Genetically modified crops will help the rich, not the poor. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC, January 11, 2009

In last week’s column I welcomed Cardinal Renato Martino’s comments that “a more just system of distribution and not the manufacturing of genetically modified foods GMOsis the key to addressing the problem of hunger in the world.”

I was not invited to the  two day consultation on GMOs held by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in  Rome on November 10 and 11, 2003,  I did attend a conference in the Gregorian University on September 24, 2004, entitled “Feeding the World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology.” This was an open event and was co-sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

The then U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, introduced the conference by stating that feeding the 1.5 billion people who are suffering from hunger and malnutrition is as much a key element as waging the war on terrorism.  He claimed that the best way to do this was to make genetically modified crops available to farmers around the world,  especially in Africa.  The ambassador scolded environmental organizations and even European governments, who criticized the U.S. government’s decision to donate GM food to alleviate hunger in Arica.  The ambassador seemed to be unaware that the European Union gives three times more food aid to African countries than does the U.S. and also, the European Union provides the  aid in the form of money and resources, so as to enable countries which are economically poor, to source as much food as possible locally.   As I know very well from my experience in responding to food shortages among the T’boli people in Mindanao during the El Nino induced drought in 1983,  this approach supports local farmers who, once a drought has passed, can return quickly to producing nutritious food.   In contrast, most of U.S. food aid involves shipping U.S. produced food to countries which are suffering food shortages.  This transforms foreign aid into a subtle mechanism for supporting large U.S. agribusiness corporations.  This policy response has the effect of undermining the livelihoods of  local farmers in the receiving countries, thus making the whole population more dependent on imported food,

Ambassador Nicholson went on to accuse those who opposed genetically modified food of cultural imperialism. According to him, “the worst form of cultural imperialism is to deny others the opportunities we have to take advantage of new technologies to raise up our human condition.”

The next speaker, Dr. C.S. Prakas, is a well-known promoter of genetic engineering. He is professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Kuskegee University in Alabama. He argued that genetically modified crops were particularly suited to “Third World” countries and spoke of favourable results which had already been seen in both China and India.  There was no reference in his talk to the failure of GM crops, such as Bt corn in India and Indonesia. In Dr. Prakash’s world, GM crops would deliver a bright future for everyone, especially, small farmers.

Aaron deGrassi, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, has examined the scientific quality of some of the claims made for biotech crops by Dr. Prakash. In his report “Genetically Modified Crops and Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Sub-Saharan Africa,” de Grassi points out that “an example of advocacy trumping facts is C.S. Prakash’s repeted claims that GM sweet potatoes (in Kenya) are a positive example of the benefits of GM for African countries. (Yet) he has confessed to having no knowledge of the results of scientific  trials in Kenya. [1].

The next speaker, Dr. Peter Raven, was even more aggressive in his dismissal of anyone who had reservations about GM crops. For him such people were ignorant and, worse still morally irresponsible. He condemned anyone who questioned the safety record of GM crops, or asked whether they are the best solution for combating world hunger as “being ideologically driven.” He accused the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), Now Progressio, as spreading unfounded fears about GM crops because they had rejected the claims that GM crops are essential to alleviating world hunger.  In  2004, Progressio published an action leaflet entitled, What is wrong with GM crops? It stated that “the introduction of GM crops will endanger small farmers’ livelihoods, undermine poor people’s ability to feed themselves, and increase the pressure on already damaged and vulnerable environments.”


[1] C.S. Prakash, Profiles, www.gmwatch.org. accessed on 17/09/2005.pages 2 and 4.

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