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WHY GENETIC MODIFICATION
OF CROPS IS HARMFUL

The debate around GE crop technology involves complex and profound issues, but it is often narrowed to a simple argument: the technology must be used to feed the world’s hungry people, if it is not then people will starve as world population increases. Those who wish to apply the technology put forward this argument, some of them asserting that it is the only answer. Others point to the social and environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture and the need to look at other scientifically proven options which are not currently recognised.

Those on both sides of the debate want to prevent the suffering of hungry and starving people and recognise that the global population is likely to increase. However, farming is not just about food production per acre; it is crucial to people’s livelihoods, communities and local economies and vital to protection of the environment and biodiversity. Changes to agriculture must take these complexities into account and this paper looks at some of the wider issues involved in food production.

Background

Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM) is a new technology which has developed over the last 30 years. GE/GM allows scientists to move genetic material from one species to another in ways which have never before been possible.

GM crop technology is particularly controversial. There are ethical questions about this new and uncertain technology being tested and used in the open environment when unforeseen harmful consequences would be irreversible, due to genetic pollution already being dispersed. There may, for instance, be harmful effects to the health of humans and animals. The technology has been largely rejected in Europe for these reasons, with supermarkets removing GM ingredients from their own-brand products and share prices reflecting concerns.

World hunger

About 800 million people have less than 2000 calories a day. About a third to a quarter of the world’s children go to sleep with aching hunger, many seriously malnourished at a period in their lives which is crucial to healthy development. Many die. Yet, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, the world produces one and a half times the amount of food needed to adequately feed everybody on the planet. In many of the countries where people are hungry there is enough food grown to provide everyone with an adequate diet. Globally the price of food keeps falling (and remember that economic theory predicts that if something is in short supply, its price will rise), but the poorest cannot earn enough money to buy it.

The failure to distribute food resources more equitably is about political decisions made by governments, which are increasingly driven by the requirements of global institutions such as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These institutions are primarily committed to promoting globalisation, international competitiveness and the interests of trade. The interests of local communities, including their food security, are not the focus.

In order for countries to pay off debts the IMF imposes Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) which insist on the growing of crops for export markets. During 1999/2000 Ethiopia was again on the verge of famine, blamed by some on weather conditions. Other analysts show it to be also the result of SAPs imposed by the WB and IMF. Requirements included:

In 1996 Ethiopia exported nearly one million tons of maize. If the grain store had been in operation, trans-national grain and seed conglomerates such as Cargill would not have had to import almost the same amount of American GM maize in order to avoid famine in 1999/2000.

The trans-national corporations (TNCs) benefit from SAPs to acquire public resources and gain new markets. SAPs geared to competitive export markets are clearly not in the interests of the poor and the results are declining food security and increasing corporate profits. In the view of commentators such as Colin Hines the answer is not globalisation and market competitiveness, but “the radically different end-goal of protecting and rebuilding local communities”. This is a call for “localisation” to meet the needs of people.

A director of Monsanto told the press in 1998 that “We are aiming to consolidate the entire food chain” (Vidal, The Guardian Weekend, June 19th, 1999). To achieve this, the largest companies are merging to become even more powerful in this highly competitive race to win the biggest slice of the profits. This year the world’s largest agrobiotechnology company, ‘Syngenta’, was formed from the agrobiotechnology divisions of Novartis and Zeneca, making it number one in the world for agrochemicals and third for seeds. TNCs are also vertically integrating their interests throughout the food chain, acquiring seed and food processing companies all over the world. Research is currently going into protecting business interests through the development of Gene Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs), commonly known as ‘Terminator’ and ‘Traitor’ technologies. These technologies allow plants to be engineered to produce sterile seeds or, for instance, to have no immune system and depend on chemicals bought from the seed company to grow properly.

Whilst there is more than enough food in the world, the objectives of global institutions are geared to the interests of trade, not local food security. TNCs involved in agrobiotechnology are interested in consolidating control of the food chain which will extract resources from local communities. If the interests of the poor and starving are truly to be served, they must participate in, and become the focus of, the objectives of global institutions, the reverse of the present situation.

The Green Revolution and intensive industrial agricultural. GM crops are being introduced as part of a pattern of agricultural development which started in the 1960’s, called the Green Revolution (GR). New High Yielding Varieties developed by Public Sector Research Institutes and designed for large-scale monoculture replaced small scale, intensive agricultural systems growing a variety of crops. Northern industrial agriculture was seen as the ideal model for all other countries to follow, even if they had very different social and economic structures and environmental conditions. Yields were increased, allowing countries like India to turn around food deficits to become food exporters, but the social and environmental costs have been considerable. These external costs include:

There are also social and economic costs, described by Dr. Vandana Shiva in The Ecologist (April, 2000):

Agriculture which nurtures people and planet

There is a considerable body of research by academics such as Prof. Jules Pretty at the University of Essex and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) involved in development, showing that the agricultural expertise of farmers can be supported by modern science instead of being replaced. “Regenerative Technologies” which include replacing pesticide use by encouraging “natural predators, habitat redesign, multiple cropping” benefit farming communities and the environment at the same time as substantially increasing food production. Pretty defines this sustainable agriculture as "farming that makes the best use of nature's goods and service whilst not damaging the environment".

