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What hungry people need is simply food

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Monday, Oct. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The battle over genetically modified food continues unabated around the world. In Canada and the U.S. at this moment, it is focused mainly on Roundup Ready wheat, Monsanto being first out of the blocks with a GM wheat. In these countries, it is farmers, not environmentalists who are in the forefront. In Brazil and Australia, the fight is largely over the acceptance of GM canola. Again, Monsanto is the leading proponent.

The GM industry believes that time is on its side, that the dominos will fall one by one and GM food products will eventually come to be accepted worldwide. After all, everyone needs food, and sooner or later, the stomach will rule. But the GM industry has made a number of mistakes in its bid to win over the world. The first was when it introduced bovine growth hormone, rBGH. This genetically modified hormone was designed to increase milk production in dairy cows. While it was accepted in the U.S., Canada and the European Community banned its use, saying that it diminished the health of cows and was not proven safe for humans.

In introducing rBGH, Monsanto erred twice. It introduced a GM product into a food viewed by most consumers to be, and marketed for, its purity and wholesomeness. Not a great first choice. Second, Monsanto sold it on that basis that farmers could, by using it, produce more milk. The problem is, no one in Canada, the U.S. or Europe had noticed a shortage of milk, wholesome or otherwise. In fact, between 1980 and 2000, the U.S. government spent $18 billion to sop up huge surpluses of milk to keep prices up.

GM wheat falls into a similar category. Wheat prices are chronically low, worldwide. When they begin to rise a bit, some "minor exporter", like the Ukraine or Kazakhstan, finds a million or two tonnes lying around and prices crash. The plain fact is, you won't see a huge outcry for Roundup Ready wheat to save the world from famine and pestilence. Wheat there is, but hunger persists.

The GM industry does, however, recognize it has a public relations problem with its products. For some years it has proclaimed that soon there will be GM crops that will help the world to tackle its number one problem - hunger. The first of these products was Golden Rice, a rice variety modified to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A. Golden Rice will, it is claimed, reduce Vitamin A deficiency and tackle the problem of blindness induced in parts of the developing world by insufficient Vitamin A intake. Extravagant claims are being made: "Golden rice with beta-carotene and enhanced iron may have a significant impact in reducing malnutrition and premature death."

Indian writer and food policy analyst Devinder Sharma has a simpler take on the problem of hunger. And he might just know: he comes from a country that, together with its neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh, is home to half the world's hungry people. The problem, he claims, is not one of a single nutrient lacking. Rather, it is an overwhelming lack of food in the diet of hungry people! Nor is that lack caused by the inability of the world to produce or transport food, as is so often claimed. Rather, it is caused by a lack of desire by governments and world agencies to feed people. "What is being very conveniently overlooked is the fact that what the world's 840 million hungry need is just food, which is abundantly available." Devinder uses a phrase that should shame North Americans and Europeans. He says that if the 320 million hungry in his country only had access to "two square meals" a day, there would be no need for novel foods like Golden Rice.

He points out that India had, in 2001, over 60 million tonnes of foodgrains stored in reserve, much of it open to the weather and subject to spoilage. India, despite any rhetoric to the contrary, seems to have no more interest in feeding the hungry than other, richer countries.

Will the promise of GM crops saving the hungry of the world be the turning point for this technology? Likely not. Oddly enough, you can't solve the problem of hunger by producing more food. There is already enough food in the world. And if farmers were paid decently for producing it, there would be even more. What is lacking is the will by governments to feed the hungry, and the concern by enough of their citizens to force them to do so.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net