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Transgenic rice once again proposed as solution to bacterial blight outbreaks, this time in Africa



Scientists with an international rice initiative have been raising the alarm about a strain of bacterial blight causing outbreaks in rice fields in East Africa, and they say the patented transgenic varieties they have developed are the solution.

The scientists are with the Healthy Crops Project, a non-profit consortium funded by the Gates Foundation that brings together US and German universities, the French national research institute (IRD), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and others. In a scientific article published in June 2023, the team claims to have identified an outbreak of a Chinese variant of bacterial blight in Tanzania, which was previously unknown on the continent, and then to have employed gene-editing techniques to confer broad resistance to bacterial blight in rice grown in Africa.

The scientists plan to first introduce their transgenic rice in Kenya, where recent regulations allow for the introduction of gene-edited crops. They have already crossed their resistant line with a variety called Komboka, which was developed by IRRI and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation. While team leader Wolf Frommer told GRAIN they have “no interest in making profits from small scale producers”, he acknowledged that there is a patent on their gene-edited rice lines. He also said outbreaks of the Chinese bacterial blight strain have now spread to Kenya and Madagascar.

This is not the first time that IRRI and its partners have proposed GM rice as a solution to bacterial blight. Twenty years ago, farmer and consumer groups in Asia protested against the introduction of a rice known as “BB rice”— IRRI’s first transgenic rice to be field tested at its research centre in the Philippines. The Healthy Crops gene-edited rice varieties would be the first transgenic lines to be commercialised in Africa, if the project moves forward.

Groups in Asia that were opposed to IRRI’s “BB rice” argued that bacterial blight outbreaks are a product of IRRI’s green revolution model. The disease only began to be a major problem when IRRI’s semi-dwarf varieties were planted over large areas, replacing diverse local varieties with vast, uniform monocultures. The uniformity and reliance on huge amounts of chemical fertilisers created the ideal breeding grounds for bacterial blight and other diseases. IRRI’s response, beyond the promotion of chemical pesticides, was to try and integrate resistant genes from farmer varieties into its varieties, but this single gene resistance (or even multiple gene resistance) was inevitably overcome by the disease, leading to an endless race to try and identify and integrate new genes, and an escalation in pesticide use. Those opposing BB rice argued that the GMO rice would also not provide durable resistance, and that the only effective solution was to bring back diversity in the fields by restoring farmer seed systems and by moving away from chemical fertilisers and pesticides to practices that keep disease pressures down. IRRI never did manage to gain approval for the release of “BB rice” in Asia.

The situation is similar in Tanzania and Kenya. For decades now, farmers have resisted constant efforts by IRRI and other agencies to get them to abandon their farmer varieties and switch to the so-called high-yielding varieties (HYVs), including the Komboka variety of rice that the Healthy Crops team is now gene-editing. Farmer seeds still account for the vast majority of rice grown in Tanzania, one of the only countries in Africa that is self-sufficient in rice. This push for HYVs has been especially heavy in the “epicentre” of the recent bacterial blight outbreak identified by the Healthy Crops team: the Dakawa irrigation scheme in Tanzania’s fertile Morogoro Region.

It is noteworthy that the outbreak appears to have first affected fields planted to a variety called Saro 5, which has been promoted by numerous donors including the World Bank, USAID, AGRA and the Gates Foundation, despite its requirement for high levels of chemical fertilisers. For several years, the Norwegian fertiliser company Yara heavily promoted Saro 5, in combination with its fertilisers, under the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) programme. Saro 5 seeds were given out to farmers for free and were multiplied at the Chollima Rice Institute in Dakawa and distributed to farmers in other parts of the country. These different agencies and companies have thus spread a variety of rice highly susceptible to a new strain of bacterial blight across many farms in Tanzania, creating the conditions for the disease to amplify and spread.

Several rice farmers in Dakawa contacted by Tanzania’s national farmers’ organisation MVIWATA confirmed that the disease is present in their fields. They said that the government has been promoting Saro 5 to deal with the disease, but that this has failed dramatically, since Saro 5 is highly susceptible. “Saro 5 is the type of seed that is mostly affected,” says Saumini Hamisi, a rice farmer at Dakawa.

