Bush’s claim must be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism. Inquiring minds might want to check out Peter Pringle’s new book Food, Inc. for a more nuanced assessment of the E.U. ban, as well as the potential for biotech foods in Africa and the rest of the developing world.
Pringle is a veteran British journalist whose previous book was on Ireland’s 1972 Bloody Sunday. He took a journalist’s approach to the issue, attempting to peel away the hype and hysteria surrounding the advent of GM food. Looking around the world at the race to acquire and develop genetically engineered plants, Pringle raises the possibility that GM foods might help the developing world by creating heartier breeds of staples for tough farming climates in Africa and elsewhere. But even as he strives to be evenhanded, he can find very little evidence that the technology will ever deliver what promoters like Bush promise.
Much of Pringle’s assessment stems from his study of the Green Revolution, the last major advance in farming productivity, which was launched after World War II. The combination of fertilizers and new plant varieties that defined the revolution increased the total amount of food available per person around the world by 11 percent, while hunger declined 16 percent during the 1970s and 1980s. But Pringle notes that many of the technologies developed 50 years ago are still unavailable to farmers in the Third World, mostly because they are simply too expensive. In order to grow the hybrid seeds developed by groups like the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s, farmers also needed to buy mountains of expensive and dangerous pesticides and fertilizers, particularly to sustain the monocultures advocated by the revolution’s promoters.
The same is true with the GM foods. Pringle writes, “The chemical company that sold powerful, all-embracing new weed killers now also sold seeds that grew into plants especially designed to resist those herbicides. To compete, the farmer had to buy both the seeds and the weed killer. Once again, only those who could afford the new package survived.”
Even the much-hyped golden rice, which is supposed to prevent blindness in the Third World with an extra boost of beta-carotene, almost didn’t make it there. The scientists who invented golden rice wanted to give their invention to Africans for free, but in their attempts to do so, they discovered that their research infringed on 70 patents belonging to 36 different corporations, all of whom would have to sign off on any deal. So when Bush talks about Europeans allowing Africa to starve, it’s not because he thinks they won’t help Africans grow GM food. Few biotech firms, in fact, are interested in creating higher crop yields of African staple foods. Pringle points out that not a single seed company has produced improved varieties of African staples like rice, cassava, or yams. And why would they, when it’s so clear that the poor African farmer can’t afford to buy them? When Bush accused the European Union of denying food to Africa, he meant that it was obstructing consumption of the big bags of American corn sent as emergency relief in the famine.
Last year, in the face of surges of drought and massive flooding, southern Africa suffered a serious famine that left 15 million people facing starvation. Yet Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zambia refused donations of American food that contained GM seeds. Pringle quotes Zambia’s president Levy Mwanawasa saying, “Simply because my people are hungry is not a justification to give them poison.” Mwanawasa wasn’t crazy; he knew that plenty of non-GM corn was available for relief supplies, so he wasn’t turning away food for his starving masses. But he had a reasonable concern that if such GM seeds were used not just to feed people but by local farmers to raise new crops, the interbreeding could have devastating effects on the viability of native plants for which the country was entirely unprepared to cope.
The United States has blamed the European Union for spreading fear of the new food with its outright ban, while the European Union accused the United States of trying to dump corn it couldn’t sell elsewhere on starving Africans and patting itself on the back for its charity. In May, the United States filed suit with the World Trade Organization to force the Europeans to repeal their ban because of the serious damage it has done to American agribusiness. (Americans have mostly accepted GM foods on the foolhardy belief that the government would protect them from dangerous products–the same mentality that has led to hundreds of deaths from dietary supplements. Also, as consumers of Tang and Wonderbread, we tend to embrace most food technology as “progress.”)
The United States may be able to force Europe to take our exported food, but it can’t force consumers to eat the food. Overcoming the European suspicion about “frankenfoods” will be a tough road, for reasons Pringle makes very clear. He takes a close look at the real dangers presented by the GM foods–everything from the creation of “superweeds” to the eradication of native plant genes to the risks of allergies and concludes that risks are very real, if overhyped. There is real risk of the creation of superweeds because of increased use of herbicides on GM plants, as well as the possibility of unstable parts of foreign genes moving around inside plant genomes and inadvertently turning on other genes that would make a food poisonous–a process that does not occur in natural cross-pollination and plant breeding. Yet extensive and meaningful information about those risks simply doesn’t exist because the companies that hold a monopoly on GM foods have never done the research, and the government didn’t require them to do so before selling their products to unsuspecting consumers.
For all the serious risks of GM foods, Pringle states simply that there are very few benefits to balance them out, at least not for overfed Western consumers. GM foods don’t taste better, nor are they generally more nutritious. They don’t, in fact, reduce pesticide use by much, and any reductions are generally offset by an increase in herbicide use. As Pringle notes, “Since the beginning, while the industry claimed that their products would save the world from malnutrition, seed companies created only crops that made money for themselves and the wealthier farmers who could afford the premiums. Even Western consumers were yet to receive a direct benefit from these novel foods.” As a result, Bush may discover that is much harder to convince Europeans to eat GM corn than it is to persuade Americans that two RVs in the Iraqi desert constitute a mortal threat to American security.