20 May 2003
Prakash versus the hunger strike
AgBioWorld was established, with the hidden help and advice of Monsanto and its PR operatives, by CS Prakash and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to lobby for GMOs.
This has led to a series of unfortunate interventions in both scientific and political debates - from a dirty tricks campaign of pressure over the Mexican maize scandal: http://ngin.tripod.com/deceit_index.html to dishonest denunciations of "activists", Zambian Catholics and others during the food aid crisis in southern Africa. Those attacks led Dr. Raj Patel to comment, "The tragedy is that while these well monied types try to filibuster the democratic process in Zambia, people are starving. And there's safe food in the region which USAID will not buy..." http://ngin.tripod.com/forcefeed.htm
Now Prakash's AgBioWorld is lobbying the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to ignore the hunger strike in support of a moratorium on the commercialisation of GM corn. Prakash says his position is all about sound science but GM corn only won approval in the Philippines without proper public knowledge of what was occurring, let alone debate, and with the help of a campaign of misinformation led by CS Prakash and his supporters - see:
CS Prakash, the great deceiver
Prof Prakash - sent to lie abroad?
Dear Professor Prakash...
Prakash mouthing Andura's script?
Prakash lies proliferate
The article below, written by someone who pronounces himself very comfortable with GMOs, looks at the man at the centre of the hunger strike, Roberto Verzola, who the writer knows well. He pronounces Roberto (or Obet as he is known to his friends) a man of complete integrity: "He is the best argument for his cause. I caught him in a talk show on TV last week and was astonished to find that although he had been sufficiently weakened by his hunger strike to be confined to a wheelchair, he was as lucid and sharp as ever."
And as for Roberto's hunger strike, it is a desperate struggle to raise questions and be heard: "If a hunger strike seems an unreasonable way to talk, it is only because government has stuffed its ears with wax which needs prying loose. The only reason the Department of Agriculture is talking now is because of the hunger strike. The only reason media have taken notice of Bt corn is because of the hunger strike. The only reason the public has heard of genetically modified organisms.... is because of the hunger strike."
Conrado de Quiros, Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 19,2003
FIRST, the part about Roberto Verzola and his hunger strike.
I've known Obet from way back and can say with absolute certainty-something I do not normally say, absolute doubt being my journalistic policy-that you cannot find a more principled guy than he. I say this because of news reports and commentaries I've read and heard hinting that the hunger strike is well financed-this is a war presumably being waged by European agriculture against America's-and that Obet and company are being paid good money to go hungry. I say this because of reports and commentaries I've read and heard that Obet is cheating on his fast, nobody can last that long without eating.
Well, if anyone can, it is Obet. He is the best argument for his cause. I caught him in a talk show on TV last week and was astonished to find that although he had been sufficiently weakened by his hunger strike to be confined to a wheelchair, he was as lucid and sharp as ever. He has never been one to eat much, living a pretty spartan-some would say, ascetic-lifestyle. His diet consists of rice and vegetables. It is safe to assume those vegetables do not include Bt corn.
He was one of those who developed the first computer in this country as a student at the Philippine Science High School in the '60s. He was one of those who pioneered e-mail use in this country putting up a service that catered exclusively to NGOs. Though he can easily run the R and D of any multinational company-and he has not lacked for offers there-he devotes his time to civil society and its causes instead. He rides jeepneys and walks where there are none. That is where he draws his strength, from the discipline of his body and the nourishment of his soul.
He was one of the board members of an NGO I put up years ago. Though we disagreed on issues and policies a number of times, he always put his case clearly and well. To this day, I have yet to hear him raise his voice in any discussion. When someone like that talks, you listen.
If a hunger strike seems an unreasonable way to talk, it is only because government has stuffed its ears with wax which needs prying loose. The only reason the Department of Agriculture is talking now is because of the hunger strike. The only reason media have taken notice of Bt corn is because of the hunger strike. The only reason the public has heard of genetically modified organisms, or GMO-which, contrary to rumor, is not the husband of GMA, though a case could always be made for it, they're both genetically modified-is because of the hunger strike.
This is not to say of course that someone with Obet's scale of integrity is always right. That precisely is the reason for talking. Which brings me to the second point, which is GMOs.
I agree that we do not lack for safer alternatives to GMOs to meet the food requirements of this country. I agree that we may not embrace technological solutions to social problems, or rush to adopt apparent agricultural miracles only to justify an unjust social structure where a few hoard the national wealth and the many go hungry. If the problem is the specter of hunger, the solution is not Bt corn, it is redistributing wealth. There is something cynical about the search for scientific breakthroughs to feed the world when the world can be easily fed simply by using, according to UN estimates, a tenth of the money the United States currently spends for arms. There is something cynical about our own attempts to boldly-others will say, recklessly-promote things like Bt corn when a tenth of the military budget should go a long way toward miraculously multiplying this country's loaves and fishes.
But having said this, I must say as well that I am assailed by what seems to me to be an anti-technology, or anti-science, attitude of some of those advocating causes such as this. There is nothing genetically modified about the human desire to improve on nature. It is part of human nature. I grant that can be dangerous in excessive form, such as the form it took during the pit of Rationalism when people talked of "putting Nature on a rack to make her yield her secrets," which has succeeded truly in tormenting nature whose groans we can hear in the kind of cataclysms we are experiencing today. But just as dangerous is the other extreme, which reposes blind faith in the superiority of the natural. Which I've seen in NGOs too, particularly in New Age-ish preference for "natural alternatives" to antibiotics, or indeed to a complete distrust of the medical profession.
I have no problems with GMOs as a general rule, unless it can be proven that a particular GMO produces more harm than good. My sympathies have always been with Frankenstein and not with the village folk who ran him out of his castle presumably for violating the canons of God and man.
And finally, Bt corn. Obet and company have been trying to prove, armed with the findings of a slew of scientists, that Bt corn produces more harm than good. I know Obet and I say, declare a moratorium on Bt corn, let us sit down and talk like reasonable people. I do not buy the Department of Agriculture's explanation that the findings Obet is presenting are old hat. I've heard that before when the Freedom from Debt Coalition was trying to get Cory to repudiate the fraudulent debts: The Department of Finance kept saying its arguments were old hat. Well, old hats when never worn remain new. Or for those who do not like figures of speech, old arguments that have not been refuted remain valid.
I do not buy even more that idea that the United States has been using Monsanto's products for years, including Bt corn, and so far they have produced no ill effects. I have ironclad proof they have produced the most baneful effect of all: much of America supports a madman named George W. Bush.
"There are 800 million hungry people in the world; 34,000 children starve to death every day. There are those who consider this a tragedy, and then there are the biotech companies and their countless PR firms, who seem to consider it a flawless hook for product branding... the companies who make [GE foods], and the flacks who hawk their falsehoods, offer us a new definition of depravity, a new standar to plunge for in our race to care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all shame." Michael Manville - Welcome to the Spin Machine