Monday, April 27, 2009

Genetically Modified Leeches Pose Serious Threat

I have been subscribing to the Science and Development Network (SciDev) for a number of years because they produce very informative articles on a wide range of scientific issues that are particularly relevant to developing countries. A case in point is the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO). SciDev is generally careful in its treatment of GMO because much of the 'literature' is either based on pseudo research or contaminated by pseudo research.

However, I was wary of a recent article on SciDev entitled 'Is GM Shedding its Frankenstein Image'. The 'Frankenstein' stories emanated from journalists and other ill informed parties. It was found to be a useful straw man argument by the GM industry because there is still a lot of uncertainty about the long term consequences of widespread GM use. So it's easier for them to rubbish stories that no careful observer of the GM industry would believe, while ignoring the important issues.

But some of the most crucial criticisms of GM are that it increases dependence, reduces biodiversity and is not sustainable. The 'Frankenstein' stories are a matter of public relations and should not be the concern of an organisation like SciDev; they are a matter for GM companies and journalists. It's time we heard how the GM industry intends to deal with the difficult issues, not just the non issues.

The article, however, fails to deal with the issue of dependency, even though it mentions the fact that food insecurity has helped to 'change attitudes' to GM. Have attitudes been changed, or are people in developing countries so desperate that they are willing to risk becoming even more dependent than they are now? Many people in Kenya were opposed to allowing GM research, though the government has now passed the GM bill. Did they resolve the issues or just force the bill through?

Climate change is mentioned as another factor in changing attitudes. However reduced biodiversity, such as that caused by GM, has serious implications for climate change. It is funny how multinationals seem to recognise climate change as a problem when it suits them. Massive development of monoculture crops for food, various raw materials and biofuels are part of the biodiversity reduction that also feeds into global climate changes. GM will make these problems worse, and irreversibly so.

At present, Kenyans are suffering food insecurity because of global speculation on food prices, government shenanigans, planting and harvesting problems, distribution problems, acute poverty and many other issues. Do GM commentators seriously think these issues will magically disappear just because a handful of GM multinationals could become the de facto owner of all the productive land in Kenya?

A more thoughtful article on SciDev argues that GM will not benefit farmers in poor countries, it will only benefit patent owners. Big patent owners with colourful corporate social responsibility records, such as Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, DuPont and Syngenta, are stockpiling hundreds of patents, ready to pounce on impoverished countries suffering from things like drought, flooding, saline soil and excessive heat and cold.

Most GM crops do well in laboratories and in very good conditions. There is no evidence that any of them do well in uncontrolled conditions, especially where they face more than one hazard, such as cold and high salinity. GM manufacturers have spent a lot on PR in the effort to spread their technology but independent scientists, ones that haven't yet been nobbled by interested parties, are still sceptical. But these worries are small compared to the more obvious problem, that GM will increase dependency and reduce sustainability.

Farmers who buy into GM will be more dependent because they will need to buy seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides from the same multinational every year and there is no guarantee that their crops will have higher yields, as the GM companies promise. For small farmers, and most farmers in developing countries are small farmers, this will not be a sustainable scenario. They will then find it hard to get out of GM as their land will be contaminated. But the seeds they used to use before GM may well no longer even be available.

If GM is of any use at all, and that's a big if, it is a technology developed with huge landowners in mind, those who use factory production methods. Big farmers are not facing starvation right now, they are not the ones struggling with natural and human disasters, poverty and disease to get by. Yet GM companies keep insisting that poor people in developing countries will benefit. They need to demonstrate how this is possible and answer the questions they are being asked. And I don't mean the red herrings about 'Frankenstein' foods, answer the real questions.

The anti-counterfeit bill, that has such important implications for those hoping to benefit from generic drugs (discussed elsewhere on this blog), protects the owners of patents. It does not protect those who need to use the products or those who once hoped to be able to afford the products but are now unable to do so. Kenya has also signed a bill that allows GM crops to be grown in the country, so it is easy to see which side the Kenyan Government takes on this one.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this sophisticated argument Simon!