Third World reality

UN dead wrong about engineered crops

Illustration By Carey Wilson

No escape: Up to 60 percent of foods on shelves in U.S. grocery stores may be genetically altered to some extent.A native of India and co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy.

Comments about genetically engineered (GE) crops expressed in the just-released “Human Development Report 2001,” the flagship publication of the United Nation Development Program (UNDP), and in accompanying press statements reveal a shocking degree of Northern arrogance in tone and content.

The authors of the report urge rich countries to put aside their fears of genetically engineered (GE) food and help developing nations unlock the potential of biotechnology. UNDP head Mark Malloch Brown praised the report, saying that it has moved in a new direction by challenging some cherished opinions about what the Third World needs. Yet as a citizen of India I ask, who nominated Mark Malloch Brown, in his New York office, to speak for the needs of poor countries and to say what we need?

The UNDP report accuses opponents of genetically modified food of ignoring the food needs of the Third World. It goes on to say that the movement is driven by conservationists in rich countries and claims that the current debate mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world. Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies or work in the fields are more likely to focus on food safety and the loss of biodiversity, but farming communities in developing countries emphasize “potentially higher yields and greater nutritional value” of these crops, the authors say.

Obviously the UNDP and Mark Malloch Brown have done only part of their homework. While they have read up on the genetic-engineering debate in the United States and Europe, they have ignored the even louder debate going on in the Third World.

In my country, for example, the debate pits mostly U.S.-trained technocrats, seduced by technological fixes, against farmer organizations and consumers, who overwhelmingly say no to genetically engineered crops. Surely it is worth noting when the people who are to use the modified seeds and eat the modified food want nothing to do with them?

This UNDP report further fails to acknowledge that, despite overproduction, even a country like the United States faces massive problems of hunger, with more than 36 million Americans’ food insecure, and ignores the lives of millions of farm workers in the fields of this country, while converting all Americans into consumers of unlabeled modified foods.

The report rehashes the old myth of feeding the hungry through miracle technology, the mantra that has been chanted forever, whether it was to push pesticides or genetic engineering. The famous green revolution of Northern technology sent to the South may have increased food production, at the cost of poisoning our earth, air and water. But it failed to alleviate hunger. Of 800 million hungry people in the world today, an estimated 250-300 million live in India alone. It’s not that India does not produce enough food to meet the need of its hungry; it’s the policies that work against the working poor—slashing of social safety nets, for example, at the behest of Northern agencies like the International Monetary Fund—that are the root cause of today’s hunger.

Over 60 million tons of excess food grain—unsold because the hungry were too poor to buy it—rotted in India last year, while farmers in desperation burned the crops they could not sell and resorted to selling their body parts like kidneys or committing suicide to end the cycle of poverty. A higher, genetically engineered crop yield would have done nothing for them. And if the poor in India cannot buy two meals a day, how will they purchase nutritionally rich crops such as rice engineered to contain Vitamin A? No technological fix can help change the situation. Only political commitment can.

The report compares efforts to ban GM foods with the banning of the pesticide DDT, which was dangerous to humans but was effective in killing the mosquitoes that spread malaria. The choice presented to the Third World then was the choice of death from DDT or malaria. Its appalling that even today the development debate in the North can offer the Third World only the option of dying from hunger or from loss of livelihoods and unsafe foods.

The North ignored the cries from the South at the time of the DDT debate—that if our national health budgets were not slashed, perhaps we could deal with malaria differently. Malaria, like hunger, is a disease of poverty. When economic conditions improve, it disappears, just as it did in the U.S. and Italy. Why is the focus never on the root causes of the problem, but always on the symptom? Once again, UNDP has decided to focus on the symptom of hunger and not the root cause of poverty.

Yes, a debate that affects communities in the Third World should not be driven solely by conservationists in the rich countries. It should also not be driven by corporate apologists like Mr. Brown. It would do UNDP good to learn that the anti-GE debate is also driven by civil society in the Third World, which is concerned about corporate concentration in our food system, loss of livelihoods as corporations gain control of our biodiversity and seeds, and that several of our countries, including Sri Lanka, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, and China, among others, have taken national action and imposed a moratorium on some or all GE crops. If UNDP indeed cares about the Third World, it would do much better by respecting the sovereign will of our nations.

Copyright © 2001 Anuradha Mittal. All rights reserved.