The farmers also said that the national research agency and the extension agents in the area have been telling farmers to use various pesticides against the disease, which has done nothing to help either.

Some speculate that this new strain of bacterial blight came to Dakawa via the Chinese province of Yunnan, since this strain of the disease is only found there. They say that infected material was likely brought over by the Chongqing Zhongyi Seed Company, which took over the Chinese Agro-technology Demonstration Centre built in Dakawa in 2009 with cooperation funds from China. Like the other foreign funded programmes at Dakawa, the Chinese initiative aimed to displace local varieties, in this case with Chongqing Zhongyi’s patented hybrid varieties. The Chinese seed company has not commented on these speculations, and did not respond to GRAIN’s inquiries either. The possibility raises serious concerns, given that Chinese seed companies are engaged in hybrid rice programmes in many other countries across Africa and the world.

But whether or not the Chinese seed company is the source, the disease is now spreading without it, as the Chinese project shut down last year. The question now is how to deal with the outbreak.

In Tanzania and other rice growing regions of the world, farmers have long managed bacterial blight and other diseases. Farmers in the Philippines with the farmer-scientist network MASIPAG, for instance, do regularly select for disease resistance within their farmer varieties of rice, but their main focus is not on breeding for resistance but in using farming practices that negate the factors that favour pest or disease population build-up and outbreaks. According to MASIPAG scientist and founding member, Dr. Chito Medina, this includes planting at least three different rice varieties on each farm “so that the differential resistance of each variety prevents the development and outbreak of any biotype or any continuous increase of population of any biotype or kind of pest or pathogen” (a technique that is also used to control rice diseases in Yunnan). They also deploy certain water management techniques and avoid the use of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrogen fertilisers, which increases the reproductive rate of insects and pathogens, including bacterial blight. Medina says that, because of this approach, “there have been no reports among MASIPAG farmers of any outbreaks or recurrent pest or disease problems for a long time”, despite the presence of many strains of bacterial blight across the country.

The local varieties favoured by farmers in East Africa may be susceptible to the bacterial blight strains now circulating in the region. But this does not have to lead to major crop losses. Rather than use the outbreak as another excuse to destroy farmer seed systems, efforts must focus on helping farmers to build up resistance within their local varieties through selection and seed sharing, and to utilise farming practices that can control the disease. It is bad enough that a foreign-funded programme brought a disease outbreak; it will be much worse if this paves the way for another foreign-funded programme to displace local varieties with patented, transgenic rice seeds.

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Banks have given almost $7tn to fossil fuel firms since Paris deal, report reveals



Among world’s top 60 banks those in US are biggest fossil fuel financiers, while Barclays leads way in Europe.

The world’s big banks have handed nearly $7tn (£5.6tn) in funding to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions, according to research.

In 2016, after talks in Paris, 196 countries signed an agreement to limit global heating as a result of carbon emissions to at most 2C above preindustrial levels, with an ideal limit of 1.5C to prevent the worst impacts of a drastically changed climate.

Many countries have since promised to reduce carbon emissions, but the latest research shows private interests continued to funnel money to oil, gas and coal companies, which have used it to expand their operations.

Eight in 10 of the world’s most eminent climate scientists now foresee at least 2.5C of global heating, according to the results of a Guardian survey published last week – an outcome expected to lead to devastating consequences for civilisation.

Researchers for the banking on climate chaos report, now in its 15th edition, analysed the world’s top 60 banks’ underwriting and lending to more than 4,200 fossil fuel firms and companies causing the degradation of the Amazon and Arctic.

Those banks, they found, gave $6.9tn in financing to oil, coal and gas companies, nearly half of which – $3.3tn – went towards fossil fuel expansion. Even in 2023, two years after many large banks vowed to work towards lowering emissions as part of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, bank finance for fossil fuel companies was $705bn, with $347bn going towards expansion, the report says.

