Food and Pharm WikiLeaks

Each of the heady, and now increasingly bloody and co-opted, revolts across the Middle East, reverberating as far as Wisconsin and China, were long brewing reactions to dictatorship. In extolling Facebook and Twitter, lazy American commentators mistook superficial means for fundamental causes, a high-tech update on the canard the poor and the oppressed experience no history and are never agents of their own change. That is, the very hubris now bringing down one regime after another.

We shouldn’t, however, underestimate the role of the internetz, a neutral net Wild West as much Tortuga as Thames — Tahrir Square as Tiananmen — a place where global neoliberalism can be subverted even while by other means enforced. Tunisia’s rebellion, setting off the dominoes, appears in part precipitated by net-leaked US diplomatic cables coming clean to the extent of ally Ben Ali’s corruption. In some way, in some venue, empire must level with itself, however much most of even its own apparatus must be kept in the dark.

But too much light and oxygen are typically poisonous to the more secretive taxa. So the US security nexus, its imperial initiative temporarily untracked, maneuvers for Julian Assange’s extradition even as it remains unsure whether the WikiLeaks are damaging.

The conflicting impulses arise in part because the revelations are, first, as destructive to other countries as they are to the US, and, second, largely back in the box. Once pissed on by bipartisan indignity — a splash too bitter for their cocktails — editors at the Guardian and the New York Times, who published exclusives based on the leaks, cleaned up their messes, soft-pedaling their own stories and undertaking vicious ad hominem attacks on Assange, their source. Indeed, the Guardian has now published more on Assange and his legal problems than the cables themselves.

Several commentators have found the WikiLeaks cables’ significance less in exactly what they reveal than in their exposure of the immense apparatus of secrecy. The details do matter, however, as they concretize the crass extent to which the US government works for American commercial interests abroad and, by turns, the inanity and paucity of that work’s rationale.

The cables show US embassies addressing all manner of events and circumstances. At the same time, many an individual embassy appears to focus on particular topics. Energy in Azerbaijan. Terrorism supported by Syria. War, terror, and lots of high-level US diplomatic traffic in Pakistan. Or even particular companies: BP in Azerbaijan, Blackwater in Djibouti, and Visa and Mastercard in Russia.

Some topics, say Cuba and Venezuela, are deranged obsessions across embassies, including, I found, in Spain, Chile and, of all places, Iceland. Some embassies are vehemently more ideological in bent than others, responding to what are perceived as uncooperative host regimes. If the cables are any indication, leftish Bolivia and Venezuela, for instance, host particularly truculent diplomatic corps.

Some cables speak to an enemies list back home. During the George W. Bush era a New Zealand minister almost sponsored a screening of a Michael Moore film. The crisis was averted, however, Jack Bauer breaking that dirty Kiwi’s fingers, one for every Moore release.

At first gander the cables give the impression that while the State Department is concerned about security and diplomatic issues, the embassies are tasked with immediate commercial interests. Clearly State is very much organized around the specifics of trade, tariffs, and even contractual outcomes, but it’s fascinating the way the agendas dance together, converging and diverging in both tone and content, within even the same cable. High-minded rhetoric is routinely undercut by the very expediency it condemns, a particular American double-talk the rest of the world, if my experience is any indication, despises.

In one Embassy Abuja cable, US personnel matter-of-factly relay a dirty trick drug company Pfizer played on a Nigerian official, as told by Enrico Liggeri, Pfizer’s country manager. In an attempt to pressure Federal Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa into dropping two multi-million dollar lawsuits around oral antibiotic trials on children Pfizer mishandled during a meningitis outbreak, including failing to obtain parental consent, Pfizer passed on evidence of the AG’s corruption in other matters to local newspapers.

By way of a justification, Liggeri characterized the Nigerian suits as a shakedown that would discourage pharmaceutical companies from helping out should another such outbreak occur. That is to say, one, Nigeria endangers its children in attempting to secure damages for tests on children Pfizer botched. Two, looking for evidence of corruption on the part of the local official you are trying to corrupt is good business practice.

