Tuesday, July 13

Meles defends genetically modified crops

From IRINnews
"Should we rule out GM crops or biotechnology as a weapon in our arsenal? No. Why should we rule out any technology? GM technology is like every [other] technology," Meles told journalists. "It could be used well, or it could be misused. The issue is how to use it well. I think it can be used well if is used safely and if it does not increase the already big power of huge multinationals at the expense of the small-scale farmer."
This is a welcome statement from the Prime Minister because it is purely pragmatic. Controversy over genetically modified crops has plagued Africa even as millions suffered from famines and chronic food insecurity. The conflict is outlined in the World Press Review. In 2002 Southern Africa was
"in the grip of a devastating famine. A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 14 million people, including 2.3 million children under the age of 5, are at risk of starvation. Without effective action the WHO says at least 300,000 could die from hunger and disease in the next six months. Aid agencies estimate that the region needs roughly 1.1 million tons of grain to address the crisis. Yet when the U.S. offered 540,000 tons of genetically modified grain to countries in the region, many countries rejected the offer."
Why reject aid in such dire straits? A few like Mugabe in Zimbabwe are just plain ornery. He rejects aid in the face of widespread starvation while claiming self sufficiency. He even refuses to allow the level of need to be determined by U.N. agencies. From the BBC
"Some donors are sceptical, believing that the government wants to control food aid and only distribute it to its supporters ahead of elections next year."
The Economist weighs in with this article aptly titled Better dead than GM-fed? Europe's greens are helping to keep Africans hungry
"Africans have two reasons for being wary of GM food aid: one silly, one slightly less so. The silly reason is the suggestion that GM foods are a danger to human health. Americans have been chomping GM maize and soyabeans for seven years, without detectable harm. And compared with the clear and immediate danger posed by malnutrition, the possibility of being poisoned by Frankencorn seems rather remote. The more sensible reason for being wary of GM foods is that there are people who, not being in any danger of starvation, are precious about what they eat. They are called Europeans. And their tastes matter enormously in Africa because countries such as Zambia earn much of their hard currency from agricultural exports to rich countries, so any plausible threat to this trade has to be taken extremely seriously."
In the World Press Review a potentially sinister but potentially profitable reason for pushing GM crops is described
"African agricultural experts also fear that, in order to protect their markets, biotech companies could introduce a “terminator” gene in their seeds, which would prevent small farmers from replanting them after harvest. This would make farmers dependent on big companies that control the price of seeds."
The Monitor of Kampala provides a vivid perspective of this dilemma.
"US seed companies are keen to sell their products to foreign market, but have so far had limited success. Many Europeans fear long-term harm to human health and the environment.

As the war of words between US and Europe continues, the US has been knocking at the door of developing countries seeking support for their case. Where does this leave Uganda?

Mr Richard Kimera, of the Uganda Consumer Protection Association said: "This trade war between the US and Europe over genetically modified foods is not a war for Uganda or Africa."

Mr Kimera described the "food politics", as a battle between economic elephants oblivious of the interests of less developed nations."
Wikepedia has a good brief on these issues.

Absent the threat of “terminator” genes as determined by vigorous Government and International monitors it seems that there is a strong argument for exploiting GM crops when and where appropriate. The benefit will be for Africa's original environmentalists -subsistence and commercial farmers- whose 'green' view of the world is firmly rooted in the reality of survival. That is unlike the EU's greens who like Rousseau find vicarious comfort in the lack of development everywhere but where they live. GM crops will also reduce the use of costly and potentially damaging chemical fertilizers.

There are more interesting debates at the intersection of Third World development and environmentalism. When the West decided to ban the production of the pesticide DDT in the 1960s millions of African and Asian lives may have been lost as a consequence. See Campaign grows for Malaria drug which raises the possibility of an African inspired comeback for DDT. More on that issue in a future post.

Unfortunately, despite PM Meles's pragmatism on the GM crops issue, what is arguably the main element in attaining food security and economic growth is totally overlooked; the very basic principle of property rights. The PM has stated that he has "never heard of any convincing reason as to why we should privatize land”. More on this ideological policy in a future post.

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