Exclusive: Independent investigation reveals how African farmers are warned of cancer threat that ‘doesn’t exist’
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.
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.”
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.