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The UNDP Exploits the Poor and Hungry to Push Genetic Engineering

by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP)

(July 26, 2001 CropChoice opinion) -- The Human Development Report 2001, "Making Technologies Work For Human Development," commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), reads like a PR dossier full of pro-corporate technology propaganda, gift wrapped in the guise of helping the developing world 'harness the tremendous potential' of information technology and biotechnology.

The Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN AP) objects to the exploitation by the UNDP of the image of the poor and hungry as a public relations strategy to push biotechnology and the use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.

"Genetic engineering is unsafe, environmentally unfriendly, of no benefit socio-economically to small-marginalised farmers and it will not feed the world", asserts Sarojeni V. Rengam, PAN AP Executive Director.

People in developing countries don't want genetic engineering

The UNDP report ignores the concern and opposition to genetic engineering by farmers, agricultural workers, consumers groups, and concerned fisherfolk, scientists, and indigenous people's in both developing and developed counties.

Kilusang Magbubukid Ng Pilipinas (KMP), the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, with a membership of 800,000 landless peasants, small farmers, agricultural workers, fisherfolk, rural youth and peasant women, have been actively protesting the development of GE rice by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and are against the field-testing of other GE crops in the country.

Some 800 farmers and other anti-GE advocates from all over Indonesia rallied on the International Day of Farmer's Struggles Against GMOs on April 17, 2001, in front of Monsanto and the Ministry of Agriculture in Jakarta. The farmers called for the destruction of Indonesia's first GMO field trial of Monsanto's Bt cotton and other GE products in the country, no further releases of Bt cotton seeds by the government, and the eviction of Monsanto from the country.

Thousands of farmers and other anti-GE advocates participated in the Long March for Biodiversity, principally against GE rice, which travelled across Thailand for 11 days during September 2000. Farmers in the Thung Kula Ronghai area, well known for the cultivation of jasmine rice, said they were very worried that the introduction of GE crops into the country would have a serious impact on the poor rural majority.

In 1998 Monsanto and the State Government of Karnataka, India, carried out experiments in farmer's fields of GE crops without the knowledge of the majority of farmers. On November 28 thousands of farmers occupied three fields and burnt the illegal crops. This action marked the beginning of a campaign of civil disobedience called Operation 'Cremate Monsanto' in Karnataka and other Indian States.

How can the UNDP not listen to the voices of farmers, agricultural workers and fisherfolks in the developing world?

The UNDP report also conveniently ignores actions taken against genetic engineering by some developing world governments. This includes governments in Asia that have developed or are developing regulations to stop the importation of GE seeds and foods across their borders. Others have taken positions on labelling, traceability and producer liability.

The recent ban against the importation of GE food by the Sri Lankan government has been described as one of the toughest restrictions against GE food in the world.

What happened to the right to safe food?

The UNDP report asserts that undernourished poor people can not afford to indulge in the unrealistic notion of health concerns - people need food no matter what the cost!

Everyone has a right to safe food whether they are from developing or developed countries. The UNDP has no right to push an unproven and unsafe technology on the developing world.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai, one of the world's foremost expert's on nutritional studies with 12 scientific books and close to 300 primary peer-reviewed scientific papers published, says there has been little scientific study into the health risks associated with GE foods. He argues the safety testing of GE foods is inadequate to assess potential harm, that GE foods can carry unpredictable toxins and that they may increase the risk of allergenic reactions.

A worst case scenario of what can possibly go wrong with GE food has already been indicated in the US and Europe in 1999 when a batch of the amino-acid food supplement L-typtophan manufactured using GE microbes entered the market. It killed 37 people and permanently crippled some 1,500 others with a new nervous system disorder-eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS).

Moreover, the UNDP report perpetuates the myth that technological fixes such as genetic engineering will alleviate poverty and feed the world. Unfortunately, the solution to world hunger is not so simple.