US banks were the biggest financiers of the fossil fuel industry, contributing 30% of the total $705bn provided in 2023, the report found. JP Morgan Chase gave the most of any bank in the world, providing $40.8bn to fossil fuel companies in 2023, while Bank of America came in third. The world’s second biggest financier of fossil fuels was the Japanese bank Mizuho, which provided $37.1bn.

London-based Barclays was Europe’s biggest fossil fuel financier, with $24.2bn, followed by Spain’s Santander at $14.5bn and Germany’s Deutsche Bank with $13.4bn. Overall, European banks stumped up just over a quarter of the total fossil fuel financing in 2023, according to the report.

Tom BK Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which co-authored the study, said: “Financiers and investors of fossil fuels continue to light the flame of the climate crisis. Paired with generations of colonialism, the fossil fuel industry and banking institutions’ investment in false solutions create unlivable conditions for all living relatives and humanity on Mother Earth.

“As Indigenous peoples, we remain on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe, and the fossil fuel industry targets our lands and territories as sacrifice zones to continue their extraction. Capitalism and its extraction-based economy will only perpetuate more harm and destruction against our Mother Earth and it must come to an end.”

Critics of the report said its methodology, which relied on investigating deals reported by financial market data companies such as Bloomberg and Refinitiv, meant researchers did not have a detailed view of what was being financed, and by whom.

Specifically, syndicated loans, bond issues and underwriting arrangements often involved several banks with varying levels of exposure. And financing to fossil fuel companies to fund transition technology projects could not be distinguished from financing for new oil wells, they said.

Spokespeople for Barclays, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and Santander all emphasised that their organisations were supporting energy sector clients’ transitions toward more sustainable business models. Mizuho declined a request for comment.

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Minority tribes demand inclusion into national setup



JINJA | A group of the minority tribes have ramped up advocacy for a constitutional amendment seeking to be officially recognition as citizens of Uganda.

Members of the Ik ethnic minority tribes say they find difficulty to access essential government documents like land titles, national identification cards, passports coupled with hardship to access social services.

Uganda is home to a number of minority groups spread in different districts, some of these tribes are not legally recognised in the laws of the land

They are advocating for recognition through a constitutional amendment, since they can’t access some government programs and important documents of the land like national IDs, passports and land tittles.

Daniel Lokolo, a member of the IK community in Kabong District, says they find challenges in land ownership, since they live in forests and the laws of Uganda grant all forests rights to National Forestry Authority hence many of them have been evicted by government agencies like Uganda wildlife Authority and NFA yet forests have been their ancestral land since their origin.

“For generations we have been staying in mountains and forests but during demarcations by government agencies, they categorise our land as gazetted areas hence we can’t get lamd tittles on our land,” he said.

He added their great grand parents lived in forests for security reasons because they would evade attacks from Karamojangs and Turkana.

Stephanie Adupa, from the Tepeth/Soo community and the coordinator of Karamoja indigenous minority group, predicted their extinction if government doesn’t intervene.

“We the Soo of Mount Moroto we were evicted by government agencies and also the majority Karimojong also invaded our land hence we have nowhere to stay,” she said.

Chris Lopeyok Karenga, a civil rights activist and a member of the Mening group in Karamoja says minority groups should be catered for in terms of representation at different levels of government, including Sub County, district to Parliament.

“We also need our voices to be heard but we have no representatives at all levels, hence we want government to consider it,” he said

Paska Kerisha, from the Department of Peace and Justice in Moroto Catholic Diocese, says because minority groups are always isolated, they live in hard to reach areas like mountains and forests therefore, access to social services is still a challenge.

“For example, in Moroto, we have the Tepeth who live in the mountains, you find that their children face difficulties to access schools in lower areas, even medical services are inaccessible which has increased mortality rate of pregnant mothers and infant mortality in the communities,” she said.

During a stakeholders meeting in Jinja, officials from National Planning Authority said they working on modalities to ensure all their demands are catered for.