The Embassy’s concluding commentary speaks neither to the lawsuits or the dirty trick, but, without a mote of self-consciousness, noting Nigeria a Pfizer growth market, offers support for the company’s efforts to secure “transparency” in the settlement’s $75 million payout. Breathtaking.

The push for genetically modified foods follows a similar script if on a global scale.

A search through WikiLeaks finds by my count 472 cables across 96 countries with “genetically modified” in their text. Although some describe other countries’ own efforts, cable after cable the premises of an aggressive business model favoring American agribusiness are assimilated into diplomatic policy, as if transmogrified into a matter of international law or even as an inalienable human right.

One short Embassy Warsaw cable describes a meeting with an official at the Polish Ministry of the Environment, on the unlikely potentiality Poland would vote to approve EU permits for Pioneer and Syngenta GMO corn hybrids. The cable ends with this horse head left at the end of the bed,

Post will follow-up to obtain information on Poland’s decision and details of a law on cultivating genetically modified crops now being drafted. However, Poland’s established policy to vote against approval of all GMO varieties remains in effect, and we expect it to follow that policy and vote against the approvals during this vote as well. Nevertheless, Director Dalbiak’s comment that Poland might abstain shows Poland at least is having an internal debate on biotech. Decision makers have a greater appreciation that their actions have consequences after facing a large retaliation sanction in the WTO beef hormone case.

Are these offers-they-couldn’t-refuse scut work Embassy staff must schedule, paying back one PAC campaign contributor at a time? Or, in addition, like China in Africa, are they a part of a grander design around imperial infrastructure?

Much attention has been paid to GMOs’ health, ecological and social costs. Agribusiness externalizes these to governments, workers, wildlife and consumers. Someone else picks up the bill. But there may be a second-order game here. GMOs appear the focus of a stunning program: to privatize biology itself, turning sovereign soils and the very act of farming, as much as its produce, into commodities. “Cargill is engaged in the commercialization of photosynthesis,” CEO Gregory Page said in a 2008 speech, “That is at the root of what we do.”

Consider the power a country would wield should whole swaths of the world’s agriculture — crop on crop, input on input — be locked into production pathways copyrighted by monopolies incorporated back home. If fully realized, such a project would maneuver the world’s populations one by one into that country’s command, if only as a matter of survival. Soft world domination. Occupation by suits in suites rather than by boots on the ground.

With these stakes the US’s GMO operation appears elephantine in extent and intrigue: from Armenia to Zimbabwe, from busting local activists to jacking international confabs, from the most marginal outposts to the richest markets.

France offers an illustrative example. In 2006, Embassy Paris wrote approvingly of two French judicial rulings.The first upheld the convictions of Faucheurs Volontaires (“Voluntary Cutters”), a group of anti-GMO activists who had destroyed Monsanto test plots of the only GMO seed approved in France, MON810, near Orleans. The second ruling ordered Greenpeace to remove online maps of GMO corn across France and lists of French GMO growers.

The cable describes anti-GMO protests and field raids that to this point were discouraging to GMO farmers and researchers alike,

On April 13, fifty people from Faucheurs Volontaires and Greenpeace stormed a Monsanto site in southwestern France (Aude area), demonstrated against GMOs and hung a banner stating “from the field to the plate, no GMO.” Demonstrators were arrested at the site.

In June, another group of Faucheurs Volontaires, associated with the activist farmers’ union, Confederation Paysanne, sent approximately forty anti-biotech activists to sow organic corn seeds in a GM test field in southern Paris (Loiret area). The group claimed responsibility for “sowing life” in contrast to their position that biotech companies “sow death.”

In July, Monsanto announced that three of its test plots were damaged and Limagrain, the leading French seed company, and its genetics subsidiary, Biogemma, also announced it had had test plots destroyed by a group from “Voluntary Cutters.” Also in July, the “Voluntary Cutters” announced they would expand their destruction from experimental test plots to commercial production fields for the first time this summer.

