Food Security, The WTO & GMOs - The Need for a Global Ethic & A Global Moratorium on GMOs (22/9/2003)

A paper written for Cancun by Aruna Rodrigues of Sunray Harvesters, India, an economist and project management consultant.
Food Security, The WTO & GMOs
The Need for a Global Ethic & A Global Moratorium on GMOs
By Aruna Rodrigues

" A year after.a massive spraying.there was not a sound of the song of bird... What was man doing to.our beautiful world.Who has made the decision that sets in motion.this ever-widening wave of death." From Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring"

In the 1930s, CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) were presumed by the scientific community, to be one of the most environmentally benign of substances, in fact environmentally safe.  Decades later, and well into the foreseeable future, we are faced with the unfortunate legacy of this great error of judgement --- the disastrous impact of these ozone-depleting substances.  We should be so humble, especially our fraternity of scientists and technology pandits, to think that we can be so simplistic in matters concerning our natural environment and muck around in any fashion with Mother Nature and she is indeed our Mother. But history keeps repeating itself with a wearying regularity, precisely because we are not so humble.  We now have dangerously contaminated ground-water, and deadly pesticides have entered our food chain.  The effects of such pesticides on the health of our population and other third-world countries make appalling reading.  We have even contaminated "mother's milk".  Now we face an even more potent threat to the survival of our world.  I am of course talking about genetically modified organism (GMOs).  Whichever way we vote on the subject, we need to recognise that it is the single most potent technology that the world has known: it has the power to disrupt Mother Nature as nothing else, even atomic power. Add to this, money and the power of Multinational Corporations, Pharmaceutical and Biotech Companies, ably aided and abetted by the US FDA, the WTO and Bretton Woods Institutions.  This is the potent cocktail of power in all of its guises that confronts us on the issue of GMOs in foods and agriculture. Yet GMOs whether in the form of seeds, foods or agricultural trials, are being 'exported' forcibly and forcefully by America with official approbation.  As a consequence they are being released and deployed by the most insidious and devious means throughout our environment without virtually any safeguards: and this is precisely the point.  The Independent Science Panel on GE (ISP) was set up because scientists have felt frustrated by the lack of open debate at Government-sponsored meetings, (including the UK Government) which are stacked by GMO-supporting scientists who routinely back GM foods as being absolutely safe.  In this set-up, looking for independent scientists who are not seriously compromised is as rare as encountering an Indian tiger in a concrete urban jungle.  On the 10th May 2003, the ISP published its report "The Case For a GM-Free Sustainable World".  In brief, the main points are summed up in the following (quoted, highlighting mine):
* The scientists are extremely concerned about the hazards of GMOs to biodiversity, food safety, human and animal health, and demand a moratorium on environmental releases in accordance with the precautionary principle. The hazards of GMOs to biodiversity and human and animal health are now acknowledged by sources within the UK and US Governments. Particularly serious consequences are associated with the potential for horizontal gene transfer. These include the spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes that would render infectious diseases untreatable, the generation of new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and harmful mutations which may lead to cancer.
* They are opposed to GM crops that will intensify corporate monopoly, exacerbate inequality and prevent the essential shift to sustainable agriculture that can provide food security and health around the world.
* They call for a ban on patents of life-forms and living processes which threaten food security, sanction biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and genetic resources and violate basic human rights and dignity.
* They want more support on research and development of non-corporate, sustainable agriculture that can benefit family farmers all over the world.

I'd like to concentrate on one or two issues of prime importance and of particular topical interest in view of the current WTO negotiations at Cancun.  I am sure that the principles involved hold the key to the future and well being of the whole world.  The developed countries ignore these issues not just to the peril of the less fortunate,  the poor of third world countries, but in so doing, imperil themselves. These are (a) food security in developing countries and the WTO and (b) the need for a global ethic and moratorium on GMOs.  As I write, I cannot help but recall some identical issues that Dr. V Kurien, (our legendary milkman) grappled with and what he clearly saw as 'writing on the wall'. I am drawing freely from his address to the 8th World Congress of Food Science and Technology in 1991 for the g discussion which follows.  Clearly, in these 12 years, we have not only not moved forward toward a more transparent ethic, but have regressed.

