"Almost everything scientists are trying to achieve by genetically modifying crops can be achieved in other less risky ways. Whether the problem is pest or weed control, drought tolerance, yield or nutrition, there are countless, though poorly supported, farming methods that can be used before needing to open pandora's box of genetic tricks. GM advocates seem only to have discovered the cause of poverty eradication now that they have something to sell." - Andrew Simms
World hunger needs a simple solution rather than hi-tech GM food
The Guardian, Monday August 4, 2003
The sound of one hand clapping should greet the behaviour of "rational" scientists, businessmen and politicians in the debate on the future of genetically modified food.
One member of the government's review panel resigned because of the its "naive" and unbalanced approach. Another formally complained that he was threatened with the loss of research funding if he was critical of GM technology. In the most staggering example of a conflict of interest in recent times, a Monsanto employee was reportedly commissioned to write the first draft of the panel's report concerning GM safety issues.
Icing on this less than rational cake was added by David King, chairman of the panel and chief government scientific adviser, who used the experience of the US to reassure the public. GM food has been eaten there since around 1996 with no obvious adverse effects. But absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of the absence of harm.
What emerges is an automatic cultural bias in the scientific community towards invasive, hi-tech solutions to complex social, environmental and economic problems. Regardless of whether or not they are best - or even appropriate.
Because why, after all, do we need GM crops? Even if the world was short of food, which it is not, available evidence suggests that using what is called, "sustainable agriculture" - a mixture of environmental and pro-poor approaches to growing food - brings massively higher increases in overall productivity than anything achieved through genetic modification.
Consumers and supermarkets do not want them. Only a hard core of biotech businesses, researchers and their political allies are bothered.
Floundering for winning arguments, they've settled on a kind of moral blackmail, the modern equivalent of patriotism being the last resort of the scoundrel. We should commercially introduce GM crops, they say, because we need to feed the poor.
When this argument was first used aggressively by Monsanto in the late 1990s, the poor had other ideas. African delegates from Ethiopia to Burundi, Senegal and Mozambique, at special negotiations of the UN food and agriculture organisation "strongly" objected that "the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us".
They were convinced that the "feed the world" argument was a huge (genetically modified) red herring. Since then, the GM lobbyists just shout louder. George Bush accused the European Union of starving hungry people because of its caution over GM crops.
Why are the new scoundrels so wrong? The arguments need repetition. People go hungry because they're either poor, powerless, both, or have no land to grow food on. GM crops don't change this. Britain's experience has been enormously problematic. The poor, majority world has no chance to regulate, monitor or segregate GM crops.
Almost everything scientists are trying to achieve by genetically modifying crops can be achieved in other less risky ways. Whether the problem is pest or weed control, drought tolerance, yield or nutrition, there are countless, though poorly supported, farming methods that can be used before needing to open pandora's box of genetic tricks. GM advocates seem only to have discovered the cause of poverty eradication now that they have something to sell.
Increasingly restrictive global intellectual property laws, which are a precondition for commercial GM crop technology, further weaken the bargaining power of poor and hungry. They create a massive market distortion in the global food system in favour of multinational companies that already enjoy near-monopoly positions. Most worrying, according to aid agencies, is that the GM lobby is almost entirely ignorant about how and why people actually go hungry, and how to change it.
Nature has no advertising budget. Advocates of sustainable agriculture also tend to be poor and marginalised. The biotech firms, on the other hand, have armies of PR and sales people, researchers, lawyers and lobbyists. They fear that there should be a proper comparative assessment of the relative merits of GM, conventional farming, and sustainable and organic agriculture, which would most likely show that a mixture of efficient public distribution systems, sustainable agriculture, land reform, education and guaranteed basic healthcare would make GM crops at best a rare, final resort, and more often completely irrelevant.
This is an old cycle repeated. Huge hype around a hi-tech magic bullet, swiftly followed by brutal logistical, technical and economic reality.
Remember vitamin A enriched rice, meant to help prevent blindness in malnourished people? It seemed like such a good idea until it emerged that you had to eat a truckload to get the required dose. As Franz Simmersbach of the FAO said: "It's as if vitamin A research makes researchers go blind!"
Magic is fine when you read Harry Potter, but not when you live in the real world.
Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation and author of the forthcoming Limits to Property: How Restrictive Property Rights Fail the Modern World
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