Feeding profits

Eliminating not hunger, but the hungry

The grip is slowly tightening. The United States has launched an all-out offensive using the three most important instruments of global economic power – the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – and bilateral pressure applied directly on governments of the South. This time, the theme is not oil but global acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops.

The battle for control of the global food chain has begun. The Bush administration fired the opening salvo in May by announcing that it would lodge a formal complaint with the WTO against the European Union (EU) for the latter's five-year ban on approving new biotech crops, setting the stage for an international showdown over an increasingly controversial issue. Interestingly, the US trade representative, Robert Zoellick, says that the EU policy is illegal, harms the American economy, stunts the growth of the biotech industry and contributes to increased starvation in the developing world.

Coinciding with the frontal attack through the dispute panel of the WTO is a seemingly harmless exercise to close ranks around flawed economic policies. Senior officials of the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF met at Geneva in May to deliberate on how to bring greater "coherence" into their policies through "liberalisation of trade and financial flows, deregulation, privatisation and budget austerity". As if loan conditions of the World Bank-IMF that have forced developing countries to lower their trade barriers, cut subsidies for domestic food producers, and eliminate safety nets for rural agriculture were not enough, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture could be used very effectively to allow the US – and 12 other food exporting countries – to dump unwanted GM foods on markets throughout the world, thereby destroying food self-sufficiency in developing countries and expanding markets for the large grain exporting companies.

Trade and financial manipulations alone, however, are not all. With the UN no longer relevant, any such global offensive needs political allies. Therefore, three ministers from each of 180 invited countries – those holding the portfolios of trade, agriculture and health – will assemble in downtown Sacramento, California, from 23-25 June. The invitation, which comes from US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, is essentially for 'educating' country representatives on (in reality, intimidating them into accepting) the virtues of GM foods, and why they must back US transnational corporations' fight against global hunger. And, failing that, the lesson is on why they must remain quiet, just as they did when the US was searching for 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq.

The multi-pronged attack will force the EU, to begin with, to either alter its policy toward GM crops and foods, which some consumer groups call 'Frankenfoods', or face economic sanctions across a range of sectors. For the US, the European market for GM crops and seeds is potentially worth several billion dollars a year. For the rest of the world, Secretary Veneman will explain the consequences – both economic and political – of not accepting the fruits of 'cutting-edge' technology, as genetic engineering is fondly called. The first GM ministerial, as might be expected, is not open to the public.

Scientific apartheid
The overt and covert machinations to promote unhealthy and risky GM foods actually began a decade ago. The US has to date opposed the January 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has been signed by over 100 countries and was intended to ensure through negotiated international rules and regulations that countries have the necessary information to make informed choices about GM foods and crops. Earlier, the US made every possible attempt to prevent the Cartagena Protocol from coming into being, failing which it has attempted to diminish its effectiveness.

Whether it is the Cartagena or Kyoto Protocol, the US continues to defy the international order. Since the US has still not ratified the CBD, it has no need to follow the Cartagena Protocol and therefore will try to force GM food down the throat of every other country. The US continues to hold the world's largest collection of plant germplasm, some 600,000 plant accessions, which actually belongs to the developing world. These plant collections, forcibly held in custody, are the raw material of the multi-billion dollar American biotechnology industry. In addition, the biotechnology industry has earned an estimated USD 5.4 billion from biopiracy alone.

With biotech patents coming into force, and the definition of micro-organism extended to include genes and cell lines, the US has ensured that once the TRIPs agreement is internationally harmonised in 2005, it will be the beginning of the end for public sector agricultural research in developing countries. In the words of a former chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), Dr Ismail Serageldin, "Whenever the product and process patents in food and agriculture come into effect, it will be a scientific apartheid against the third world".

Agricultural research, which was instrumental in ushering in food self-sufficiency in many developing countries in the post-Green Revolution era, is being gradually dismantled. The CGIAR itself is under tremendous pressure from international agri-business, which sees it as the main obstacle in the process of control and manipulation. With research priorities shifting from national requirements to servicing the biotechnology industry, as is the case in India, it is only a matter of time before developing countries begin to return to the frightening days of 'ship-to-mouth' existence.

Food aid to starving populations is about meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of those who are in dire want. It should not be to push the commercial interests of biotechnology corporations through the violation of international consensus as seen in agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol, or planting GM crops for export, or indeed finding outlets for domestic surplus. First finding an outlet for its mounting food surplus through the mid-day meal scheme for African children (force-fed through the World Food Programme), the US then arm-twisted four African countries to accept GM food at the height of food scarcity in central and southern Africa in 2002. It even tried forcing the International Red Cross to lift GM food as part of an international emergency so as to feed the hungry in Africa. This effort, however, failed, with Zambia leading the resistance to GM foods, arguing that unhealthy imports would not improve the people's situation.

