17 May 2003
GM foods: Towards an apocalypse
As America launches its global GM trade war, New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst, Devinder Sharma, analyses the range of tactics employed to achieve control of the global food chain. He concludes that, far from reducing starvation in the developing world as US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick claims, GM foods "will further exacerbate the food crisis - eliminating in the process not hunger but the hungry."
GM foods: Towards an apocalypse
By Devinder Sharma
The noose is slowly tightening. An all out offensive has been launched, using the three most important instruments of economic power - the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - along with the badly bruised but democratically elected governments. And this time, the target is not oil but to force the world to accept genetically modified foods and crops.
In reality, the battle for controlling the global food chain has begun.
The American administration fired the first missile by formally launching in May a complaint with the WTO against the European Union for its five-year ban on approving new biotech crops, setting the stage for an international showdown over an increasingly controversial issue. Interestingly, the US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says the European policy is illegal, harming the American economy, stunting the growth of the biotech industry and contributing to increased starvation in the developing world.
Coinciding with the frontal attack through the dispute panel, is a seemingly harmless exercise to close ranks around flawed economic policies. Senior officials of the WTO-IMF-World Bank met at Geneva in May to deliberate on how to bring greater 'coherence' in their policies through 'liberalization of trade and financial flows, deregulation, privatization and budget austerity'. As if loan conditions of the IMF/World Bank that have forced developing countries to lower their trade barriers, cut subsidies for their domestic food producers, and eliminate safety nets for rural agriculture were not enough, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture could be used very effectively to allow America -- and 12 other food exporting countries -- to dump unwanted genetically altered foods thereby destroying food self-sufficiency in developing countries and expanding markets for the large grain exporting companies.
Trade and financial manipulations alone are not enough. With the United Nations no longer relevant, any such global offensive needs political allies. Therefore, three ministers from each of the 180 invited countries - and holding the portfolios of Trade, Agriculture and Health -- will assemble at downtown Sacramento in California from June 23-25. The invitation, which comes from the US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, is essentially for educating (in reality, intimidating) these democratically elected representatives on the virtues of GM foods, and why they must back the US transnational corporations fight against global hunger. If not, then why they must remain quiet like they did when the US was searching for 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq.
The three-pronged attack will force the European Union, to begin with, to either alter its policy toward GM crops and foods, which some consumer groups call 'Franken foods', or face economic sanctions across a range of sectors. For the US, the European markets for genetically modified crops and seed are potentially worth several billion dollars a year. For the rest of the world, Ann Veneman will explain the 'consequences' - both economic and political - of not accepting the fruits of 'cutting-edge' technology, as genetic engineering is fondly called. The first GM Ministerial, therefore, is not open to the public.
The overt and covert machinations to push unhealthy and risky GM foods had actually begun a decade ago. The US has so far opposed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which has been signed by over 100 countries and was intended to ensure through agreed international rules and regulations that countries have the necessary information to make informed choices about GM foods and crops. Earlier, the US had made every possible attempt to see that the Cartagena Protocol does not come through. And when it did, the US gave a damn and prefers to stay away.
Whether it is Cartagena Protocol or the Kyoto Protocol, the US continues to defy the international order. Even the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was ratified by the US at a stage when it realized that it had nothing to lose in the event of adequate protection granted by the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs). The US continues to hold the world's largest collection of plant germplasm, some 600,000 plant accessions, which actually belongs to the developing world. These plant collections, forcibly held in custody, are the raw material for the multi-billion dollar American biotechnology industry. In addition, the biotechnology industry has earned an estimated US $ 5.4 billion from biopiracy alone.
With the biotech patents coming into force, and the definition of micro-organism extended to include genes and cell lines, the US has ensured that once the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) Agreement is internationally harmonized in 2005, it will be the beginning of the end for public sector research in agriculture in the developing countries. In the words of a former chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), Dr Ismail Serageldin: "Whenever the product and process patents in food and agriculture come into effect, it will be a scientific apartheid against the Third World."
Agricultural research, which has been instrumental in ushering in food self-sufficiency in many of the Third World countries in the post-green revolution era, is being gradually dismantled. The CGIAR itself is under tremendous pressure from the agri-business corporations, which sees it as the main obstacle in the process of control and manipulation. With research priorities shifting from national requirements to servicing the biotechnology industry, like in India, it will be a matter of time before developing countries begin to return to the frightening days of 'ship-to-mouth' existence.
Food aid to starving populations is about meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of those who are in dire need. Ideally, it should not be to push the commercial interests of the biotechnology corporations (while staying away from the international consensus such as the Cartagena Protocol), or planting GM crops for export, or indeed finding outlets for domestic surplus. First finding an outlet for its mounting food surplus through the mid-day meal scheme for African children (force fed through the World Food Programme), the US then literally arm-twisted four African countries to accept GM food at the height of the food scarcity that prevailed in central and southern Africa in 2002. It even tried forcing the International Federation of the Red Cross to lift the GM food as part of an international emergency so as to feed the hungry in Africa.
It didn't work. Zambia led the resistance against GM foods, saying that it would prefer its poor to die than to feed them with unhealthy food.