Sylvia Ngeyi, the coordinator of African Peer Review Commission, said they held a study in 2018 and some of their findings indicated that they the indigenous minority communities are facing a number of historical challenges hence government is coming up with strategies to address their challenges

Emmanuel Katumba, the head of Commission African Peer Review Commission, revealed that their findings indicate that majority of the minority groups are missing out on government programmes but they’re doing proper documentation and validation thereafter solutions shall be found.

He encourages the minority groups to embrace the forthcoming mass population and housing census where their details shall be captured accurately and they will be catered for in all spheres of life.

Notable among the marginalised tribes include Ik, Tepeth, Soo, Banyala, Batwa among others, whereas some are recognised in the constitution majority are not included.


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Trees for Global Benefits: “Climate neutral” burgers in Sweden. Starvation in Uganda



The Swedish fast food chain Max Burgers AB claims to have had more than three million trees planted in the tropics. “Planting trees is an effective way to remove carbon dioxide,” the company states on its website. “Since 2018, MAX has been funding trees that capture the equivalent of 110% of our entire value chain’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

But a new investigation by Staffan Lindberg in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet reveals that some of the farmers in Uganda who planted trees for Max Burgers carbon credits are now cutting down the trees and making them into charcoal. The farmers faced starvation, because the trees were planted on their farmland.

Max Burgers buys carbon credits from a project in Uganda called Trees for Global Benefits, that has been running since 2003. The project is managed by a Ugandan organisation called Ecotrust.

Under the scheme, farmers plant trees on their land and receive income from the sales of carbon credits. It is certified under the Plan Vivo standard.

According to the Plan Vivo website,

The project operates as a market-based solution that reduces unsustainable exploitation of forest resources and the decline of ecosystem quality, while diversifying and increasing incomes for rural farmers and their families.

In 2013, the project won an award from SEED, which was founded by UNEP, UNDP, and IUCN. In a video produced by SEED, Pauline Nantongo Kalunda, the executive director of Ecotrust, says, “The main objective of this enterprise is to combine carbon sequestration activity with livelihoods improvements.”

Kalunda is on the Board of Trustees of Plan Vivo.


The hunger forest

Lindberg calls the Ecotrust project the “hunger forest”. Ecotrust persuaded farmers to plant trees on land where they grew crops. But the farmers had only small areas of land. When the trees took over the land, the farmers could no longer grow food for their families.

The Aftonbladet investigation is not the first critique of the Trees for Global Benefits project. In 2017, Elina Andersson and Wim Carton from Lund University wrote a study that highlights problems with the project. “Our study shows that there is widespread confusion among farmers about what the project is basically about,” Andersson and Carton write.

Farmers did not know who was buying the carbon credits.

One farmer said,

They do not have many benefits, these carbon trees. They are not easily grown and they take time. I had to replace so many of them because they dried out. They started to dry from the top and then they refused to grow. I wouldn’t plant these trees again, but rather eucalyptus and maybe some fruit trees.

Farmers had to pay the full cost of replacing damaged and dead trees, regardless of whether the trees were damaged by fire, vandalism, insects, or wild animals.

Andersson and Carton write about the “flawed basis on which the local population had the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding participation” in the tree planting project.

Contracts were written in English which few of the villagers speak.

Almost all the farmers they spoke to said they did not know how much compensation they would receive from the project. One farmer told Andersson and Carton that,

People planted trees before they knew how much they would get. And they did not negotiate the price with the buyers. So they don’t know if they got all their money, or if they just got half of it. If you tell prices in terms of percentage, how can an old man understand? They are not giving the correct information. transparency is lacking. Most people don’t even know what they are selling.

Lack of land is a major problem in the project area, Andersson and Carton note, particularly among the poorest households.

“It cannot be ruled out that,” they write, “through the project, poor small farmers risk being locked into a type of land use for a long time that reduces their ability to adapt to deal with temporary crises as well as long-term changes, which in the worst case can mean long-term negative effects on their life situation.”

They also note that payments from Ecotrust are often greatly delayed or not received at all.

