Biotech “feeding the poor”: PR on life and death
Biotech “feeding the poor”: PR on life and death
by Lucy Sharratt, Polaris Institute
Synthesis/Regeneration 32 (Fall 2003)
It now appears that the biotech industry is, like never before, counting on the success of arguments that genetic engineering will "feed the world."
Monsanto in particular has always stated that biotech is needed in order to feed the hungry. But now this argument has taken concrete form in the shape of surplus GE corn that the US government wants to get rid of as food aid to developing countries. The stakes are higher now, particularly for Monsanto whose business is now wholly based on agricultural biotechnology (no pharmaceutical profits to rely on) and therefore depends on pushing open new markets and winning over a skeptical public.
Biodevastation 7 was a unique and important opportunity to hear the true and full story of Zambia's rejection of GE food. We were fortunate that Mwananyanda Lewanika of the National Institute for Scientific & Industrial Research in Zambia joined the event to share this story and that Michael Hansen of Consumers Union added his experience to this same tale. Biodevastation gave me the information I needed to counter misinformation and propaganda that flooded my dinner table at a recent "dialogue" on how biotechnology can be made accessible to developing countries. Discussions at this one event stressed to me how important it is to corporations that we believe the message that GE is the solution to hunger. Alternatively, I now understand more fully how critical it is for us to be prepared to argue on this point.
At this dinner, a representative from Monsanto was heartfelt when he raised his voice to tell me that he believed Zambia's decision was the wrong one and asked, "How could the Zambian government let their people starve?" The information I gathered at Biodevastation allowed me to reply, without hesitation, that people in Zambia are not dying from starvation and that these reports were exaggerated. [This was my third intervention on the topic in half an hour since the question of food aid was the preoccupation.] This exchange told me two things. First, it told me that Monsanto and other corporations are relying heavily on this emotional message to pull people into defending and even promoting biotech and, secondly, I learned that people from all walks of life really are buying into the argument.
Biotech corporations are pressing hard through advertisements and newspaper articles to sway guilty, well-fed consumers in the north who know very little about the true causes of hunger. Though we in North America have not seen the consumer benefits of GE and may not want GE food for our own dinners, how can we deny food and technology to the poorest of the poor? Ignorance, paternalism and racism allow this argument to flourish and gain ground. As President Bush told the June BIO 2003 industry convention, "America and other wealthy nations have a special responsibility to combat hunger and disease in desperate lands".
The message that it is immoral to stand in the way of biotech extends into legitimizing the US case against the European Union at the World Trade Organization. Bush argues that African nations are rejecting GE food aid because of fear that they will lose their European markets. Bush therefore argues that, "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology." (Speech at BIO2003, June 23, 2003)
This is not just window-dressing however since the US government is intent on actually pushing GE food into African nations. The government is putting tremendous pressure on African governments and the new US Leadership Against HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act links financial aid for combating HIV/Aids in Africa with acceptance of US food aid.
Both the US and Canadian governments are also working with universities and other institutions in developing countries to help build technological capacity in biotech. At the recent G8 Summit the Canadian government pledged $30 million Canadian towards setting up an African center of excellence in "biosciences for agriculture."
The corporate strategy is to turn attention away from dialogue about self-sufficiency in the developing world such that the question becomes one of technology transfer from North to South. The question now becomes how universities, corporations and governments in the South can adopt and develop genetic technologies, technologies that are largely owned and controlled by multinational corporations. The end goal is to open new markets, even limited ones, to corporate expertise and products. Achieving this under the cover of "aid" means that governments will subsidize these corporate technology transfer activities.
Importantly, the false promise of GE in agriculture is now morphing into the moral imperative to use biotechnology to solve global health problems. Here we see the most dangerous arguments used to promote costly genetic technologies at the expense of preventative and accessible health care. For example the Canadian Program in Genomics and Global Health recently co-published a report on the "Top 10 Biotechnologies for Improving Health in Developing Countries." Biotech corporations are lobbying hard for more government subsidies to help develop new vaccines, vaccines that they will patent and sell for a hefty price. (For more information see "Unpacking the Pharma Biotech Engines" at
The corporate lobby is pressing hard on the line of solving hunger and disease with biotechnology. We must press back with the best information we have on the very real and urgent solutions that many people are already employing across the world to feed themselves and their communities.
For information on the issue of GE food aid and GE in developing countries: see Food First, http://www.foodfirst.org/ and ActionAid, http://www.actionaid.org/
GM food aid primer: http://ngin.tripod.com/forcefeed.htm