On 9-11

"The Third World "is being made to dance to the
tune of Genetically Modified food.
" Devinder Sharma,
The Ecologist, Vl 32 No2, March 2002

The UN has donned a new robe. After its failure to retain its unique and trusted position as the world's only peacekeeper, it has now decided to play Pied Piper - leading the flock of discredited biotechnology giants and agribusiness companies to the hitherto inaccessible and vast uncharted terrain that the majority world provides.

Like the Pied Piper, it too plays an enchanting tune on the flute - of eradicating hunger. After all, there are an estimated 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night and the mere fact that the rich and the industrialised world is trying to aim at reducing global hunger and that too under the UN flag, is sure to draw an applause. Topped with 'cheese' - direct foreign investment - the rats in the developing countries eagerly await the 'novel foods'.

With genetically modified foods already so stigmatised in the West, the UN has taken on the monumental task of reversing the biotechnology industry's flagging hope and fortunes. By paving the way and clearing the hurdles for the industry's takeover of sustainable farming systems, the UN desperately aims at opening up the huge Third World market. And what happens to the world's poor and hungry is certainly not its concern. It never was.

The undue emphasis on GM crops in the controversial Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), was not an aberration. It was part of a covert design by the UN to push GM crops onto unsuspecting developing economies. No sooner has the controversy and debate over the faulty prescription showed signs of settling down, it is now the turn of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to let loose the 'new momentum' - support, develop, rehabilitate, upgrade and sustain national food safety and quality systems to enable biotechnology industry to make a smooth entry.

Financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), UNEP has launched a $38.4 million project, essentially to enable developing countries to import GM food. It aims at training officials and business people in around 100 countries so as to sharpen their scientific and legal skills for evaluating the health and environmental issues pertaining to global trade in GM foods. Signed by 107 governments in January 2000, the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol has been ratified by only 10 countries and for it to take effect another 40 countries are required to do so. Why then is UNEP in such a great hurry to start implementing the guidelines?

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP Executive Director provides the answer: 'Industry is convinced that genetically engineered crops are the key to boosting yields in a more environmentally friendly way. But others are concerned that the new technology may actually pose environmental as well as health risks'. Since when has industry started setting the agenda for UN agencies? Isn't it strange that UNEP, which should be more concerned about the resulting environmental pollution from the spread of genetically manipulated plants, instead is more than keen to promote crops and food products about which serious doubts exists?

UNDP and UNEP are not the only two UN agencies involved. The World Food programme (WFP) too for quite some time has been distributing GM food in its humanitarian aid assistance programmes. In Africa, the mid-day meal programme for school children that the WFP had launched on behalf of the US, was actually meant to reduce the huge stockpile of GM soybean that Europe had refused to buy from the US. While the WFP continues to ignore the health risks associated with GM food, for obvious reasons, let us look at the role the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) is busy with.

At a time when the international community has postponed to 2015 the Herculean task of feeding the world, FAO director-general, Dr Jacques Diouf says: 'Freeing the planet from hunger is a formidable challenge... and I am convinced that this objective is within our reach.' Acknowledging that Africa alone has the highest concentration of undernourished people in the world, accounting for 28 per cent of the continent's population, he finds the key factors contributing to the high hunger percentage include political instability, inappropriate economic policies, weak regional co-operation and limited economic integration. Yet the FAO is banking upon GM to bail out Africa!

The FAO thinks that GMOs are a fact of modern agriculture, and are here to stay. It recognises the potential and complications of these technologies, and calls for assessment of GMOs in terms of their impact on food security, poverty, biosafety, and the sustainability of agriculture. Will GMOs increase the amount of food in the world, and make more food accessible to the hungry?

On the contrary, the FAO hasn't initiated any serious debate on the issue. it refuses to look for answers to the questions it poses. It refuses to provide a categorical answer to the question whether GM crops will increase the amount of food and help in feeding the world. It even refuses to launch a global study to determine whether GM crops are harmful for the environment and human health. The reason is simple. It does not want to be drawn into any controversy that may offend the US food industry, and the US Department of Agriculture's open stand on promoting its biotechnology industry.

Meanwhile, the Pied Piper continues to merrily sing and dance to the biotechnology industry's tune. The poor and hungry should find solace in commercial music even if they can't manage two square meals a day!

Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst, email dsharma@ndf.vsnl.net.in.


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