Energy & Environment

Should the poor pay for the anxieties of the rich?

David Zilberman

In the last several weeks, I gave talks on sustainable development and technology in China as well as in several forums in the US. I stated my strong belief that the use of molecular and cell technologies in agriculture (one of their main applications is in genetically modified [GM] products) is crucial because it allows us to develop a much faster capacity to adapt climatic changes. There is also evidence that GMOs have already expanded our food supply, which benefitted the poor. The question is why all of these heavy regulations on GMOs? If the National Academies of Science in most leading countries find no negative effects associated with its use and its growth on millions of acres in the US has not caused discernible problems, why not use it more? After all, prices of major commodities have gotten cheaper and farmers are exposed to less risk.

I wrote several papers on the political economy of agricultural biotechnology that analyzes the opposition and support of GM.  The opposition to GM may include those that benefit from GMO regulation. Some are companies that produce chemical alternatives to GM products, mostly European companies competing with Monsanto. Others are producers of non-GM products. Some environmental groups honestly believe that GM manipulation is detrimental to human health and the environment, but other environmental groups may see this is a way to capture donations and support. In the same way that big corporations look at the bottom line, “Big Environment” also considers their financial well being in taking positions. But in my heart, I feel that there is a very simple explanation for the popular opposition towards GMO. People are often anxious about new technologies, and others may benefit from this anxiety and resist change, sometimes not realizing that the unintended consequences could result in the misery of the silent majority.

I recently started to study Golden Rice. It fortifies existing varieties of rice with Vitamin A and can thus provide poor people protection against Vitamin A deficiency. This deficiency is estimated to cause blindness to 500,000 people in the developing world annually and damages the health of many more.  I admire Vince Resh and other colleagues that were able to develop techniques to conquer river blindness. For a while, Ingo Potrykus (the father of Golden Rice) was also hailed as a hero and his picture was on the cover of TIME Magazine. As I understand it from Potyrkus, the technology was not perfect in its earlier stages but it was ready for commercialization in 2002. But the regulatory bodies in India, Bangladesh and other places have not approved it thus far, even though there is a large body of evidence that suggests Golden Rice and other GM varieties do not produce greater health or environmental risks than non-GM varieties. Clearly the primary reason for the delayed decision has been objection from environmental groups.

In the case of life-threatening diseases or epidemics, societies should streamline the regulatory process to usher in a new technology that can potentially save lives (see Dallas Buyers Club). Golden Rice could have been a life-saving medicine for people that have already become blind, and if it was up to them I’m sure that they would have appreciated giving it a chance. In my view, erecting unneeded regulatory barriers is a terrible policy mistake. Even if we had 20% adoption, we could have prevented 1 million cases of blindness. The economic cost is also important, but what really matters is human misery that could have been alleviated.

Obviously the people who oppose GM do not always recognize the implications, but Golden Rice is a striking example where the practical ban of GM in food is costly in human-health terms. But there many other examples. Traditionally grown corn in developing countries is infested with aflatoxins, which are carcinogenic. Use of Bt corn can eliminate it significantly and thus save lives. Fortunately, Bt corn has been adopted by many smallholder farms in South Africa.

I heard a story from a distinguished South African scientist that once, on a radio show on GM corn in South Africa, the host asked a black farmer “why do you adopt GM Corn?”, and he replied “because it increases my profits by 34%”. Then the host asked a white farmer, “why don’t you adopt GM corn?”, and he responded “because it’s immoral.”

 

 

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Comments to "Should the poor pay for the anxieties of the rich?":
    • mae nakahata

      The Gates Foundation seeks to relive hunger and in so doing works with companies to achieve the goal — it seems to be a very pragmatic thing to do instead of saying one is aginst hunger, demonize those working on solutions and not having a real solution to solve hunger. Solutions require money.
      And what is wrong with a farmer doing something so he can make a profit… without profits farmers cannot stay in business and who will produce the food? I totally agree with those who caution critics who do so with a full belly utilize the latest technogadgets but do no positive actions to measureably help others.
      Agriculture is the only industry that people ask for technology to go backwards,,, it is the only industry that people don’t understand that science is evolving and we are learning from mistakes of the past.

