GM aid

Impasse over biotechnology offers no solution to the world's hungry

Published: Monday 30 September 2002

the polarised and often bitter global debate over genetically modified (gm) food, sparked off by last month's refusal by some nations in southern Africa to accept international donations of gm maize, even cast its shadow on the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg. Though the countries, notably Zimbabwe, eventually accepted the food aid, this incident reflects the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the pro and anti-gm lobbies. Caught in between are the world's hungry poor. The choice before them is doles of rotten food or gm food.

Admittedly, solving the problems of the world's hungry is difficult yet it does not justify forcing gm food on them. Ultimately, the consumers have to decide, whether or not they want to eat gm food. But scientifically sound information must be made available for them to take an informed decision. We cannot expect the biotech companies, engaged in a profit maximisation exercise, to carry out intensive research on health impact of their products. The onus is upon the governments to perform this social obligation of a thorough and scientific research so that the consumer knows just what is in store. The information vacuum has been filled up by a ferocious debate over biotechnology, that is mostly laced with vested interests. A responsible marketing regime also makes it imperative that this food be appropriately labelled to enable consumers and aid beneficiaries to make a choice. Meanwhile, the us cannot continue to oppose tougher labelling requirements, as advocated by Europe.

Increasingly, gm crops are being created not just by biotech giants but also researchers closer at home who know best what local consumers need. The key is not to dictate food policy from the West but to help the developing world build its own biotechnology infrastructure so that it can produce as per its needs. The biosafety protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity, for instance, acknowledges the need for poor nations to develop the capacity to assess new agricultural technologies for themselves, if they are to use them effectively.

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