Remarkable success has been achieved in two types of agricultural situations:

  1. areas untouched by intensive agricultural practices and inputs, often poor in resources, can double or triple their output
  2. areas degraded by intensive industrial practices can be restored and yields improved by 10%

Research has been carried out over the last 10 years in some of the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America involving more than 2 million families and 4-5 million hectares of land:

“….. Whole communities have been involved in the complete redesign of farming and other local economic activities, the sustainability dividend is very large. The regenerative technologies and practices are hugely beneficial for both farmers and rural environments. There is more natural capital from fewer external inputs.” (Pretty, ActionAid, 2000)

Gordon Conway now head of the Rockefeller Foundation advocates a similar approach which he calls Participative Learning and Action. Farmers identify their problems and scientists apply their knowledge to help them. Conway describes this as a revolution in thinking because it reverses the traditional 'top-down' approach where scientists and extension workers assume superior knowledge instead of respecting and supporting the expertise of farmers.

Science and Risk Assessment

Government regulators carry out Risk Assessment (RA) in order to make decisions about releases of GM crops to the environment. However, most of the scientific research on which assessments are made is done by business and remains commercially confidential. Science and RA cannot be the objective disciplines which many of their practitioners would claim because they are carried out by people who have assumptions, values and objectives by which they decide the kind of research to be done, judge the significance of results and interpret them.

Very little research has been carried out into health effects on animals or humans. It has only recently been discovered that genetically engineered material from GM feed crops survives intact in the tissue of the animal. Parallels have been drawn with BSE which has revealed how the effects of a very tiny change to a protein in the body of an animal or human can have unforeseen catastrophic effects. Although scientific opinion is deeply divided about GM crops, as was the case with BSE and many chemicals such as PCBs, public concerns and those of independent scientists are dismissed as 'scaremongering'. With biotechnology, there is the same pattern of ignoring scientific advice which goes against the 'party line', as well as a failure to carry out research which might provide adverse evidence. Absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence.

The companies now involved in biotechnology have in the past, often under different names, consistently dismissed evidence of the harmful effects of many of their products. In 1995 Dupont, one of the five biggest biotechnology companies was fined $115 million for a "clear pattern of concealment and misrepresentation" with regard to the toxic effects of formaldehyde fumes.

For Business, risk taking is encouraged in the race for a competitive edge and the external costs are borne by people and the environment. Times are changing. People are increasingly aware that science cannot have all the answers and the interests of business may not be in the best interests of the public. Therefore more participatory decision-making processes are called for so that public interests and values are included. It is particularly important that those most likely to be affected should have their voices heard.

Changing Global Values

Values and ethics change over time. For instance, slavery is now completely unacceptable – not too long ago many regarded it as normal. Other human activities previously regarded as ‘normal’ are being questioned and becoming difficult to defend. Global agreements, such as the one reached at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 reflect and facilitate this change in values but it takes time for people to move away from the ‘mind-set’ of old practices.

Business and ethics

For proponents of GM crops to claim that they will feed the hungry of the world is to make a moral argument for developing and using the technology. This argument side-steps important aspects of the debate: it is simply saying that it is right to develop the technology because people must be fed. But there are wider and more complex issues in areas which until recently have been beyond the scope of corporate ethics.

As global values shift and extend it becomes a question of whether it is ethical to use a technology which, going by past patterns of development, would be damaging to people, their cultures and livelihoods, the environment and the diversity of planetary life. Furthermore, there are scientifically proven more beneficial ways to increase food production. But, these other methods would not be as profitable and big business has the power to promote its own interests and view of the world as correct through marketing techniques and advertising. Marketing techniques for GM crops are often highly persuasive. They include initially providing free seeds and offering financial assistance for the accompanying chemical inputs. They also include political strategy at global WTO level and at national government level to involve leaders and politicians.

In the past, business ethics has not included concern for the external environmental, economic and social consequences of business activities. Under pressure from consumers, as well as shareholders and employees, companies are moving toward extending corporate responsibility. There are some encouraging signs of change as an increasing number of firms are carrying out Environmental Audits and Impact Assessments. A few are going further and starting to address their social responsibilities. Shell, for example, is introducing independently verified Social Impact Assessment.

Business ethics is in the process of transition towards new global values which call for Research and Development to focus on developing products which do not risk further damage and will help to restore planetary systems. This will provide a challenge for scientists and new opportunities for business.

Conclusions

Global hunger has much to do with political factors and the failure of governments and global institutions to focus on the needs of the poor. Applying a technical ‘fix’ will not change this.

The likely impacts of the application of GM crop technology can be assessed from previous development patterns with the introduction of Green Revolution technology. This would indicate that GM crop technology will perpetuate agricultural practices which are known to be environmentally and socially destructive and deprive many of the means to feed themselves or earn money to buy food.

International agreements recognise the serious levels of damage caused by human activities and reflect changing values which place primary importance on protecting people and planet. Business faces the challenge of extending its ethics to include these values.

There are well-researched and effective methods of upgrading local agriculture which support the farmer’s expertise in nurturing and enhancing natural resources and biodiversity. These methods are supportive of local economies and livelihoods, are highly productive and increase food security.

Written by: Sue Pollard - School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia


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