DIGGING FOR GOLD
 

The Biotech Industry’s Empty Promises of Technological Solutions 
by Anuradha Mittal

In the developing world, where food security is a much more pressing concern, genetically enhanced crops have been seen as a way to increase yields from the existing arable land. GM crops can help subsistence farmers provide more and better foods for their families or, in the case of revenue crops such as cotton, get more value from their land by increasing yield. Also, crops could be enhanced through biotechnology to contain more nutrients and help minimize the effects of malnutrition.
—Frequently Asked Questions About Agricultural Biotechnology, on Syngenta’s Web Site

Biotech companies claim that genetically engineered (GE) foods help feed the hungry in the world. This “poor washing” — an effort to bestow legitimacy and prevent debate by making bogus claims that the poor will benefit from such tools — is an attempt to mute opposition against the technology.

GE crops will not reverse hunger in the Third World because the problem is not overall scarcity but unequal access. State of Agricultural Commodity Markets (SOCO), a new report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that analyzes global trends in agricultural production, once again shows that production and productivity in agriculture have grown faster than demand. The fact that almost 78 percent of countries that report child malnutrition are food-exporting countries gives rise to the so-called “paradox of plenty.” Over a third of the grain grown in the developing world is destined for livestock, which in turn gets turned into meat eaten by consumers in wealthy countries. It is not a shortage of food production, but poverty that keeps people in the Third World hungry.

Technological Solutions?

A striking example of the promise of a technological solution to hunger is Golden Rice. Syngenta's new version of genetically engineered rice supposedly has a tenfold higher content of beta-carotene, which could fight Vitamin A deficiencies that cause blindness among children and adults in developing countries. Five years ago, when opposition to GE food began to pick up steam around the world, the biotech industry mounted a $50 million-a-year public relations campaign to extol the virtues of biotechnology, especially developments like Golden Rice, for their potential to improve world health and eradicate hunger. Aggressively advertised as a miracle grain to end suffering for millions around the world (the cover of a July 2000 Time magazine claimed, “This rice could save a million kids a year”), corporate public relations promised to put Golden Rice in food bowls across Asia. 

Five years later, with millions of dollars spent and false hopes raised, this technological promise by the biotech industry has only distracted attention and funding from what could be real, sustainable solutions to malnutrition. As stated earlier, world health officials have concluded that poverty, not a lack of modern technology, is the fundamental cause of malnourishment. They also point out that nutritional deficits can be easily and cheaply corrected with a more varied diet. Green leafy vegetables, oranges, and red palm oil all are high in beta-carotene.

Five years ago, developers of this grain had been vague on how much Golden Rice a person would have to eat to get enough beta-carotene for the recommended daily vitamin A requirement. The data shows that in order for those most vulnerable to this form of blindness, infants, to get enough vitamin A from breast milk, their mothers would have to consume several pounds of cooked rice per day. An adult male would need to eat a smaller, but equally unlikely, amount of cooked golden rice to meet his daily vitamin A requirement. The newer iterations of Golden Rice further reduce the number of pounds of rice a person would need to eat to meet their vitamin A requirement, but still do nothing about a more basic problem. The body can only convert beta-carotene into vitamin A if the diet includes adequate amounts of fat and proteins. The malnourished people whom Golden Rice is supposed to help, however, are by definition also lacking fat and protein in their diets.

This raises another, more fundamental question, which the developers of Golden Rice seem to have overlooked. Virtually all Asian populations eat white rice. Brown rice, readily available and considerably higher in essential nutrients, has never become popular among these populations. Why, then, do biotechnology promoters assume their “golden” rice will be popular? They certainly have an economic incentive for wanting this assumption to be true, as ninety percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed in Asia. However, it seems as if this desire is simply wishful thinking. 

Any lingering illusion of altruism on the part of biotechnology companies dims when the subject of patents is raised. As with any product of scientific research with a large market potential, the methods and techniques used in the process are heavily patented; the production of Golden Rice requires 70 of them. Licensing rights stemming from this proprietary information can mean huge profits. So, when Syngenta, which owns many of the patents on the rice, claims that one month of marketing delay would cause 50,000 children to go blind, it is not acting out of corporate big-heartedness or concern for these children. It is just doing what big business does best: looking out for the bottom line.

Resistance

The agricultural biotechnology industry hopes that its critics will overlook fundamental questions about genetically engineered food, by playing on the tendency to regard almost every scientific development as positive. Yet opposition to GE crops continues to grow, blocking the way for huge profits for these multi-billion-dollar companies. Most importantly, it is not just concerned scientists and public policy makers that are generating this opposition, but the people of developing nations that such crops are ostensibly meant to help. 