The US has finally found a way out, to circumvent and to force the African countries into submission. The US Senate has passed a bill, entitled "the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003, (HR 1298)", which in a diplomatic way (calling it 'sense of Congress') links financial aid for combating HIV AIDS with GM food acceptance. Section 104A states that "individuals infected with HIV have higher nutritional requirements than individuals who are not infected with HIV, particularly with respect to the need for protein. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the full benefit of therapy to treat HIV/AIDS may not be achieved in individuals who are malnourished, particularly in pregnant and lactating women."
The next sentence reads: "It is therefore the sense of Congress that United States food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS, particularly African countries, in order to help feed such individuals." The underlying objective is very clear: the US can use the verdict to stop humanitarian aid for HIV/AIDS unless the recipient countries first buy GM food. Killing two birds with one stone, you have probably forgotten that saying.
This is not an isolated effort. The Rockefeller Foundation, in collaboration with the US-based Madison Institute, had earlier launched a project, called the 'Madison Initiative'. Under the guise of humanitarian aid and support, the 'Madison Initiative' was aimed at pushing GM crops to tide over the increasing food insecurity arising from the growing vulnerability of HIV/AIDS affected economies. The basic premise being that HIV/AIDS has taken a heavy toll of able-bodied rural males in most parts of Africa. As a result, there is not enough manpower left in the rural areas to undertake agricultural operations like spraying of pesticides. Therefore, these countries must accept GM crops like Bt corn, which they say require less chemical sprays!
This wonderful (sic) initiative was to be executed by CGIAR as an active partner. Such was the desperation that agricultural scientists had actually gone and met former President Moi of Kenya, who had agreed to officially support the 'Madison Initiative', subsequently to be extended to other Africa countries, including South Africa, and then to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and to other parts of Southeast Asia.
Way back, in 1986, the US had similarly enacted a legislation, called Bumper's Amendment, that prohibited "agricultural development activities, consultation, publication, conference, or training in connection with the growth and production in a foreign country of an agricultural commodity for export which would compete with a similar commodity grown or produced in the United States." As a result the American support for research and development for crops, which competed with those grown in the United States were stopped. No wonder, the FAO, the CGIAR and numerous other developing country agricultural programmes continue to remain starved for financial support. With national research programmes closing down for paucity of funds, the field is now open for the biotech industry to take over.
Never in the past history, has any government stepped in to force the world, and that too literally down the throat, into accepting what it produces. Never before has the world been forced to accept technologies, (howsoever risky these might be) and that includes nuclear power, in the name of the poor, the hungry and sustainable development. Never before has any country tried to force feed a hungry Continent by creating a false scenario of an impending famine, which never happened. Never before has science and technology been sacrificed in such a shameful manner for the sake of commercial growth and profits.
The tragedy is that 'good' science has been given a quiet burial. On the other hand, the party for the biotechnology industry has just begun.
The reality of hunger and malnutrition is too harsh to be even properly understood. Hunger cannot be removed by producing transgenic crops with genes for beta-carotene. Hunger cannot be addressed by providing mobile phones to rural communities. Nor can it be eradicated by providing the poor and hungry with an ``informed choice'' of novel foods. Somehow, the international community misses the ground realities, misses the woods for the trees in an effort to bolster the commercial interests of the biotechnology industries. In its over-enthusiasm to promote an expensive technology at the cost of the poor, what has been overlooked is that biotechnology has the potential to further the great divide between the haves and have-nots.
While the political leadership is postponing the monumental task to halve the number of the world's hungry, the scientific community too has found an easy escape route. At almost all the genetic engineering laboratories, whether in the North or in the South, the focus of research is on transgenic crops that adds to profits, edible vaccines and bio-fortification to address the problems of malnutrition or ``hidden hunger'' by incorporating genes for Vitamin A, iron, and other micro-nutrients. But what has been forgotten in the first instance is that unless hunger is removed, 'hidden hunger' cannot be eradicated. In other words, if the global scientific and development community were to aim at eradicating hunger at the first place, there would be little "hidden hunger".
Much of the existing hunger in the world is because of lop-sided trade and economic policies that keep the farmers in rich countries plump with massive subsidies, the resulting impact of which creates more hunger, malnutrition and destitution in the majority world. Much of the world's hunger and the crisis on the farm front is because of the massive subsidies that continue to be paid in the richest trading block - the OECD. Let us not forget, that subsidies are paid not only to keep the miniscule population of farmers on either side of the Atlantic happy, but also to keep the elected governments in the saddle. The US Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (FSRIA), for instance, was signed at the beginning of May 2002, bringing in an additional US $ 180 billion to its farmers in the next ten years. This was a small price (and that too from the State exchequer) to be paid for sparsely populated but agriculturally frontline mid-west region. George Bush badly needed a Republican majority in the US Senate. Senatorial elections took place in 2002 and the promise of a Farm Act delivered it.
As a result of the subsidy hike in America, millions of small and marginal farmers in the developing world would be driven out of agriculture to move to the urban slums in search of a menial living. Highly subsidized agriculture in America, and for that matter in the OECD, is the root cause for growing hunger, destitution and poverty in the majority world. GM foods, produced by the biotechnology corporations, will further exacerbate the food crisis - eliminating in the process not hunger but the hungry.
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. His writings and analysis can be viewed at www.dsharma.org)