Seedy politics

“We would rather starve than get something toxic.”
Patrick Mwanawasa, the President of Zambia

Unfortunately, corpses don’t talk, so we’ll never really know if the famine victims of Mwanawasa’s policy actually agreed with him.

But a number of Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development certainly do. They believe that President Mwanawasa and other African leaders who have rejected similar aid offers are taking a bold and courageous stand against dangerous modern technologies.

Never mind the fact that millions of Americans safely eat those same products every day.
And shut your mind to the fact that President Mwanawasa will not suffer the consequences of his policies. While his people starve he will continue to sustain himself in comfort.

Here in Johannesburg, first world anti-GMO NGOs have outspent and out-shouted dissenting voices to demonstrate the alleged harm that genetically modified seeds can cause and present them as another example of first world imperialism aimed at hurting the world’s poorest people. This has led to an absurd situation where starvation is posited as the only alternative to genetically modified foods. Yet their argument that “traditional farming” should be preserved at all costs is not only scientifically false, it also damages the very same farmers they claim to be helping.

Anti-GMO NGOS base much of their argument on nightmare scenarios of genetic pollution. They claim that modified plants create widespread genetic contamination the minute that such seeds are planted, even in a test plot, because their pollen could drift into the fields of non-modified crops. Scientists say that one way to address the possibility of genetic transfer is the much-disdained “terminator” technology, which renders a plant’s pollen incapable of spreading genes, and thus would prevent transmission of genes to other plant species. However, environmental activists put an end to that technology before it could even enter the market – illustrating that their real concerns lie elsewhere.

Another complaint is that the use of modern technology means that planted acreage drops, prices drop, and “control of seeds” is gone – thereby putting organic farmers out of business. Yet those organic farmers, a highly organised group mostly based in Europe, the US and Canada, fear any kind of competition. They are worried that produce grown with the aid of new technology or by low-cost farmers from poor countries would be preferred by consumers.

Because of this fear, organic farmers, and their environmentalist counterparts, have adopted the argument that modern agriculture is immoral, because it will harm the traditional methods and traditional knowledge that farmers have used for thousands of year.

Vandana Shiva, a well known Indian environmentalist attending the Summit, suggests that ‘traditional’ farming methods are superior. Upon accepting an award for “sustaining poverty” consisting of mounted dung pats, presented by Barun Mitra of the New Delhi-based Liberty Institute, Shiva said that she “worships cow dung”.

According to this view, cow manure and urine, oxen, manual ploughs and weeding by hand are less environmentally harmful and more aesthetically fulfilling than tractors, pesticides and fertilisers. Ironically, such traditional organic farming is still practised in India, not by choice but by necessity, where such back-breaking, low-intensity agriculture is the way that 700 million rural people eke out a living.

Some of these farmers planted Bt-cotton seeds in Gujarat, albeit without the sanction of the Indian government. The farmers drastically improved their cotton yields, despite the bollworm infestations last year. Such productivity is good for the environment – by allowing more intensive production, more and more acres are spared from the plough.

The myth persists, however, that tradition supersedes modernity. TJ Bhutelezi, a farmer and leader of the Ubongwa Farmer’s Union in KwaZulu Natal, has started to use modern seeds. Bhutelezi argues that there is no need to preserve traditions simply because they are what farmers have used for thousands of years. He says that traditional seeds do not work; farmers like him adopt new technologies because they are superior to old ones. “Traditional seeds,” he says, “should be relegated to museums.”

Farmers in the developing world have decided that technology really is the way forward for agriculture. Yet their ability to determine their own fate is being hijacked by anti-biotech activists with their own agendas and by despicable political leaders using the issue to build legitimacy on a false premise – that by rejecting first world technology they avoid first world “imperialism.” And sadly, the latter two groups will probably preserve the status quo – a situation where activists will always protest, politicians will rule incompetently, farmers will farm unproductively, and worst of all, people will starve unnecessarily.

Author: Kendra Okonski is a Research Fellow at the International Policy Network in London. This article may be reprinted without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The Patrons, council and members of the Foundation do not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the article.

FMF Article of the Week\3 September 2002

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