March 2005
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31    

Recent Entries

free hit counter

RSS Feeds

RSS 1.0
RSS 2.0

September 15, 2003

More on GM foods

Newsweek has a couple of articles out today dealing with biotech foods. Also referred to as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), these crops, because of their pest and disease resistance--and in some cases, higher nutrient levels ("golden rice")--may be able to play a vital role in alleviating starvation and opening markets in Africa.

The reasons these technolgies haven't been used to a greater extent already have as much to do with politics as they do with science. The Americans are for, the Europeans largely against, and African dictators like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe are experts at playing the two sides off against one another.

Why can't we quit fighting about this and feed people?

Newsweek International's Steve Rayner has one theory about the divide between Europeans and Americans:

Not only do Americans live apart from their ideal image of nature, they also think of food production as something that happens far away. You can fly over the Great Plains and see endless ranks of green machines growing wheat and soybeans. European food also travels great distances from farm to table, but Europeans think of their food as a product of the same countryside in which they live. Perhaps it’s the perceived industrialization of food production that makes Europeans uncomfortable, not the tinkering with genes. Europeans, after all, generally favor genetically modified pharmaceuticals.

Personally, I’m not convinced that GM foods pose significant health or environmental risks. I’m more concerned about the risk to reasoned discussion, and possibly even to democracy. Under the World Trade Organization regime, a threat to human health or the environment is the only basis on which a country can refuse to admit a product. Europeans can’t openly express the full range of their concerns about GM crops because such fears have no legal standing. Without open debate, how can there be democratic decision making? The WTO framework forces people to inflate concerns about human health and the environment because they can’t express their real concerns. No wonder Americans are frustrated by what they see as scientific irrationality on the part of Europeans, which they can explain only as the desire to implement trade barriers.

Of course, my take on this is that irrationality is irrationality, but it's an interesting theory, and one I hadn't seen before. Such a discomfort certainly doesn't justify policies that scare hungry developing nations out of using this technology to help feed their people, lest they never be able to break into the European market.

Adam Piore has a different take:

But European resistance is not, no matter what Bush suggests [referring to President Bush's assertion earlier this year that the Europeans have blocked their use--Ed.], the only reason why GM foods are not reaching Africa in significant quantity. Bickering and competition within the biotech industry have created a tangle of legal and licensing hurdles through which small researchers must crash if they set out to develop GM foods for Africa. For business reasons, big companies have been slow to experiment with ways to apply and market existing GM technologies such as insect- and disease-resistant crops in Africa. And African nations themselves have caused problems with regulatory bumbling. In short, a wide cast of characters all over the world, including America, is blocking the advance of GM foods to the world’s poorest continent. “There’s a lot of potential,” says Daniel Karanja, a policy analyst of Bread for the World and a former economist at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. “Until recently there hasn’t been any widespread push to develop African crops.”

There's plenty more about the failings of U.S. companies, which doesn't sit particularly well with me. Any business is not going to be particularly inclined to develop a product unless they are sure they will be able to sell it. (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is, of course, of the opinion that the technology itself should be given away.)

Piore, to his credit, points out the difficulties that would faced in bringing biotech crops to market in Africa, whether they are homegrown or imported, and sees the potential in the technology:

Even if big Western companies were clamoring to help develop lifesaving GM innovations for the poor, only one African country would be ready to accept them. South Africa has the only government on the continent with the regulatory structure in place to import, test and release GM seeds to farmers. Its solo record would appear to confirm how much all of Africa could gain from GM crops given proper safeguards. According to one study by researchers at King’s College London and the University of Pretoria in South Africa, within two years those adopting Monsanto’s Bt cotton in South Africa had yields that were on average about 16 percent higher than those of farmers who did not use the technology.

And increasingly, it looks like other African nations are seeing the potential, too. Piore reports that Uganda will soon allow processed GM foods into the country and has opened a biotech lab, and that Kenya, Nigeria, and Malawi are considering doing so. The BBC adds Egypt and Zimbabwe to the list.

And just last Thursday, an article appeared in the Ghanian Chronicle indicating that Ghana, too, is coming on board:

The Minister of Science and Environment, Prof. Kasim Kasanga, has said the government has formulated a National Science and Technology policy, which, among other things, endorses the use of innovative and pervasive technology, including biotechnology, as tools for development.

