Technology won't feed world's hungry
July 12, 2001
Don't be misled. Genetically engineered food is not an answer to world hunger.
The U.N. Development Program (UNDP) released a report last week urging rich countries to put aside their fears of such food and help developing nations unlock the potential of biotechnology.
The report accuses opponents of ignoring the Third World's food needs. It claims that Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies are more likely to focus on food safety and the loss of biodiversity, while farming communities in developing countries emphasize potentially higher yields and "greater nutritional value" of these crops.
But the UNDP has not done its homework.
In my country, India, for example, the debate pits mostly U.S.-trained technocrats, seduced by technological fixes, against farmers and consumers who overwhelmingly say no to these crops. The people who are to use the modified seeds and eat the modified food often want nothing to do with them.
The report rehashes the old myth of feeding the hungry through miracle technology. As part of the 1960s Green Revolution, Western technology created pesticides and sent them to developing countries for agricultural use, which may have increased food production, but at the cost of poisoning our earth, air and water.
What's more, it failed to alleviate hunger. Of the 800 million hungry people in the world today, more than 200 million live in India alone. It's not that India does not produce enough food to meet the needs of its hungry. It's that organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have slashed public services and social-safety nets so that the food can't get to the needy.
More than 60 million tons of excess, unsold food grain rotted in India last year because the hungry were too poor to buy it. In desperation, some farmers burned the crops they could not market and resorted to selling their kidneys and other body parts, or committing suicide, to end the cycle of poverty.
A higher, genetically engineered crop yield would have done nothing for them. And if the poor in India are not able to buy two meals a day, how will they purchase nutritionally rich crops such as rice that is engineered to contain vitamin A?
The report compares efforts to ban genetically modified foods with the banning of the pesticide DDT, which was dangerous to humans but was effective in killing the mosquitoes that spread malaria. The Third World had to choose between death from DDT or malaria. It's appalling that even today the debate in developed countries offers the Third World the option of either dying from hunger or eating unsafe foods.
Malaria, like hunger, is a disease of poverty. When economic conditions improve, it disappears, just as it did in the United States and Europe.
The focus ought to be on the root causes of the problem, not the symptom. The hungry don't need a technological quick fix. They need basic social change.
In the Third World, the battle against genetically engineered food is a battle against the corporate concentration of our food system. Corporations are gaining control of our biodiversity and even our seeds. This is a potential stranglehold on our food supply. In response, developing countries are imposing moratoriums on genetically engineered crops. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico and China, among others, have already done so.
The UNDP has been snookered about genetically engineered food. The rest of us shouldn't be.
Anuradha Mittal is co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy (www.foodfirst.org), which is based in Oakland, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.