Ever resourceful, the US has perfected circumvention techniques to force African countries into submission. The US Congress passed a bill in late May entitled "The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003" (HR 1298), which in a diplomatic way (calling it "sense of Congress") links financial aid for combating HIV/AIDS with GM food acceptance. After noting in the "findings" section that "a few" food-recipient countries object to assistance "because of fears of benign genetic modifications to the foods" (emphasis added), Section 104A states:

INDENT Individuals infected with HIV have higher nutritional requirements than individuals who are not infected with HIV, particularly with respect to the need for protein. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the full benefit of therapy to treat HIV/AIDS may not be achieved in individuals who are malnourished, particularly in pregnant and lactating women.

The "sense of Congress" clause following immediately thereafter argues that, "United States food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/AIDS, particularly African countries, in order to help feed such individuals". The underlying objective is very clear: the US Congress will allow a halt to humanitarian aid for HIV/AIDS unless recipient countries first buy GM food.

What is more, this is not an isolated effort. The Rockefeller Foundation, in collaboration with the US-based Madison Institute, earlier launched a project dubbed the 'Madison Initiative'. Under the guise of humanitarian aid and support, this project pushed GM crops to overcome increasing food insecurity arising from the growing vulnerability of HIV/AIDS-affected economies, the basic premise being that HIV/AIDS has taken a heavy toll on able-bodied rural males in most parts of Africa. Consequently, so the argument goes, there is not enough manpower in rural areas to undertake agricultural operations such as the spraying of pesticides. Therefore, these countries must accept biotechnologically manipulated GM crops like Bt corn, which they say require less chemical sprays.

This 'wonderful' initiative was to be executed with CGIAR as an active partner. Such was the desperation that agricultural scientists had actually gone and met former president Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, who agreed to officially support the Madison Initiative, subsequently to be extended to other African countries, including South Africa, and then to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Way back in 1986, the US enacted legislation to similar effect called the "Bumper's Amendment" that prohibited "agricultural development activities, consultation, publication, conference, or training in connection with the growth and production in a foreign country of an agricultural commodity for export which would compete with a similar commodity grown or produced in the United States". As a result, US support for research and development for crops competing with those grown in the US was stopped. No wonder, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, CGIAR and numerous other developing country agricultural programmes continue to remain starved for financial support. With national research programmes closing down due to paucity of funds, the field is now open for the biotech industry to take over.

Consuming the world
Never in history has any government stepped in to force the world to accept, literally down its throat, what it produces. Never before has the world been forced to accept technologies (howsoever risky these might be), including nuclear power, in the name of sustainable development for the poor and hungry. Never before has any country tried to force-feed a hungry continent by creating the false scenario of a famine yet to materialise. Never before has science and technology been sacrificed in such a shameful manner for the sake of commercial growth and profits. The tragedy is that 'good' science has been given a quiet burial. Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry's party has just begun.

The reality of hunger and malnutrition is too harsh to be understood in simple terms. Hunger cannot be removed by producing transgenic crops with genes for beta-carotene. Hunger cannot be addressed by providing mobile phones to rural communities. Nor can it be eradicated by providing the poor and hungry with an 'informed choice' of novel foods. Somehow, the international community misses the ground realities, the woods for the trees, in an effort to bolster the commercial interests of the biotechnology industries. In its over-enthusiasm to promote an expensive technology at the cost of the poor, what has been overlooked is that biotechnology has the potential to further expand the great divide between the haves and have-nots.

While the political leadership procrastinates on the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of the world's hungry by 2015, the scientific community has found an easy escape route. At almost all the genetic engineering laboratories, whether in the North or in the South, the focus of research is on transgenic crops that add to profits, and edible vaccines and bio-fortification to address the problems of malnutrition or 'hidden hunger' by incorporating genes for vitamin A, iron and other micronutrients. What is forgotten is that unless hunger is removed, 'hidden hunger' cannot be eradicated. In other words, if the global scientific and development community were to aim at eradicating hunger in the first place, there would be little 'hidden hunger'.

Much of the existing hunger in the world is because of lopsided international trade and economic policies that keep farmers in rich countries plump with massive subsidies, the impact of which creates more hunger, malnutrition and destitution in the majority world. Much of the world's hunger and the crisis on the farm front is because of these massive subsidies that continue to be paid in the richest trading block – the 30-country Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Let us not forget that subsidies are paid not only to keep the miniscule population of farmers on either side of the Atlantic happy, but also to keep the elected governments in saddle. The US Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, for instance, signed into law in May 2002, brings in an additional USD 180 billion in support for US farmers over the next 10 years. This is a small price (and that too from the state exchequer) to be paid for the sparsely populated but agriculturally frontline mid-west region of the US. George W Bush desperately needed a Republican majority in the US Senate, which the 2002 elections delivered with the help of promised farm aid.

As a result of the subsidy hike in America, millions of small and marginal farmers in the developing world will be driven out of agriculture to move to urban slums in search of a menial living. Highly subsidised agriculture in America, and for that matter in all of the OECD, is the root cause of growing hunger, destitution and poverty in the majority world. GM foods, produced by the biotechnology corporations, will further exacerbate the food crisis – eliminating in the process not hunger but the hungry.

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Himal Southasian