The WTO, Third World Economies and Food Security

Today, we are if anything, even more unsettled by a US-EU alliance, insidiously promoting their self interest.  This self-interest is being dressed up, with all the sophistication and fancy economics that advanced countries with money and institutional support manage so well, as being to the advantage of the poor in the third world.  The WTO is the willing organisation through which such an ignominious cover-up is being stage-managed and relentless pushed through. 12 years ago, it was called the theory of "comparative advantage".  At that time one of the International Financial Institutions provided the Indian Government with a set of recommendations on how we should manage our agricultural sector.  One such recommendation was that we should cease to provide incentives to the oil-seeds sector, which had been the driving force for the increased production of oil-seeds in India.  By means of the usual sophisticated equations, they arrived at a "producer subsidy equivalent" of around 12%.  It was said that we lacked "comparative advantage" and this huge subsidy of 12% was distorting the actual demand scenario and that this was a serious waste of  resources.  Naturally, the NDDB whose then chairman was Dr. Kurien, was extremely concerned.  Not only did the NDDB have a major involvement in oil-seeds, but India was the largest producer of "peanuts" (pun not intended!) in the world.  This being the case, the "wasted" subsidy amounted to a lot of money for a poor country like India.  Dr. Kurien, always one to spare no effort in going after the facts, discovered that the US had a producer subsidy equivalent for soy beans that was 15% and that in the EEC (now the EU), the cost of an oil-seed was 67% "producer subsidy equivalent".  Dr. K  remarked, "we therefore concluded that we did lack 'comparative advantage'; we could never afford to subsidise our oilseed farmers, or any of our farmers, to the same extent as the US and EEC subsidise theirs.  In fact we understand that there are cases where the subsidies to producers are so great that governments then turn around and subsidise consumer and export sales. We certainly do lack comparative advantage".

Not much has changed today except the terminology. We now know that the EU provides a daily subsidy of US $ 2.7 per cow, and Japan provides three times more at US $ 8, whereas half of India's 1000 million people live on less than $ 2 a day.   The craziness gets no saner if we examine the fuller picture of protective tariffs in place in the developed world. On average, farmers in OECD countries (whose members are the world's major industrialised economies) receive price support that is 31% above the equivalent price in international trade.  For milk, this rises to 80%, 100% for sugar and 360% for rice. These hugely inflated agricultural prices can only be maintained by punitively high tariff walls averaging around 60%.  At the moment, developing countries hand over an estimated $16 billion to the industrialised world in agricultural tariffs!

If we were to follow the logic of the WTO, (faithfully  promoting this kind of "comparative advantage" of the  developed world), we would find ourselves disbanding our dairy industry in the near future and a lot else besides. It was after all an implied notion of the developed West, going back many years, that 'dairying' should perhaps, not be encouraged in developing countries. What is now happening in  country after country, is that poor farming communities in the developing world are losing their farming livelihood.  The impacts and implications are terrifying. Surely there is something grossly perverse about such a perspective and agenda for the WTO.

For every recommendation that we do not accept, there are some that are adopted either because we haven't been thorough enough in our critical review or because we haven't uncovered the sheer chicanery of the WTO deliberations.  I believe that if developing countries have to be constantly watching their backs wondering what angle and hidden purposes and processes they have left unwittingly uncovered, then the WTO is a pitfall better to be avoided. The implications for us, for our food security and our development (and development is not just income-based but the development of peoples and nations in human terms) are too serious for us to be playing such WTO games.  All those many years ago, Dr. Kurien made the very same terse observation. "The point is not whether advanced nations should or should not spend enormous amounts in subsidising agriculture.  The point is that my government was encouraged to make a major shift in its agricultural policy, one that would have serious implications not just for our food security and foreign exchange but for millions of farmers who depend on oilseeds for their livlihood" (emphasis mine). 

What shall we say this amounts to, without name-calling?  We today, would go much further and say that the WTO is deliberately exploiting and impoverishing third world farming communities to make US, EU and Japanese farmers even better off.  This is a serious charge.

Here are some more specifics before we confront the GMO issues, because these need to be thoroughly understood to comprehend the full implications of GMOs in foods and agriculture. Through a variety of instruments, the rich countries have ensured complete protectionism. Trade policies therefore have remained highly discriminatory against the developing country farmers. For example, in the Philippines, the opening up of the corn market in 1997 reduced corn prices by one-third. At that time, US corn growers were receiving US $ 20,000 a year on average in subsidies, while Filipino farmers in Mindanao had average income levels of US $ 365.   Such is the extent of protection, that it finances the benevolence the OECD exhibits through development-aid to all countries totalling US $ 52 billion.  This is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of agricultural subsidies of US $ 311 billion, that these countries provided to their farmers in 2001.