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    • Ghost Reader

      Standards for organic production – like the USDA’s National Organic Program, and also Australia’s, Canada’s and the Philippines’ organic standards – stipulate that organic farmers are not allowed to use GMOs themselves, but there is no mention of GMOs contaminating an organic crop.

      These standards for organic production were written, edited and finalized by organic stakeholders, the same stakeholders who now seek to label or ban GMOs wherever they can.

      The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world’s most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State’s model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of “feeding the world”.

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    • Thomas Hanson

      I venture to bet that the white farmer who considers GM corn to be “immoral” would disagree with Bertrand Russell, who — in his essay “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish” — states that “Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent.”

      I would also wager that the highly moral white farmer will have no objection to medical GMOs when his doctor prescribes them. (Odd, isn’t it, how illness redefines our “morality”?)

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    • Mischa Popoff

      The environmental groups opposed to Golden Rice all have one thing in common: they’re all 100% pro-organic. And yet, there is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by GMOs.

      Standards for organic production – like the USDA’s National Organic Program, and also Australia’s, Canada’s and the Philippines’ organic standards – stipulate that organic farmers are not allowed to use GMOs themselves, but there is no mention of GMOs contaminating an organic crop.

      These standards for organic production were written, edited and finalized by organic stakeholders, the same stakeholders who now seek to label or ban GMOs wherever they can.

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    • R Andrew Ohge

      You’re right-but are inferring the wrong rich folks:
      Why is the Gates foundation investing in GM giant Monsanto?

      The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments in Monsanto and Cargill have come under heavy criticism. Is it time for the foundation to come clean on its visions for agriculture in developing countries?

      The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is sponsoring the Guardian’s Global development site is being heavily criticised in Africa and the US for getting into bed not just with notorious GM company Monsanto, but also with agribusiness commodity giant Cargill.

      Trouble began when a US financial website published the foundation’s annual investment portfolio, which showed it had bought 500,000 Monsanto shares worth around $23m. This was a substantial increase in the last six months and while it is just small change for Bill and Melinda, it has been enough to let loose their fiercest critics.

      Seattle-based Agra Watch – a project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice – was outraged. “Monsanto has a history of blatant disregard for the interests and well being of small farmers around the world… [This] casts serious doubt on the foundation’s heavy funding of agricultural development in Africa,” it thundered.

      But it got worse. South Africa-based watchdog the African Centre for Biosafety then found that the foundation was teaming up with Cargill in a $10m project to “develop the soya value chain” in Mozambique and elsewhere. Who knows what this corporate-speak really means, but in all probability it heralds the big time introduction of GM soya in southern Africa.

      The two incidents raise a host of questions for the foundation. Few people doubt that GM has a place in Africa, but is Gates being hopelessly naïve by backing two of the world’s most aggressive agri-giants? There is, after all, genuine concern at governmental and community level that the United State’s model of extensive hi-tech farming is inappropriate for most of Africa and should not be foist on the poorest farmers in the name of “feeding the world”.

      The fact is that Cargill is a faceless agri-giant that controls most of the world’s food commodities and Monsanto has been blundering around poor Asian countries for a decade giving itself and the US a lousy name for corporate bullying. Does Gates know it is in danger of being caught up in their reputations, or does the foundation actually share their corporate vision of farming and intend to work with them more in future?

      The foundation has never been upfront about its vision for agriculture in the world’s poorest countries, nor the role of controversial technologies like GM. But perhaps it could start the debate here?

      In the meantime, it could tell us how many of its senior agricultural staff used to work for Monsanto or Cargill?

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    • Tim Guichard

      Dear Prof. Zilberman,

      Couldn’t you make the same argument about slash-and-burn farming? The “poor” do it to survive and the “rich” have “anxieties” about it. Your framing of this discussion seems a bit polarizing and stultifying.

      best,
      tim guichard

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