat controversial methods, to spread the word about GM crops... the idea is to improve GM's image.'
The article also says of AfricaBio, 'the group's methods would be considered in some countries to be blatant media manipulation. Webster [AfricaBio's Executive Director] talks about training journalists how to report GM stories, telling them that the term "genetically improved" is more accurate than "genetically modified".'
Although Africa, and particularly South Africa, is its primary battleground, AfricaBio pursues its PR war on a global stage. In January 2003, EuropaBio brought AfricaBio's Executive Director, Jocelyn Webster, over to Europe as part of a team of ten 'representatives' from developing countries to deliver their favorable perspective on GM crops to the EU, the FAO and the Vatican.
The 'team' included Webster's fellow South African, TJ Buthelezi, who grows Monsanto's GM cotton and who has been flown around the world to support the industry's lobbying. It also included a representative of the Federation of Farmers Association in India and Margaret Karembu of the industry-backed ISAAA, which promotes the uptake of GM crops in developing countries and regularly collaborates with AfricaBio.
In autumn 2003 Webster was back again in Europe, this time visiting Germany and Britain to counteract the 'nonsense', as she put it, that African critics like Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, promote about GM. Webster was again accompanied by TJ Buthelezi .
According to Nature, 'Over a breakfast meeting in London organized by Monsanto, the South African pair enthused about the power of GM to reduce poverty... Taking such feel-good stories to consumers and the media in Africa and abroad is an important plank in AfricaBio's strategy. To that end, it is helping to train staff working in South Africa's supermarkets - including the UK-based Tesco chain - to handle questions about GM foods from shoppers. The organization is also working with women's groups in poor townships, and is advising the government of Lesotho - a tiny independent country landlocked within South Africa - with its planned biosafety legislation.'
The controversial tactics employed by AfricaBio were at their most evident during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in late August 2002. In particular, together with the ISAAA, which even has biotech industry representatives on its board (currently Syngenta, formerly Monsanto), and Florence Wambugu's organisation Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, which has the backing of CropLife International, AfricaBio presented itself as an NGO and so sought to influence civil society sessions relating to GM issues at the Summit.
It sought access, for instance, to the panel of the Biotechnology and GMO Commission of the Civil Society Forum, which took place on 29 August. AfricaBio says , 'Despite repeated requests by AfricaBio to be included in the programme, their participation was refused'. Those organising the Forum took the view that AfricaBio was an industry front group and that the industry already had the opportunity to bring forward its views through the industry forum and its powerful official lobbyists. They saw AfricaBio's tactics as an attempt to dilute the voice of civil society.
But AfricaBio still attended the Civil Society Forum and worked with others to express dissent from the floor of the meeting, even staging a walkout. Others involved, apart from ISAAA, included TJ Buthelezi's farmers' association, Kisan Coordination Committee and Federation of Farmers Association from India.
The same groups were also involved during the summit, together with AfricaBio and the deceptively named Sustainable Development Network, in a carefully orchestrated protest march that was presented to the media as a pro-GM farmers rally. But James MacKinnon, who reported on the summit for the North American magazine Adbusters and who witnessed the march first hand, tells of seeing mostly impoverished street traders, who seemed aggrieved not about GM crops but about the South African authorities banning them from using their usual trading places in the streets around the summit.
These traders had been recruited for a march that was said to be about 'Freedom to trade'. The flier for the march made no mention of GM crops. Mackinnon also reports trying to converse with some of the smaller number of farmers present who were wearing anti-environmental and pro-GM T-shirts. Although the pro-GM slogans were written in English, the farmers wearing them just 'smiled shyly,' when Mackinnon spoke to them, 'none of them could speak or read English.'
According to Florence Wambugu's Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, it works closely with AfricaBio on 'media outreach' in order 'to empower the continent with factual information on biotechnology'. (Case study: media outreach during the WSSD)