ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

22 January 2002


By Devinder Sharma

The United Nations 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 the vast uncharted terrain and turf 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 mice in the developing countries eagerly await the "novel foods".

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

The undue emphasis on genetically modified crops in the controversial Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was not an aberration. It was part of a covert design by the UN to push in GM crops onto unsuspecting developing economies. No sooner has the controversy and debate over the faulty prescription being doled out showed signs of settling down, it is now the turn of the United Nations 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 US $ 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 the global trade in GM foods. Signed by 107 governments in January 2000, the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol has so far been ratified by only ten countries and for it to take effect another forty countries are required to do so. Why then is the 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 the industry started setting the agenda for the UN agencies? Isn’t it strange that the 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?

To begin with, UNEP has picked up the region with least resistance. Mr Charles Gbedemah, the project’s task manager for the Africa region was quoted as saying: "It is no coincidence that the first activity under this major biosafety, capacity building, initiative is taking place in Nairobi for the benefit of the African continent. Indeed Africa is one of the five priorities of UNEP operations." The pilot biosafety capacity building project for Africa, launched for 18 countries in first phase, will involve US $ 2.5 million.

UNDP and UNEP are not the only two UN agencies involved in promoting the commercial interests of the American food industry. UNCTAD has been busy for quite sometime in reconciliation of the trade and GM food concerns. It has, in fact, been involved in directly influencing the trade officials in the developing countries. 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 WFP had launched on behalf of the United States, was actually meant to reduce the huge stockpile of GM soybean that Europe had refused to buy from America. While the WFP continues to ignore the health risks associated with GM food and 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 very conveniently postponed the Herculean task of feeding the world to the year 2015, 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 percentage of hunger include political instability, inappropriate economic policies and strategies, weak regional co-operation and limited economic integration. And yet, the FAO is banking upon genetic engineering to bail out Africa !

FAO thinks that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a fact of modern agriculture, and are here to stay. It recognizes the great potential and the complications of these new technologies. It stresses on the need to move carefully, with a full understanding of all the factors involved. In particular, it calls for assessment of GMOs is 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, FAO hasn’t initiated any serious debate on the issue. It refuses to look for answers to the questions it often 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 know whether genetically modified 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 American food industry. It does not want to offend 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.

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