Muffy Koch is one of the key pro-GM lobbyists operating out of South Africa, a country where the uptake of GM crops has been amongst the most rapid anywhere in the world.
Conflicts of interest
Muffy Koch's career raises important questions about where the lines are drawn between regulation, lobbying and private companies, and in particular about why an ardent and controversial advocate of a particular technology should be repeatedly employed in a regulatory capacity, as well as in assisting in the development of appropriate systems for its regulation.
Koch is a former official of the South African Committee on Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE). SAGENE became South Africa's official regulator in 1989 and had Jennifer Thomson as its Chair. SAGENE approved the first GM crops to be grown commercially anywhere in Africa: a Monsanto Bt cotton and a white maize. The latter was a global first - a genetically engineered white maize had never previously been grown commercially anywhere in the world.
When SAGENE was superceded as a regulatory body, Koch continued to be involved in the regulation of GM crops, serving on a sub-committee of a new Advisory Committee which provided scientific advice on GM crop releases. While it is an Executive Council which is the final decision making body, heavy reliance is placed on the Advisory Committee to furnish expert scientific and technical advice. A round this time Koch also set up her own biotechnology consultancy, a company trading as Innovation Biotechnology, later relaunched as Golden Genomics.
South Africa - GM gateway to Africa
For the biotech industry South Africa is the ideal gateway to the rest of Africa. According to AfricaBio, the industry lobby group of which Koch is a member, 'South Africa has a national strategy on biotechnology; it has clearly accepted that modern genetic technologies are bringing a wide range of benefits, it has excellent legislation in place, and it is engaged in public awareness activities... The GMO Act that regulates all research, development, field testing, import, export and commercial use is one of the best in the world.' (Press release, May 2004)
Muffy Koch has been active in trying to export this 'biosafety' system to other parts of the continent. Koch is particularly anxious African countries follow the South African model, which has facilitated the rapid introduction of GM crops, rather than The African Model Law developed by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union - AU). Koch says The African Model Law is 'a poor working model, designed to impede rather than promote safe and useful technology. Countries choosing this model will end up with regulations that cannot be implemented and will effectively ban the use of all existing products of GM'.
However, South Africa's own biosafety regime is regarded by critics as weak. It has been described by environmental and development lawyers in South Africa as displaying a 'cynical disregard' for contemporary international and national environmental principles, as well as for the development imperatives of South Africa.
Koch has been a contributor to the UNEP-GEF Biosafety Capacity Building projects. She has also been contracted to provide 'technical support' for the development of a biosafety manual for East African countries. She is also employed by the USAID-funded Southern Africa Regional Biosafety programme (SARB).
SARB was launched in 2000. It promotes in-country 'biosafety capacity building' as part of a regional 'biosafety initiative'. SARB is a sub-unit of a much larger USAID-funded project, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP), managed originally by the Michigan State University and more recently by Cornell (ABSP II). ABSP's private sector partners have included Asgrow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and DNA Plant Technology (DNAP). USAID has said SARB's objective is to provide the 'regulatory foundation to support field testing of genetically engineered products' (emphasis in original).
Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety points to the influence of SARB on Malawi, a 'core target' country for SARB's programmes. Malawi has been amongst the least restrictive of southern African countries with regard to accepting GM food aid and at the height of the food aid debate in 2002 it introduced a controversial 'Biosafety Bill'. The Bill while referring to the issue of risks posed by GMOs to human health and the environment in its preamble, took no account of these issues in its operational provisions. Mayet, a lawyer who specialises in legislation on genetic engineering, describes the Bill as 'displaying a flagrant and contemptuous disregard for biosafety.'
Koch's involvement with SARB and UNEP, and still more her continuing regulatory involvement in South Africa, seems curiously at odds with her membership of the industry lobby group, Africabio, where she is in charge of education issues. Koch chairs the AfricaBio Education and Training working group and is also the editor of BioLines, AfricaBio's news service.
AfricaBio has Jocelyn Webster as its director and Jennifer Thomson on its board. Although it is vague about its sources of funding, it is known to receive industry money. Monsanto is known to be among its sponsors and Delta and Pine, Novartis and Pioneer Hi Breed are also known to have been part of the group that established it. AfricaBio's declared purpose is 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).
In a letter to the campaign group SAFeAGE (South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering), Koch defended her involvement in the industry lobby group, 'I am indeed a member of AfricaBio and this is to fulfil my second passion - the need for public access to balanced and accurate information about biotechnology and biosafety. This is essential to enable stakeholders, consumers and communities to make informed decisions about biotechnology and GM products in general.'
According to an article in the science journal Nature, however, AfricaBio is far from being a source of 'balanced' information: '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 article also says of AfricaBio, 'the group's methods would be considered in some countries to be blatant media manipulation.'
Koch is not the only member of AfricaBio facing such conflicts of interest. The biosafety work of SARB is co-ordinated within the region by South Africa's Agriculture Research Council (ARC) - Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute - under the direction of its Assistant Director and Program Manager, Dr Graham Thompson. Thompson is on the Governing Board of AfricaBio. So too is Jennifer Thomson who was Chair of SAGENE and is a member of the current Advisory Committee. Other members of the Advisory Committee are also said to be members of AfricaBio or to be very closely connected to leading members - for example, by marriage.
Muffy Koch's conflicts of interest, however, are particularly extreme even by South Africa's standards. For instance, on 16 May 2004, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper published a public notice for a permit application for field trials with GM potatoes, giving the following contact details for the applicant:
- T/A Muffy Koch Golden Genomics cc
- Box 30923
- Kyalami 1684
- South Africa
- Tel / Fax: +27 11 702 1682
Koch and her company, it seems, are being paid to guide GM crops through a regulatory system that she herself is part of. Koch is also paid to advise on the development of biosafety systems elsewhere in Africa, while playing a leading role in a controversial lobby group which, as the journal Nature has noted, is 'fighting tooth and nail' for GM crops.
Despite the partisan nature of this lobby group, its industry funding and her active role within it, Koch always presents herself at meetings and elsewhere as an 'independent' biosafety expert. Critics of the technology also accuse her of being aggressively misleading in the way in which she promotes her views. 'At a meeting she can destroy your credibility in seconds', one critic told us, 'by saying your brochure has 16 errors in it, giving an example of something that is debateable or irrelevant, or which may even be accurate, and then moving on.'
Koch for her part dismisses the critics as coming 'from an anti-colonialist movement, which hides behind the argument of biotechnology to support its thesis'. According to Koch the critics have to 'twist the facts' to do so. 'This is what I oppose,' she says, 'since it is disinformation.' (from a translation of an article in the press in Mauritius, 7 March 2004, 'Questions to Muffy Koch, South African Consultant on transgenic cultivation')
- [http://web.archive.org/web/20020424040007/http://www.iia.msu.edu/absp/links01-3.html Linkages Newsletter Third Quarter 2001, accessed in web archive April 19 2009