In contrast, the cable approvingly relays PR efforts GMO farmers and their industry had launched in favor of their corn crops, the great majority of which are exported to Spain as feed,

[At] the annual French corn producers meeting in June, a farmer publicly discussed his justifications for planting Bt corn. He listed the advantages of reduced pesticide use, higher production of high quality corn not weakened by European corn borer attacks, and the benefits of staggering corn harvests. . . . And further, Cultivar magazine, a French technical publication, published an interview in its July issue with a farmer growing biotech corn for commercial sale in which he described the different management steps he took from planting, to coexistence with non-biotech corn, through harvesting.

The cable fails to note the pests’ pesticide resistance, concomitant increases in pesticide use, and contamination of non-GMO crops that routinely result. The Manichean instinct is found also in the cable’s characterization of French legislative efforts. On the one hand, bills aimed to permit GMOs are “reasonable,” while those aimed to block them are “political.”

In a 2007 update Embassy Paris worried the campaign was faltering. While the 2007 GMO acreage registered four times 2006’s, GMO crops still represented only 0.75% of French corn, trailing crop forecasts as

farmers’ spring planting decisions were negatively influenced by the anti-biotech positions of several leading presidential candidates and the new requirement [right out of Greenpeace’s playbook] that biotech field locations, which must be made to the Ministry of Agriculture, be made public.

The Embassy’s frustration here is palpable and it is hard to conclude the US is attempting to organize anything less than an invasion of France by diplomatic and economic means. Several losing fronts are described,

In France, lack of consumer acceptance of agricultural biotechnology in products for human consumption continues to be very strong. Food products labeled as containing or derived from biotech are generally not available on the French market . . .

Anti-biotech activists (mainly Greenpeace, Faucheurs Volontaires, ATTAC, Friends of the Earth, CRI-GEN and Confederation Paysanne farmers union) are well organized, highly visible and work consistently to discourage progress for biotech acceptance. During the summer of 2006, activists destroyed two thirds of the open-field test plots. Farm groups fumed at the immunity that anti-biotech groups have been afforded in these acts of destruction . . .

FNSEA, the largest farmers union in France, usually quiet on the biotech issue, publicly decried the fact that biotech farmers are growing their crops under almost clandestine circumstances to avoid being targeted . . .

Biotech farmers are also facing attacks from traditional farmers. A beekeeper is alleging that pollen from a biotech corn field has ruined his honey harvest and is suing the biotech farmer for damages . . .

Less visible to the public, but still very effective, is the pressure imposed by anti-biotech groups on the feed and food industries. For example, the Greenpeace website has a “blacklist””containing the name of any biotech food product marketed in France. Experience has shown that the negative publicity generated by offering a biotech product in a French supermarket is usually so detrimental that the retailer or distributor removes the product from the shelf . . .

French biotech farmers have found little governmental support for their efforts. Nathalie Kosciusco-Morizet, the new Minister of State for Ecology, advocates a strong precautionary approach and only supports biotech research . . .

Farmers are also frustrated that the police, in general, observe and tolerate the crop destructions, and the judicial system metes out moderate punishment to the activists who are prosecuted. In one case, the activists were found not guilty by reason of necessity, basically allowing them a self-defense argument that biotech development could be harmful to public health. The French legislature has also failed to pass any substantive measures on behalf of the biotech farmers.

France — government, labor, farmer, environmentalist, consumer, retailer, police, judge — appears here a multi-frontal L’armée des ombres against GMO occupation à la Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance flick.

The following year France went nuclear on the GMO efforts, suspending MON810 cultivation. Monsanto claims Greenpeace/Friends of the Earth reached a de facto agreement with the government. In return for the government acting against GMOs, joining Austria, Hungary, Greece, Luxembourg and later Germany, environmentalists, according to Monsanto, would turn a blind eye to President Sarkozy’s nuclear energy initiatives.

France turned next to stirring trouble elsewhere, urging Member States to review EU renewal of MON810. By such external pressure and indigenous resistance, a rollback appeared imminent in what had been a MON810 stronghold — Spain next door. Catalonia, Basque country and the Canary Islands legislated themselves GMO-free or strict biotech coexistence clauses, with Catalonia a particular problem as it is a center for GMO corn production. As was the case in France, the central government is under increasing pressure to ban MON810 production and imports,

[A]gricultural factions against agricultural biotechnology include the environmental side of [the Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs] and organic farmers. Increasingly, consumers are also expressing negative attitudes toward genetically modified crops. On April 18th, the newspaper “El Pas” conducted a survey on whether or not GM food should be prohibited. The following results were obtained after a one month period: 85 percent voted “Yes, they can be dangerous” and 15 percent voted “No, they are absolutely safe”.

