U.N. Dead Wrong About Engineered Crops

U.N. Dead Wrong About Engineered Crops

July 13, 2001

U.N. Dead Wrong About Engineered Crops

By Anuradha Mittal <amittal@foodfirst.org>

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

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 U.S. 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 those who are to 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 over 36 millions 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 unlabelled
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. Its 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
IMF, that are the root cause of today's hunger.

Over 60 million tons of excess food grain-unsold -- because the hungry
are too poor to buy it -- rotted in India last year, while farmers in
desperation burnt 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 which 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 only
offer the Third World the option of dying from hunger, or from loss of
livelihoods or 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.
Anuradha Mittal, a native of India, is co-director of Food First/The
Institute for Food and Development Policy <http://www.foodfirst.org>.

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