GMOs: The Hazards

GM crops were first made commercially available in 1966.  Since then, each year, the  United States has planted more GM crops than any other country and now grows two-thirds of all biotechnology crops on over 96 million acres.  Between 1996 and 2002, there has been a 20-fold increase in the area allotted to GM foods in the United States.  GM grown foods include corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, squash and papaya and therefore also include products that include these ingredients, which would be edible oils and a vast array of processed foods.  There are no labelling laws in the US requiring companies to label for GMO content.  The cold realisation is that farm lands  growing organic and conventional crops are now increasingly being contaminated with GMOs.  Thus it is in Americas interest that labelling for GMOs does not become law in the developing world and the EU as this would block agricultural exports from the US.  This would be disastrous for the US, by any yardstick of measurement.  The rest of the world must therefore expect a full onslaught by every means possible against any resistance to GMOs.  Their promotion is official US policy, quite clear and predictably, typically brazen.  It is forcing European, African and the Asia countries into accepting genetically modified foods saying that it has been adequately tested for safety.  The US has also challenged the EU ban on GM foods through the WTO.  No less than the President of the United States has alleged that the European ban is discouraging third world countries from growing GM crops for export and resulting in increased hunger and poverty in developing countries!  The US has suddenly discovered the cause of world hunger and has added it to their genetic bag of tricks!
It is now established beyond doubt that  co-existence between conventional and GM farming is a mirage. Michael Meacher, the erstwhile UK Minister for the Environment said that if we really want to know what would happen if GM crops were allowed to be grown we must ask the Canadians, where GM crops were introduced into the prairies in 1997.

"When the technology was first applied in the prairies seven years ago, the farmers were enthusiastic. Monsanto and the other big biotech companies promised that there would be higher yields, less herbicide usage, little or no cross-contamination and ready containment of "volunteers" (plants that survive the harvest and become weeds when different crops are later planted). It has not turned out like that at all. Yields were found to be lower because contamination was wider than predicted, herbicide use was not reduced, and often had to be increased, and volunteers were much more difficult to deal with than expected. There were no gains to consumers that might have balanced the losses to the farming producers; and the environmental impacts, assumed to be benign on the specious principle that GM crops were "substantially equivalent'' to non-GM varieties, turned out to be seriously adverse. There was damage to wildlife, new super-weeds were generated and ecosystems that support insects and birds were destroyed".

Even more disturbing is that pollution of organic crops is not primarily airborne from pollen, but from contamination of the seed supply. The most famous example of this is in Canada, the case of the farmer Percy Schmeiser.  He saved seed from his harvest and planted it the next year, only to find that some of it was GM, even though he had never allowed any GM crops on his farm. Extraordinarily, he was taken to court by Monsanto on the grounds that the company had patented the gene in the GM plants found on his farm and he had infringed the patent.  The company won the lawsuit.  Percy S farm was sequestered: He has appealed and this case will now be heard by Canada's Supreme Court next year, a verdict that will have international implications.

There are lessons to be learnt from this for India.  America is not the only maverick polity.  We have a retrograde Gujarat, similarly maverick.  Bt cotton has been illegally and widely sown, while an impotent central government looks on helplessly or deliberately inactively, is the obvious conclusion.  So what happens to our cows and buffaloes in this, the heartland of the dairy industry in India?  If the women of Kaira and other districts still cook cotton-seed and feed it to their buffaloes to produce milk with a better fat content, then Gujarat will single-handedly pollute milk and milk products, including baby foods, that are marketed nationally under one of India's most famous brands. The government must act and urgently for the even more pressing reason that "co-existence'', the "framework" to ensure that organic and conventional farming can survive and prosper alongside GM farming, has been demonstrated to be absolutely untrue

Jeffery Smith in "Seeds of Deception" chronicles one of the most comprehensive lists of the dangers of GE foods that reads like some horror story and says that "Industry manipulation and political collusion, not sound science, allow dangerous genetically modified (GM) foods on the market.  Government employees who complained were harassed, stripped of responsibilities, or fired. [77-83*] Scientists were threatened. Evidence was stolen. Data was omitted or distorted. FDA scientists warned that genetically modified (GM) foods could create toxins, allergies, nutritional problems, and new diseases; their superiors, including a former attorney for Monsanto, ignored their recommendations for long-term safety tests.[131-140] None are required.[146]

There are only ten published animal feeding studies on GM foods-two are independent. One found damage to the immune system and vital organs, and a potentially pre-cancerous condition. [12-13] When the scientist tried to alert the public, he lost his job and was silenced with threats of a lawsuit. [18-20] Two other studies likewise showed evidence of a potentially pre-cancerous condition.37 And an unpublished study revealed that laboratory rats fed a GM crop developed stomach lesions and seven of the forty died within two weeks. The crop was approved without further tests. [37, 137-140

Industry studies appear rigged to avoid finding problems. With genetically engineered Bovine growth hormone (rBGH), for example, researchers injected cows with only one forty-seventh the normal dosage before reporting hormone residues in milk.[91-92] They heated the milk 120 times longer than standard, to report that pasteurization destroys the hormone.[93-94] They added cows to their study that were pregnant before treatment, to claim that rBGH didn't impede fertility".  And it goes on ---.

