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March 21, 2000


GM foods and the luxury of choice


- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

The Times (London, UK)
21 Mar 2000

GM foods and the luxury of choice

I know this is a little unscientific, but look at Monica Lewinsky,
think of Marlon Brando's waistline, look at even the slimmed-down
Vanessa Feltz: I don't know what these people eat, but just how much
scarier could they possibly look if fed on a diet containing
genetically-modified ingredients? How much unhealthier could it make
them? Supermarkets are stacked with genetically- unmodified food items
that are as nutritious as roofing tar. So what is it exactly that we
are risking with GM? The debate about GM foods has been conducted most
noisily among well-off Westerners, such as you and me. Are we keen to
eat genetically-modified tomatoes? Not especially. There seem to be
plenty of the other variety about. Why take the risk: even if there
isn't one?

But when you ask people in developing countries, you hear loud voices
pleading for GM crops. The problem is that this isn't a decision those
countries can take in isolation.

If the West won't grow GM crops and won't buy GM foods, then Africa
and Latin America can't grow them, either; because while developing
countries would reap bigger harvests using GM seeds, they wouldn't be
able to export any surpluses to GM-averse Europe or America. Bang goes
a source of foreign income, leaving them poorer than they were before.
So are we in the West, by spurning GM foods even though there is no
scientific evidence to suggest they are dangerous to eat, condemning
millions in the Third World to starve, and condemning the children of
those nations to staying ill-educated because they have to skip school
to help their parents weed the fields, since local farmers can't
afford pesticides and herbicides?

Scientists and farmers in developing countries seem to think so, at
least on the evidence of Equinox: The Rise and Fall of GM (Channel 4).
You can hardly blame them. How many of us, given a choice, would
reject GM technology in favour of totally natural starvation? "It is
nice to be romantic about not using chemicals, not using fertilisers,
not using transgenic technology," Dr Cyrus Ndirtu, director of the
Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, said in Martin Durkin's sober
and uncomfortable film. "But just remember, for some people in the
rural areas of Africa, and maybe even Asia and Latin America, the
choice is between life and death." And anyway, just how rigid are we
Westerners, who can afford the luxury of choice, in our abhorrence of
GM crops? What if, say, tobacco could be genetically-modified so that
cigarettes were no longer carcinogenic? Would we be in favour of that?

Without much of a doubt, I'd guess. Cigarettes are killing us anyway,
so we'll consider anything that allows us to retain the pleasure of
smoking without at the same time propelling us to an early grave. That
must, surely, be the way hungry people in developing countries think
when they see their children going blind through vitamin deficiency:
we're in a bad way as it is, so how big a risk can GM foods be? Very
big, insists Mae-Wan Ho, a biologist from the Open University, who
told us that: "Organic farmers are artists and poets. They have a
certain relationship with their land, and the trees are poems the
earth writes to the skies. They have a love affair with their land.
Peruvian farmers adopt plants in their garden as family members."
Yeah, but those poor Peruvian farmers have been chewing coca leaves
all day to dull the tedium of not being able to go to the movies, or
to phone for a takeaway when they're feeling too lazy to cook. "What
intensive agriculture does is to mechanise the whole thing," Mae-Wan
added. "They convert these poets into taxi-drivers." Give me strength.
South American farmers understandably think that this is romantic
tosh; that Westerners like to keep the Third World as a savage,
natural tourist park which they can visit before returning home to
enjoy the benefits of bounteous agriculture and full bellies. This was
an intelligent, unhysterical documentary. Pilger without the
piousness. We may still be right to reject GM technology. But we are
now more aware of the moral burden that decision puts on our Western