U.N. Dead Wrong About Engineered Crops: Please Let the Third World Speak
by Anuradha Mittal
Comments about genetically engineered (GE) crops expressed in the just-released "Human Development Report 2001", the flagship publication of the United Nation Development Program (UNDP), and in accompanying press statements, reveal a shocking degree of Northern arrogance in tone and content.
The authors of the report urge rich countries to put aside their fears of genetically engineered (GE) food and help developing nations unlock the potential of biotechnology. UNDP head Mark Malloch Brown, praised the report, saying that it has moved in a new direction by challenging some cherished opinions about what the Third World needs. Yet as a citizen of India I ask, who nominated Mark Malloch Brown, in his New York office, to speak for the needs of poor countries and to say what we need?
The UNDP report accuses opponents of genetically-modified food of ignoring
the food needs of the Third World. It goes on to say that the movement
is driven by conservationists in rich countries, and claims
Obviously the UNDP and Mark Malloch Brown have done only part of their homework. While they have read up on the genetic engineering debate in the U.S. and Europe, they have ignored the even louder debate going on in the Third World. In my country, for example, the debate pits mostly U.S.-trained technocrats, seduced by technological fixes, against farmer organizations and consumers who overwhelmingly say no to genetically engineered crops. Surely it is worth noting when the people who are to use the modified seeds, and those who are to eat the modified food, want nothing to do with them?
This UNDP report further fails to acknowledge that despite overproduction, even a country like the United States faces massive problems of hunger with over 36 millions Americans food insecure and ignores the lives of millions of farm workers in the fields of this country, while converting all Americans into consumers of unlabelled modified foods.
The report rehashes the old myth of feeding the hungry through miracle
technology, the mantra that has been chanted forever, whether it was to
push pesticides or genetic engineering. The famous green revolution of
Northern technology sent to the South may have increased food production,
at the cost of poisoning our earth, air and water. But it failed to alleviate
hunger. Of 800 million hungry people in the world today, an estimated
250-300 million live in India alone. It's not that India does not produce
enough food to meet the need of its hungry, it's the policies that work
against the working poor--slashing of social safety
Over 60 million tons of excess food grain-unsold-- because the hungry
are too poor to buy it--rotted in India last year, while farmers in desperation
burnt the crops they could not sell, and resorted to selling
The report compares efforts to ban GM foods with the banning of the pesticide DDT, which was dangerous to humans but was effective in killing the mosquitoes which spread malaria. The choice presented to the Third World then was the choice of death from DDT or malaria. Its appalling that even today the development debate in the North can only offer the Third World the option of dying from hunger, or from loss of livelihoods or unsafe foods.
The North ignored the cries from the South at the time of the DDT debate, that if our national health budgets were not slashed, perhaps we could deal with malaria differently. Malaria, like hunger, is a disease of poverty. When economic conditions improve, it disappears, just as it did in the U.S. and Italy. Why is the focus never on the root causes of the problem, but always on the symptom. Once again, UNDP has decided to focus on the symptom of hunger and not the root cause of poverty.
Yes, a debate that affects communities in the Third World should not
be driven solely by conservationists in the rich countries. It should
also not be driven by corporate apologists like Mr. Brown. It would do