GENTECH archive


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GUARDIAN (London)     Thursday June 3, 1999


Getting it wrong about food

The most asinine biotechnology report ever written

Monsanto's advertising agency warned the company not to argue that genetic
engineering would feed the world. But the temptation proved too great.

"Worrying about starving future generations," its adverts informed us last
year, "won't feed them. Food biotechnology will." 

It's hard to see how even a body with Monsanto's self-belief could have
imagined that this claim would stand up. 

For the corporation had already made its position quite clear.

 "What you are seeing," one of its executives explained in 1997, as his
company purchased scores of seed merchants and biotech firms, "is a
consolidation of the entire food chain."

The vertical integration it was engineering would grant it a control over
food consumption that would have made Stalin writhe in envy. 
Monsanto's argument was swiftly and comprehensively dismissed. Development
agencies pointed out that people starve not because there is an absolute
shortage of food (the world currently produces a surplus) but because food
and the means to produce it are concentrated in the hands of the rich and
powerful. Corporations seeking to consolidate the food chain threatened to
make this situation far worse. Monsanto, sadder and perhaps a little
wiser, slunk away. 

But seven days ago it acquired a new and unlikely champion. 

The Nuffield Council for Bioethics is a highly respected independent body,
whose recommendations frequently influence government policy. Last week,
its panel on the ethics of genetic engineering published its long-awaited
report. Research into GM crops, the panel acknowledged, has tended to
favour producers in Europe and the US. Patenting of the new technologies,
it pointed out, presents "potentially serious difficulties for developing
countries". But, the report maintained, if the research effort could only
be directed a little more evenly, GM crops would "produce more food, or
more employment or income for those who need it most urgently". "The moral
imperative," it reasoned, "for making GM crops readily and economically
available to developing countries who want them is compelling." This is
perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain
it leaves on the Nuffield Council's excellent reputation will last for

The panel made three fundamental mistakes. 

The first was to assume that the technology is neutral and could, given
the right conditions, be evenly deployed and distributed. 

In truth, genetic engineering is inseparable from its ownership. No
genetically engineered crop reaches the market without a patent. Most of
these forbid the farmer from saving seed for future plantings: control of
the foodchain remains with the corporation at every stage of production.

The second was its crude, even childish, supposition that any technology
which produces more will feed the starving. 

The world is littered with the wreckage of such assumptions. Ethiopia's
modern agro-industrialists were exporting animal feed to Europe throughout
its devastating famine. Latin America's green revolution, Christian Aid
points out, raised food production by 8% per head, but malnutrition
increased in the same period by 19%. The Kalahandi region in India suffers
repeated famines, but produces surpluses every year. Starvation occurs
because of the distorted ownership of the foodchain. 

The panel's third mistake was its inexplicable premise that biotechnology
will somehow boost employment. 

Monsanto's leading biotech products - herbicide resistant crops - are sold
with the promise that they reduce the need for labour: farmers give their
money not to local labourers but to one of the biggest corporations on

So why did such a distinguished panel make such evident mistakes? You
don't have to look very far for an answer. While people of every kind sat
on the committee, all its biotechnology experts were drawn from the same
ideological pool. It is not hard to see how Prue Leith, for example, well
meaning as she doubtless was, would have felt obliged to defer to the
superior wisdom of the former chairman of the advisory committee for novel
foods and processes, or the Unilever research professor of biological

So how do we feed the world? 

When I suggest that the answer lies in a combination of land reform and
organic or semi-organic farming, you'll think I've gone soft in the head.
But Jules Pretty of Essex University has documented a quiet revolution
across the developing world, in which peasant farmers have doubled or
tripled their yields by modern organic techniques. They require lots of
labour, no debt, and no help from predatory corporations. Only by such
means can the world's poor maintain control over their food supply, and
protect themselves from the technologies that the Nuffield panel

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