Given these complications, Embassy Madrid, acting on the behalf of GMO proponents, requested Washington take action, and sought advice from other posts, crystallizing the continental extent of the US’s GMO campaign and its claim to the scientific mantel,

In response to recent urgent requests by MARM State Secretary Josep Puxeu and Monsanto, post requests renewed USG support of Spain’s science-based agricultural biotechnology position through high-level USG intervention in support of the [European Food Safety Authority] findings. Post also requests USG support for a non-USG science fellow to meet with influential Spanish interlocutors on this issue and assistance with developing an agricultural biotechnology action plan for Spain. Post would also welcome any comments from other posts concerning the anti-GMO campaign.

As if there couldn’t possibly be scientific objections to GMOs’ health, ecological and economic impacts.

Indeed, even the Papacy, Lord knows culpable for a global crime or two, gets served a wafer of condescension,

[W]hen individual Church leaders, for ideological reasons or ignorance, speak out against GMOs, the Vatican does not — at least not yet — feel that it is its duty to challenge them. Post will continue to lobby the Vatican to speak up in favor of GMOs, in the hope that a louder voice in Rome will encourage individual Church leaders elsewhere to reconsider their critical views.

The EU, however, is by no means the sole market on which American GMOs are marching. WikiLeaks details the extent to which US embassies act as agribusiness subsidiaries in the global South.

In a 2009 cable, to pick one out of the pile, Embassy Nairobi gives the impression of a much smoother GMO introduction in Kenya. Kenya was the first African country to sign off on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety but took until February 2009 to establish a legal framework for the use of and trade in genetically modified organisms, joining South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mali, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana,

Following the demise of Kenya’s cotton industry and renewed fears of widespread hunger and famine, biotechnology proponents, pointing to the success of GMO agriculture in South Africa, made the case before Parliament last fall that the technology could help revive Kenyan cotton and address the country’s chronic food insecurity . . . Previously some were unduly concerned about the potential risks posed by the technology. Their anxieties blocked potential corn imports by requiring that imported corn not exceed a two percent adventitious presence for biotechnology-produced corn. This provision led to unnecessary corn supply constraints resulting in food deficits and artificially high corn prices.

The cable presumes a convenient causality without substantiation. Widespread hunger in Kenya, for one, arises in part from the kind of landgrabbing biotechnology serves to legitimize. Whatever its practical merits, technology is often used as a Trojan horse by which to smuggle in new social relations, in this case enriching Kenya’s elite and its multinational beneficiaries at the expense of small farmers. Corn, for another, is a global commodity, its price controlled in part by commodity markets and the grain dumping undertaken by heavily subsidized multinationals.

The US government offered Kenyan GMO proponents more than mere liaison support via the local embassy,

[The] USAID-funded Program for Biosafety Systems created linkages among key [Kenyan] national institutions, thus building support for the bill among policymakers and biosafety regulatory agencies. The program also provided technical regulatory support to facilitate confined field trials of genetically modified cotton and corn.

The results have proven transformative, helping commercialize biotech crops,

Genetically modified products that have been approved for contained and confined field trials include insect-resistant maize and cotton, tissue culture bananas, GM sweet potato, virus-resistant cassava, and rinderpest vaccine. Confined field trials of genetically-modified insect-resistant cotton and maize are already underway in Kenya. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute intends to begin open field trials of transgenic cotton Bt in October 2009.

Contrary to the cable’s characterization of a polite and loyal opposition, Kenyans are deeply divided by GMOs introduction in the field, now scheduled for maize by 2017. According to Paige Aarhus,

Farmers here are skeptical of risking everything for a few seasons of higher yields. In Kangundo, [smallholder Fred] Kiambaa said he would try GM technology if it was a matter of life or death — but he is wary.

