Tewolde Egziabher responds to Nuffield's Corporate Trawling Seed Net (29/12/2003)

"The Nuffield report suggests that there is a moral imperative for investment into GM crop research in developing countries. But the moral imperative is in fact the opposite.  The policy of drawing of funds away from low-cost sustainable agriculture research, towards hi-tech, exclusive, expensive and unsafe technology is itself ethically questionable.  There is a strong moral argument that the funding of GM technology in agriculture is harming the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the developing world."
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From: Gaia <gaia@gaianet.org>

Please find attached a response from Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' latest version of their report on GM in the developing world.

Also please see the British Overseas Aid Group's letter on this issue
<http://www.ukabc.org/gmcropsbriefing.htm>
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The Corporate Trawling Seed Net
Condoned by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics
by Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher
Environmental Protection Authority Ethiopia

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has just released the latest version of its report, "The use of genetically modified crops in developing countries". It is full of useful facts. But it steers clear of uncomfortable conclusions that those facts add up to.

The Nuffield report suggests that there is a moral imperative for investment into GM crop research in developing countries. But the moral imperative is in fact the opposite.  The policy of drawing of funds away from low-cost sustainable agriculture research, towards hi-tech, exclusive, expensive and unsafe technology is itself ethically questionable.  There is a strong moral argument that the funding of GM technology in agriculture is harming the long-term sustainability of agriculture in the developing world.  There are plausible and viable alternatives to GM, but they are being ignored and under funded as a result of the expensive demands of GM research and development.

I could point out also other uncomfortable conclusions to do with biosafety evaded by this "Council on Bioethics". But I have to make my comments brief. I am reassured, however, by the fact that the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, albeit imperfect, has come into force. I find the Council's criticism of the precautionary principle, on which the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is based, unethical.

For example, in Section 5.10 of its Chapter 5, it states, "we draw attention to our view that a highly restrictive interpretation of the precautionary approach is likely to ignore the possibility that, in some cases, the use of a GM crop variety may pose fewer risks than are implied by current practices or by plausible non-GM alternatives."

Why go to GM if there are plausible non-GM alternatives? And I know that there are. How can an approach be precautionary if the issue of certainty of safety is befuddled in "may pause fewer risks than are implied...?" If we are not sure that a GM variety will not "pose fewer risks", is it not of the essence of the precautionary approach that we become careful? I am puzzled by this attempt to fuzz such a difficult field to comprehend and manage, as the probability of an unknown risk is making safety even more difficult to achieve.

Let us look at its Chapter 6, on "Control of and access to genetic modification technologies". This chapter shows that, as exemplified by the "Golden Rice", one genetically modified (GM) variety can have "70 patents belonging to 32 different owners". Make a developing country's small holder farmers grow such a GM variety, and you make each one of them pay 70 different royalties-what will be left for them? Make each of them negotiate with 32 foreign owners, all in English, German, Japanese etc.- how will they unravel the tangle? I know that the Nuffield Council on Bioethics gives some examples of attempts by some organizations which try to obtain exemptions for small holder farmers from some patent owners. Is this a strong enough basis to recommend that the poor small holder farmers of Africa and the rest of the South be baited into planting GM crops through "genuinely additional resources be[ing] committed by governments, the European Commission and others, to fund a major expansion of GM-related research into tropical and sub-tropical staple foods?"

And how strange it is that this "Council on Bioethics" ignores the biological fact that, once a variety with 70 patented genes is planted by a single person, those genes will be passed on to the small holder farmers' own non GM varieties? And how conveniently it fails to mention the implication of Article 34 of the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs) on this biological phenomenon? The surreal fact that Article 34 of TRIPs twists into this condition of globalization is that the small holder farmers then become patent infringers. What a perfect trawling net a GM variety then becomes to land all the farmers' varieties, and thus the lives of the farmers, small holders or otherwise, under the control of the "32 patent owners"! If this is the way to help agriculture in developing countries, I do not know what wrong the slave raiding and trading ships of the previous centuries did to help globalize poor rural Africans!

Sadly, the "Nuffield Council on Bioethics" is becoming a Council for putting an ethical garb on this new kind of slavery.   Last September, in a meeting organized in London by the Intermediate Technology Development Group, I debated the issue with Professor Michael Lipton, a member of that Council. And yet there is no reference in Chapter 5 of the report to Article 34 of TRIPs. Why?

What I would have expected from a respectable Council on Bioethics is, first and foremost, a respect for the life of the poor humans of the South. I would have then, as a minimum, expected to see a statement emphasizing that, if genetic engineering is to help farmers in the South, it has to be freed from the patent knots that are making it an effective global slave trawling net.

Although the report does admit that patents on agriculture may not serve the interests of the developing world, it does not go so far as to  condemn them.  If the Nuffield Foundation truly considers itself to be a council on bioethics, then it should have a strong and clear position on this.

Britain pioneered large scale commercial slavery. But Britons fought it and pioneered the emancipation of the slave. The present Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is pioneering the most enlightened policy of supporting developing countries with budgetary support. I hope that the invocation of "ethics" by this once respectable body called the Nuffield Foundation, obviously now wanting in ethical values, does not negatively influence the Government's present enlightened policy. I hope that the U.K. Government continues to support only the research that the developing country governments want, and only through those governments.

May the season of Christmas lead us to a clearer communication in the New Year.


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