According to him, the government is convinced that biotechnology, as a tool for development, is not harmful to mankind. “Biotechnology has become a key issue in the international debate on sustainable development. The ministry is therefore developing technical capability to ensure the safe and environmentally sound management of Biotechnology in Ghana.”

Call me a crazy American, but I think this is a good sign.

Europe may be uncomfortable with GM crops, but it is possible to let the precautionary principle paralyze, rather than inform. Biotechnology is not going to go away. It's here, and it feeds people. Some believe it would be wonderful if it were economically feasible to take the development of biotechnology out of the private sector, but it isn't--even if it were desirable. What is needed is a framework of cooperation, where the companies (wherever they may be located) that develop the products are able to make enough, either in dollars or goodwill, to provide incentive for continuing development, a market for them to sell those products in, and an attitude of pragmatism about getting it all done.

When it comes right down to it, it's about getting people enough to eat. It's past time to quit fighting about it and get the job done.

Recommended reading (several of the following links courtesy of

Why We Can't Agree (Newsweek)
What Green Revolution? (Newsweek)
Hungry Zimbabwe Shuns Corn (8/1/02)
A New Social Contract on Biotechnology (FAO Ag21 Magazine)
Uganda's Push for GM (BBC)
Ministry moves to ensure safe, sound management of Biotech (Ghanian Chronicle)
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
European Environment Agency definition: Precautionary Principle

Posted by at September 15, 2003 11:10 PM

In my opinion, you leave out one important factor. Many GMO crops and seeds are trademarked meaning farmer's need to buy a license to use them. A license fee most likely far beyond the income range of most Third World frmers. Even if one farmer is using GMO seed and his neighbor is not, if the GMO seed spreads to the non-GMO farmer and begins to grow on his land, the non-GMO farmer may be sued by the multi-national. This is ridiculous. Third world and African farms need real "free trade". They also need the IMF and World Bank to back off forcing these countries to produce commodity crops and allow them to produce the food that their countrymen need to eat. The US (or more precisely, the lobbyists behind US policy) don't care if Africans have food, they care about turning a profit. Africans in most cases can produce food without imported GMO's. We just need to let them grow it.

Posted by: walter at September 16, 2003 12:04 AM

Monsanto one of the leading GMO companies is all over, it doesn't only affect African farmers, but also Asian farmers too.I've worked with farmers fighting against these GMO testing, the terminator seeds the GMO companies produce and propagate only benefit them not the lowly farmers.

In most third world countries where labelling laws are absent, GMO contaminated products are being sold without the knowledge of the receiving country. Last year alone 17,000 tons of GMO was shipped to the Philippines during the time when 15 countries have announced a moratorium on importing GMO contaminated goods. Third World countries have become a dumping ground! Canadian and American farmers whose farms were unwillingly contaminated with GMO are now being sued by GMO companies.

Posted by: yvette at September 20, 2003 01:07 PM

Steve Rayner's take, that Americans fly over farm country and know nothing about it, is classic coastal elite bunk. Most Americans are intimately involved with agriculture. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen, churches, charities, all are dependent on the price of a bag of potatoes, a bushel of wheat, or a pound of beef. Steve Rayner seems not know that, which is, of course, why he is regarded as an expert by Newsweek!

Posted by: john at October 8, 2003 08:20 AM


I'm working on some wonerful energy saving devices that will make a big impact on the environment.

Will you work for good will? I can give you a certificate for unlimited good will if you like.

This could be the start of a trend.

BTW all the food we eat in the world has been genetically modified. In one way or another.

Posted by: M. Simon at October 8, 2003 04:20 PM

Do give books - religious or otherwise - for Christmas. They're never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.

Posted by: Lockwood Amy at January 21, 2004 11:35 PM

i think gm foods are great and that they pose no threat of any kind, would u rather live or die, gm foods will fix world hunger and it will protect us through possible drought, but what does suck is that it kills butterflies.

Posted by: sean Seaman at June 4, 2004 11:38 AM

Would u rather starve or stay healthy and strong, it's your life do what you want, but don't come crying to me when you starve to death,you are just a bunch of pansy's afraid to try something new, what a bunch of losers, i mean your going to die someday anyway.

Posted by: sean Seaman at June 4, 2004 11:41 AM
Contributors to
Deb Yoder
IB Bill
About AfricaBlog
Submissions Guidelines

Contact Us At