In many developing countries there is in fact an over supply of food, which is not readily accessible to the poor - they simply can't afford it. In a country like India, that fully embraced the 'miracle' of Green Revolution farming, some 320 million people go hungry when 60 million tonnes of grain lie idle in grain stockpiles.

The problem of poverty and hunger is not technological in nature, but is rooted in basic socio-economic and political realities, including inadequate food distribution, the lack of resources to grow food, the lack of farmers rights and land rights, and political will.

Genetically Engineered crops offer no benefits to farmers

Contradictory to the UNDP report that farmers may need to use less chemical inputs, the reality is that the use of herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops will create more dependence on expensive chemicals and will increase the chemical poisoning of our bodies, food and the environment.

In 1996, nearly half of about two million acres of Bt cotton planted in the United States became heavily infested. Farmers were advised to salvage the crop with emergency spraying. A legal firm representing 17 of the farmers claimed Monsanto misrepresented the product.

Biotechnology expert Dr. Charles Benbrook (of the US Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Centre), in a recent report on Roundup Ready soybeans, not only reaffirms previous studies that weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, but that farmers are using considerably more herbicide than farmers cultivating non-GE varieties. Benbrook's study also found that Roundup Ready soybeans produce less of a yield (5-10 per cent) than conventional soybeans.

In the article "Transgenic Insecticidal Corn: Beyond Insecticidal Toxicity to Ecological Complexity," published in the May 2001 edition of the journal BioScience, it is reported that several studies show that the use of Bt corn in the United States has not significantly reduced insecticide use or increased yields.

In India a study by the New Delhi based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) estimates that farmers' expenses would increase by as much as nine times if they switched from traditional seeds to GE cotton seeds. Bt cotton is currently under field trial in India. An application by Mahyco/ Monsanto for the commercialisation of it's Bt cotton was recently rejected by the Indian government based on insufficient data as to the agronomic advantage of the commercialisation of the Bt cotton and insufficient environmental safety and socio-economic studies.

In Indonesia Monagro/ Monsanto's Bt cotton field trials failed to out-perform the indigenous variety in all but one of nine districts in South Sulawesi. The Bt cotton also succumbed to drought and pest infestations. Indonesian farmers have protested against the Bt cotton and the NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety representing 72 NGOs has taken legal action against a government decree allowing the limited release of the Bt cotton seed in South Sulawesi.

While herbicide tolerant and insect resistant crops exacerbate the continuation of the pesticide-treadmill, the genetic engineering industry is also working on the development of GE seeds that render crops sterile ('terminator technology') and/ or control their growth and development via chemicals ('traitor technology'). Sterile, chemically dependent crops trap farmers into an expensive seed and chemical package with no alternatives. Sterile seeds will deny farmers the right to save seeds for replanting - crucial for the food security of communities. Approximately 1.4 billion farmers rely on saved seeds.

Another GE product enthusiastically promoted in the UNDP report, as helping to alleviate malnutrition, is 'golden rice.' The development of this is far off in the future with many doubts as to if it really offers any significant solutions to nutritional problems. Many believe this is simply another PR strategy by a morally bankrupt genetic engineering industry.

The reality is that the genetic engineering industry has funnelled the vast majority of its investment into the development and commercialisation of a limited range of products, which are of little relevance to the needs of the world's poor and hungry. One hundred per cent of the area planted to GE crops in 2000 were dominated by herbicide tolerant (73 percent) and insect resistant crops (22 per cent) or the two traits combined into the one crop (5 per cent).

"Instead of looking to as yet unproven as well as non-existent biotechnology breakthroughs, the UNDP should be looking into the many proven examples of ecological agriculture in developing countries based on pro-people technologies that work for resource poor communities and not against them," maintains Rengam.

It is all too evident that genetic engineering and GE foods and crops serve the short-term capital interests of a multi-billion dollar industry at the expense of our health and the environment. Corporations basically have only a financial motive in developing genetic engineering - to create a new round of capital accumulation. It is deeply disturbing that the UNDP has become a conduit for this motive. The needs and wants of the poor and hungry have been ignored yet again.