Kiambaa uses the Katumani breed of maize, a widely available seed that is reasonably drought-tolerant and affordable. Higher yields are tempting, of course, but Kiambaa said he doesn’t want to chance his livelihood on a foreign corporation. While his family has been on the land for decades now, Kiambaa said they didn’t get to farm it until British colonialists returned it to local farmers. He pointed out trees that line the steep hillside, planted by the British.

“It’s because of Mzungus that we have charcoal,” he said, smiling wryly.

No review in Kenya has been directed at the potential socioecological costs of GMOs, both in-country and abroad, notably India: crop failures, pesticide resistance, superpests, farmer debt and suicide, production spirals trapping locals into purchasing an expanding series of company inputs. Indeed, such failure is agribusiness’ own reward as it takes advantage of widespread collapse by buying up land smallholders are forced to abandon.

The research gap is no accident, as several of Kenya’s institutes are wholly in Monsanto’s pocket. Writes Aarhus,

At the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), a massive NGO working on GM research and development in partnership with [the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute], Regulatory Affairs Manager Dr. Francis Nang’ayo says GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-genetically modified foods and should be embraced as a solution to persistent drought and hunger.

In 2008, the AATF received a $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This partnership involved the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and American seed giant Monsanto [in which the Gates Foundation holds $23.1 million in shares] . . .

The gap reproduces one found at American land grant universities, where farmer-instigated investigations and public varieties have been abandoned in favor of a research agenda for which agribusiness pays. Many Kenyans object to the dereliction, including Anne Maina, advocacy coordinator for the African Biodiversity Network, a coalition of 65 Kenyan farming organizations,

“Our public research institutions must shift their focus back to farmers’ needs,” she told The Indypendent, “rather than support the agenda of agribusiness, which is to colonize our food and seed chain. We believe that the patenting of seed is deeply unethical and dangerous.”

Yet the only skeptic the Embassy’s cable acknowledges is Dr Willy Tonui, a researcher then at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the African Biological Safety Association, who asked that the Biosafety Act be amended to “capture bio-safety concerns,”

But for the vast majority of professionals in the field, biotechnology holds the promise of improved food security in Kenya.

Even Tonui, now CEO at the National Biosafety Authority, is no opponent, however. Three years later we find,

Tonui claims media hysteria and inaccurate reporting are to blame for resistance to GM technology, arguing the NBA maintains stringent guidelines about GM seeds in Kenya.

Private Bradley Manning, who allegedly released the US cables to WikiLeaks and the world, suffered sexual humiliation and solitary confinement while eight months in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. He better embodies what we should hope the rest of the world can draw from the US than anything in the documents.

We can honor Manning’s act of conscience by investigating and publicizing (and funding) WikiLeaked finds. What I covered here represents only a miniscule fraction of food and pharmaceutical items in the cables. Some of it was reported in the early days of the cables’ release, including Pfizer’s dirty trick and France’s MON810 rejection, but I discovered only in reading the cables directly could I grasp all the plot points and subtleties in tone and context many of the articles missed.

Much more, however, has gone unreported. I came across whole batches dedicated to the Brazilian landless movement, Russian deforestation, anti-HIV generics, whaling off Japan and Iceland, and over 3000 cables on influenza alone. All of these and more are now open to scholars, journalists, activists and anyone else looking for and sharing insight on the logistics of empire, typically conducted under the veil of secrecy, and, surprisingly given the clout on hand, over many a bad meal,

Over rubbery fish at an Adenauer Stiftung affair on April 27, External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten touched briefly on why the EU will never be a “real power,” the dubious backgrounds of some of the leaders of the EU’s new members, next steps on Cyprus/Turkey, the differences between a union and an alliance, and Russian President Putin’s “killer’s eyes.” . . .

Cautioning that “I’m not saying that genes are determinant,” Patten then reviewed Putin family history: grandfather part of Lenin’s special protection team, father a communist party apparatchik, and Putin himself decided at a young age to pursue a career in the KGB. “He seems a completely reasonable man when discussing the Middle East or energy policy, but when the conversation shifts to Chechnya or Islamic extremism, Putin’s eyes turn to those of a killer.”