By Matt Styslinger
What does the ethical use of GMOs in agriculture look like?
"The only way to reduce hunger is to improve the income of the world’s poorest people and return control of food production to local communities and farmers," says Phil Bereano. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
No one knows. The closest thing to any real evaluation of GMOs versus alternatives was the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). This was a multi-year study funded by the World Bank and a number of UN agencies that concluded that there’s no obvious or particular advantage to GM foods. But I would contend that GE is inherently unethical because it is not a democratic technology—its development, ownership, and decision-making apparatus are all concentrated in the hands of a tiny techno-corporate elite.
Do you think there is a legitimate role for GMOs in providing food security and developing agricultural policy?
I’m skeptical because GMOs haven’t been developed to provide food security. Roundup Ready GE, for example, was developed to extend Monsanto’s monopoly over Roundup weed killer because the patent was expiring. It turned out to be a great money maker for them. Second, food security has to do with the control the consumers, as well as the farmers and producers, have over the production of food. But GMOs remove that control. Food security is not just a quantitative concept. Many of the industry’s proponents use the term food security as if producing more is all that matters.
GMOs don’t produce more—in the long run, anyway. Weeds and insects develop resistance, as Darwinian evolution teaches. Although the first Green Revolution did produce more food, it did not reduce hunger. Hunger is a function of poverty, not a function of the amount of food that’s around. The only way to reduce hunger is to improve the income of the world’s poorest people and return control of food production to local communities and farmers. This is “food sovereignty.” The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter [Editor’s Note: Professor De Schutter is a member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group], recently presented a report to the UN General Assembly highlighting all of this.
The question of whether GE has a legitimate role to play in food security is stimulated by the hype that the industry has been putting out for a decade and a half. But, in fact, most of the unbiased analyses have come to the conclusion that there’s not much of a role for GMOs at all, and their effect on real food security is quite negative. Because there are no adequate risk assessments going on, we have no idea what the long-term consequences of the growing and consuming of these foods are to the environment or human health. Those should be giant question marks, and you can’t be secure in the face of giant question marks.
That is why both the Protocol and the Codex have embodied the “Precautionary Principle”—which used to be so common in U.S. regulatory rules until the rise of conservative power 30 years ago under Reagan—to “look before you leap” or, in other words, when confronted by great uncertainties, do research and evaluation before deciding whether to adopt a new technology. In recent years, the U.S. has experienced huge increases in all sorts of health problems that appear to be linked to food intake—for example, diabetes, obesity, food poisoning, maybe even autism. No one can say whether or not GMOs are responsible, because no assessments have been done with any scientific rigor.
Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.