There are no tests to guarantee that GM food is not allergenic. Although recommended international testing standards can minimize that possibility, GM corn on the market today would most certainly fail those tests.

The only human feeding trial of GM food ever conducted confirmed that engineered genes, transferred from a soy Burger and soy milkshake to the Bacteria inside the digestive tract, after only one meal. The World Health Organisation and the British and American Medical Associations are concerned that if the "antibiotic resistant marker genes" used in GM foods transferred to gut Bacteria, it could create super-diseases-immune to antibiotics. [59-60] Scientists are also worried that the "promoter" used inside GM foods may transfer to Bacteria or internal organs. Promoters permanently turn genes on and might create unpredictable health effects, including the potentially pre-cancerous cell growth found in the animal feeding studies mentioned above. [37]".

The FDA has an admitted agenda to promote the Biotech Industry : In a document entitiled "Biodeception", Steven M Drucker Executive Director of "Alliance for Bio-Integrity" uncovers internal files of the US FDA which reveal it has been "deceiving the world about the hazards of genetically engineered foods for almost a decade".  The FDA acknowledges it has been operating under a policy "to foster" the U.S. biotechnology industry. (These facts came to light because of a Law Suit filed by S Druckers's  organisation which forced the FDA to divulge copies of these files, over 44,000 pages.  (Key documents from these files are in a numbered list at  www.biointegrity.org).

Labelling and liability are also issues both in Canada and the UK. Contrary to the general impression that North America is quite content with GM and not worried by it, several recent polls have shown that 92-97 per cent of Canadians believe that their government should require companies to label GM products. In the EU, labelling of GM food will soon be required above a 0.9 per cent threshold, though that will still not tell consumers what they really want to know - whether this food is GM-free or not. Liability - the question of who pays if an organic or conventional farmer has his business damaged or his livelihood ruined by contamination from GM crops - is now becoming a crunch issue both in Canada and Europe. There is huge resistance from the biotech industry on both sides of the Atlantic to accepting any responsibility for the contamination they cause.  They are ably supported by the Government "agenda" in these countries.

GMOs Are An Ethical Issue

GMOs threaten human existence in a fundamental and insidious way, because they directly impact on what we eat.  We eat for nourishment and vitality.  GMO,s is science and technology taking over our very life, our health and basic choices on how we wish to live.  These on their own, are very real ethical reasons for concern.   Furthermore, it is untenable that a faceless 'conglomerate' of big businesses and their scientists should impose a situation on all of us without us having any choice in the matter, and for all future generations.  It is idiocy for us to speak of freedom and democracy and turn a Nelson's eye to something as irrevocable as this 'trans-genie' if it should get out of the bottle.  Surely, the pattern for us is that we must seek direction in the mirror of creation itself  as opposed to fabricated ideas?

The fact is that there are only a few remaining pockets of diverse seed stocks to ensure the long-term resilience of the world's staple foods. All of them are in the Third World.   Food scientists indicate that if these indigenous territories are disturbed by biotech's advance, "the long-term vitality of all of the world's food supply is endangered".  It is amply clear that the new regulations of WTO, the World Bank, GATT, NAFTA, provide the basis for undermining the autonomy of local economies.  GMOs exacerbate this  threat to such a degree as to put it into a different orbit.  The warning sound bells are already ringing, that GM crops will not feed the world and  pose a considerable threat to poor farmers: (http://www.actionaid.org/resources/pdfs/gatg.pdf).

The Solution - Toward A Global Ethic and Moratorium

We urgently need to put in place an international moratorium against the use of GMO's, if only because the ignorance is blatant and huge.  This is the "precautionary principle" of the ISP.