Led by Zambia in 2002, and followed by India in 2003, and Angola in 2004, more and more countries are spurning GE food aid, and questioning the wisdom of a corporate-controlled food system. More recently, on March 21, 2005, the Municipal Council of Paraíso, an agricultural town principally dedicated to the production of vegetables and roots such as potatoes, has declared itself the first transgenic-free territory in Costa Rica. 

On March 23, 2005, more than 3,000 tribal women participated in seed satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, in Orissa, India. Around the bonfire of hybrid and genetically modified seeds of cotton and other crops, they shouted slogans damning the GM seeds and the high-yielding crops that have pushed them into poverty, indebtedness and hunger. Their demand to make Orissa an “organic state” follows 200 villages in the tribal belt of the area that have already declared themselves “organic villages” and are cultivating indigenous seeds on more than 17,000 acres.

The opposition in the developing world is matched by growing resistance in the United States. Following Mendocino, Marin and the Trinity counties in California, voters in Brooklin, Maine, declared their municipality a Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Free Zone in March 2005.

The Vermont Senate has passed the Farmer Protection Act (S.18), which, if approved by the House, will protect Vermont farmers from assuming all of the risks associated with GE crops. 

This opposition is fueled by inadequate regulatory oversight and disclosure of information to protect public health and the environment. Syngenta is facing a fine of up to $500,000 for producing and distributing several hundred tons of a strain of unapproved Bt corn (Bt10) between 2001 and 2004. About 150 square kilometers of the crop were planted in the US over the four-year period. Many countries that have zero tolerance for unapproved GMOs could have received the Bt10 corn as well. The Japanese Health Ministry's inspection offices are testing samples of corn imported from the US. If it contains the unapproved variety, the cargo will either be destroyed or shipped back. 

The Turning Tide

The biotech industry can choose to dismiss concerns around safety, environmental risks, intellectual property rights and corporate ethics. However, it cannot ignore the possibility that its customers may not be as willing to dismiss these concerns. The biotech industry has reason to fear it is loosing the struggle for global acceptance of the genetically modified products it is creating. 

Innovest Strategic Value Advisors (a financial services leader in analyzing the economic impact of environmental and social issues), in a report commissioned by Greenpeace, warned shareholders that Monsanto, the world's leader in developing and marketing GE seeds, is facing substantial market risks that could threaten future earnings of the company due to genetic contamination, sustained market rejection both in the United States and abroad, competition and product failures. 

Europe's biggest bank, Deutsche Bank, advised several thousand of the world's large institutional investors, including British pension funds, to sell their shares in GE companies. The growing grassroots resistance to companies like Monsanto and Novartis can have a real economic impact, not only because people are less inclined to buy their products, but because mounting negative sentiment about what these companies' business models entail threatens to drive away investors. 

It is time for Monsanto and Syngenta to accept that food and agriculture are sacred for farmers and communities in the Third World. This is about their culture, their lives and their livelihoods, and they are not about to surrender it to corporations. As long as corporations attempt to gag the voices of the poor, indigenous people, the peasants, they cannot claim to offer us an agricultural system that is just, sustainable, or honorable.

Anuradha Mittal is the director of the Oakland Institute, a non-partisan think tank utilizing research, analysis and advocacy to promote and ensure public participation and fair debate on critical economic and social policy issues that affect peoples' lives. (www.oaklandinstitute.org)

 

Sources:

1. “Frequently Asked Questions About Agricultural Biotechnology,” About Syngenta, Syngenta Biotechnology, April 2005,
(www.syngenta.com/en/about_syngenta/biotech_faq.aspx)
2. Mousseau & Anuradha Mittal, “Inequity in International Agricultural Trade: The Marginalization of Developing Countries and their Small Farmers,” The Oakland Institute, March 2005. (www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/159)
3. “All That Glitters is Not Gold: The False Hope of Golden Rice”, Greenpeace Briefing Packet, March 2005.
4. Mittal, Anuradha, “Biotechnology and the Third World: A Question of Social Morality,” Alternatives Journal, 2003.
5. Third World Network Biosafety Information Service, www.trwnside.org
6. Lim Li Ching, “Contamination by Experimental Genetically Engineered Crops Should Not be Found Acceptable,” The Oakland Institute, March 2005.
(www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/162)
7. Lim Li Ching, “ Europe Still Resisting GMOs,” The Oakland Institute, December 2004.
(www.oaklandinstitute.org/?q=node/view/106)
8 “Monsanto Investors Face Catastrophic Risk,” Press Releases, Greenpeace, April 16, 2003, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/press/releases/monsanto-investors-face-catast

 
 
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