In 2019, an article in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter took a critical look at the Trees for Global Benefits project.

And in 2022, Global Forest Coalition published a report about the project with the title, “A case study on the failures of carbon offsetting”. The researchers spoke to more than 100 community members. They write that,

The clear message from all communities was that the project was not delivering its promised benefits, and participants were growing increasingly bitter and desperate.

The lead author of the report was David Kureeba, a programme officer with Friends of the Earth Uganda.

The report concludes that the Trees for Global Benefits project “is one of a growing number of global greenwashing exercises that are not only failing to reduce the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere but also inflicting adverse environmental, social, and economic impacts on the local communities involved”.

“A chance to earn money”

Aftenbladet’s journalist Staffan Lindberg and photographer Niclas Hammarström travel to the project area in Uganda. There they find farmers cutting down the trees, to sell them as charcoal.

A farmer called Samuel Byarugaba tells Lindberg that a man from Ecotrust turned up eight years ago. He said Ecotrust could offer the family a chance to earn money.

Samuel signed the contract despite having only two acres of land, and the fact that all his land was being used to grow food. He didn’t receive a copy of the contract. The man from Ecotrust later showed him how to plant the trees, seven metres apart. That was the only education he received about tree planting.

After three years, the trees formed a canopy over the food crops. The trees took the light, the water, and the nutrients. Samuel’s sweet potatoes and bananas died. Nothing could grow under the trees. Samuel, his wife, and 15 children and grandchildren were without food.

He tells Lindberg,

“I used to be something called a model farmer. People came to me to learn about farming and I was proud to show our farm. We had enough food to eat our fill and were able to sell the excess. Now everything disappeared.”

The first payment from Ecotrust should have come in the first year. When it arrived, one year later, it was equivalent to a little more than US$100. Enough for a couple of weeks of food.

Samuel has only received two more payments of the same amount since then. He has been forced to beg from relatives for his family to survive.

Lindberg reports that now he’s cutting all the trees down. He will plant bananas and sweet potatoes again.

“My children have no food”

Rosset Kyampaire is a widow, and mother of four. She has only one acre of land. Ecotrust still persuaded her to sign the contract.

She planted 200 trees on her land. After two years, the beans and cassava withered. After three years, she had no harvest at all.

After eight years, she has received no money from Ecotrust. Instead she got excuses: “This is how white people work,” and “Have patience,” and “It will arrive later this year.”

To survive, she has to work as a day labourer on other people’s farms. She earns less than US$1.5 a day. It’s not enough.

“I am so stressed,” Rosset tells Lindberg. “My children have no food.”

She has already started cutting down the trees. “It’s my only chance,” she says.

Where is the food? Look around, where is it?

Jorum Baslina is a local leader in the village of Kigaaga. He also joined the project. “Ecotrust just wants to grow as many trees as possible,” he tells Lindberg. “They urge us: plant more!”

Jorum says there is no transparency. Ecotrust did not tell the farmers how much they would receive, or why the money has not been paid. He shows Lindberg a contract, written in English, and says that,

Many here can barely write their own names. And almost no one knows English. Why don’t we get the agreement in our own language? And why doesn’t it say how much we should get?

Jorum has acted as a spokesperson for other people involved in Ecotrust’s project. He says that of the 100 farmers he’s in contact with, only six or seven are happy with the project and they had unused land to plant on and were the first to join.

“The rest of us are much poorer than before,” Jorum tells Lindberg. “Almost everyone has started cutting down the trees or is planning to do so. Where is the food? Look around, where is it?”

“We are starving”

Ecotrust came to Herbert Rukundo’s farm nine years ago and promised that the trees would bring money, every year. Herbert tells Lindberg that,

We dreamed of being able to keep the children in school and maybe rebuild the house a little so that it was beautiful, even buying a motorcycle to drive to church. Instead we were forced to starve. Now we’ve chopped it all down and turned it into charcoal.

Last year, Herbert cut down all his trees. Not long afterwards, the coordinator from Ecotrust visited his farm and accused Herbert of breach of contract. The Ecotrust coordinator threatened that if Herbert did not replant all the trees he would have to face the police and prison.