I feel guardedly optimistic that we can meet this objective for a number of reasons:

(a)The growing international awareness with regard to the health of our planet is bringing the environment into increasing prominence.  Long term goals are replacing blinkered short term objectives and it is NGOs which have taken the lead working with local communities in the third world.  This is the key, NGOs and  local communities fostering, keeping watch and protecting.  I must believe that this percolating awareness, (clearly, science and technology properly visualised have aided this process) will result in a timely demonstration of the will of ordinary people and farming communities everywhere, to force governments (always corrupt with their own agendas) to legislate for the protection of the environment, both within Nation States and Internationally;

(b)The environment is quite simply an ethical issue which is why it has always been at the heart of spirituality of peoples everywhere without exception.  The sacred bed-rock principle then is the recognition that "Nature is God's Creation and we must respect His Creation".   There are two aspects involved here, first, the growing awareness of His Creation and then the command to respect, even obey the Laws He has put in place.  Genetically engineering His Creation falls outside His Laws and we defy them to our peril.  Like in the secular trend, the environment is increasingly gaining formal religious recognition.  Mystics and Saints (like St Francis of Assisi who many consider the Patron St. of the environment) have of course always perceived their spiritual oneness with nature.  (But spirituality and religion are not necessarily the same thing and we are all aware of the divisions that 'religion' creates).  It is to a universal spirituality then, which correctly sees that Nature is infused with the breath of God, that we must turn to, for a new world order and global ethic on GMOs, with laws to give it teeth. The premise is, universally accepted values and norms, for which the newly constituted ISP and other efforts, individually and collectively, create a growing common ground on the issue of GMOs.  "This is probably the first time in history that we can speak of the emergence of universal values - values shared by almost everyone and which are in no sense the enemy of cosmopolitanism, ---- values of the sanctity of human life, universal human rights, the preservation of species and care for future as well as present generations of children ---.  They imply ethics of individual and collective responsibility which (as value claims), are able to override divisions of interest" (Giddens);

(c) The International Criminal Court, though opposed tooth and nail by the US, has been set-up on the recognition that 'narrow domestic walls' are no longer an automatic protection from prosecution of National Leaders who infringe human rights.  The  now widely accepted principle of international jurisprudence, and universal jurisdiction are enshrined in its statutes.  Taking a cue from the above, we need new laws which will uphold the right of individuals and organisations to bring cases with regard to GMOs, to an International Court of Justice. "In the Cartegena Biosafety Protocol negotiated in Montreal in January 2000, more than 130 governments have pledged to implement the precautionary principle and to ensure that biosafety legislations at the national and international levels take precedence over trade and financial agreements at the World Trade Organization" (ISP document).  It is  imperative that the Biodiversity Bill include a separate chapter on GMOs which is given legal teeth to over-ride the WTO.

(d) We must have comprehensive labelling laws for GMOs in foods

(e) What is "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" and Biotech companies must be held criminally liable for the contamination they cause.  This is a fair principle of natural justice, based on the "polluter pays principle".  The Percy Schmeiser case is a miscarriage of justice an aberration of this principle. The imposition of harsh penalties will be one of the most effective deterrents to GMOs from invading our world and both Domestic and International law must include legislation that imposes punitive measures on bio-tech companies, local authorites and Governments in cases where farming lands have been polluted by GMOs.  Institutions like the US FDA must be held accountable for gross negligence and cover-ups.

(f) We are more likely to succeed in the short term with law suits which will be strong deterrents to the sort of casual, irresponsible action that we are now witnessing, than succeed in obtaining an international moratorium on GMOs in the immediate future.  Access to an International Court will also, I believe, spearhead an international moratorium. Furthermore, Third World Countries are least able to withstand the stealthy onslaught of biotech's advance.  Weak national environmental laws and corrupt governments and institutions make it virtually impossible to bring environmental cases to court with any success.  This has been the track record in India.  With GMO's, these  difficulties will only increase.  Yet we need to urgently salvage what is left of the world's 'hotspots', virtually all of them in the third world.  India's need to protect her 'wild' and unpolluted spaces is especially urgent now, due to the dangers we are already exposed to and exacerbated through the bad precedent created by Gujarat.  We have true "comparative advantage" in our priceless treasure-trove of a rich  biodiversity and an equally true advantage in our heritage of Ayurveda and other traditional forms of medicine..  Clearly, an ability to approach an International Court would be hugely empowering and protective of the world's biodiversity.

(f) Finally, we really need the equivalent of a 'Marshall Plan' for the environment with a specific mandate for protecting third world biodiversity including from contamination from GMO's.  This logically ought to include financing law suits.  If this is not possible through a UN mandate, then we must find other ways of managing and delivering funds and expertise where it is most needed.
Aruna Rodrigues of Sunray Harvesters, India, is an economist and project management consultant and works in the field of photovoltaics (PV) for sustainable energy solutions: promoting PV applications and its commercialisation in a developing economy.

Sept. 2003  email: [email protected]

Acknowledgements: Devinder Sharma's "The Great Trade Robbery".  Others have been accredited in the text of the document

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