Hubert replied that as things are, “We are starving.”

Hubert tells Lindberg that Ecotrust didn’t want to listen. “Now I can’t sleep at night,” he says.

Mauda Twinomngisha wanted to send her three daughters to university. “I wanted them to have a better life than me and my husband had. It was for their future that we signed up,” she tells Lindberg.

But when the food disappeared, she had to take the girls out of school. All three have been married off as child brides, aged 14, 15, and 16.

Two years ago, Mauda decided to cut down the trees. “Then a woman from Ecotrust came here,” she tells Lindberg. The woman was very angry. She told Mauda to remove her bananas and plant trees. “But we had no choice,” Mauda says.

Wilson Akiiza and Violet Mbabaazi planted 600 trees on their three acres of land. “Now we have no food”, Wilson tells Lindberg. “Ecotrust never explained how much money I would get, only that it would come every year. Now I am the coordinator for 89 farmers who are part of the project. Nobody has food.”

Robert Sunday has also cut down all his Ecotrust “carbon trees” and made charcoal with them. With the money from the charcoal, he will buy cassava plants.

In the 10 years since he planted the trees, he received two payments, of about US$50 each.

He has only one acre, from which he used to feed 10 people. “Ecotrust must have understood that the family would never make it,” Lindberg writes. “Nevertheless, they were pushed to plant.”

Auditor: “Food security not an issue”

Aftonbladet’s research team visited nine farms in two districts, Hoima and Kikuube. All of them planted trees for Ecotrust on land that they previously used for growing crops. Hunger was the result.

One family received no money at all. All of the others received fewer payments than the contract promised. Ecotrust has not explained to any of them why the money has not been paid out.

None of the nine families has received enough money to cover the cost of food lost to the “carbon trees”.

None of the families could explain how carbon trading works, who bought the carbon credits, or how much money they should have received. Most of them did not receive a copy of the contract they signed.

Two of the families told Lindberg that they were forced to marry off underage daughters.

One eight of the farms, all or some of the trees have now been cut down to make way for food crops. The timber has been sold as charcoal.

Lindberg acknowledges that the Aftonbladet research is not comprehensive. Several thousand farmers are involved in the project, spread over a large area.

But David Kureeba, the lead author of Global Forest Coalition’s 2022 report about the project, tells Lindberg that the problem is widespread and systemic. “We are 45 million people crowded in Uganda,” Kureeba says, “and the vast majority are already living on the verge of starvation. They have no land to spare.”

The Global Forest Coalition report is based on interviews with more than 100 farmers. That report came out 18 months ago. “Since then the situation has worsened further,” Lindberg writes. “Why haven’t those responsible reacted?”

Under Plan Vivo’s rules, the project has to be inspected every six years. The most recent audit was in 2019, carried out by Environmental Services, Inc, a US-based company.

The lead verifier was Guy Pinjuv, who has since moved on to become Senior Advisor for Carbon and MRV (Measurement, Reporting, and Verification) at Conservation International.

A 2017 article describes Pinjuv’s US$600,000 house that he built in Nevada on a one acre plot of land that he bought for just US$150,000 in 2014. In the article, Pinjuv describes his work:

“If someone wants to slow down deforestation, I’m the guy who goes and checks to make sure they calculated everything correctly. And if there’s a tribe there, I’m the guy who goes and meets the chief and makes sure they’re not planning a revolution . . . that sort of stuff.”

The 2019 Environmental Services audit report states that, “In general food security does not appear to be an issue and project activities are maintaining or increasing food production.” There is no mention of the systemic hunger that, as Lindberg writes, “seems to be integrated into the core of the project”.

“Africa’s poor, who did the least to cause the climate crisis, will pay the price when we have to change,” Lindberg writes.

Lindberg highlights the inequity of the situation. “At Swedish hamburger restaurants, guests order from climate-neutral menus. In the hunger forest, the children wait in vain for food.”


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