On October 18, three scientists responsible for breakthrough research in agricultural biotechnology will be presented with the 2013 World Food Prize, the most prestigious award in food security. The scientists are pioneers of genetically modified (GM) food production, with links to GM giants Monsanto and Syngenta. Does this spell the souring of The World Food Prize, an organisation whose mission is to advance the quality, quantity and availability of food that is nutritious and sustainable? Or is there more to Monsanto than a monopoly on mono-strain seeds? This development will undoubtedly further legitimise Monsanto’s exploits in the realm of GM crops, a state of affairs that will no doubt exacerbate the mistrust and hatred of protestors who have been taking to the streets in a wave of international protests against Monsanto’s empire.
In 1992, biotechnology was defined in such a way that even traditional processes like wine- and cheese-making, involving the addition of cultures and bacteria to food, was considered bio-manipulation. While there may be purists out there who see cause for concern in these mainstream practices, the majority of Monsanto sceptics would not blink at the ethics of a humble glass of wine. It is the much narrower, modern definition of biotechnology that the Monsanto-hate is directed toward. Modern biotechnology involves gene manipulation via two mechanisms: selective breeding or breeding improvements; and manipulation of genetic patterns.
Much has been done to demonstrate the immediate advantages of GM food. Indeed, it is the very promise of contributing to the fight against hunger that has earned Monsanto’s scientists the prestigious food award. There is no end to the possibilities for nutrient enrichment, weather resistance, drought tolerance, yield increases and reduction of production costs that genetic manipulation could entail. There is even the advantage of reducing the demand for other evil inputs: fertiliser and pesticides. Is there scope to see GM as a lesser evil, and the ethical ambiguity of genetic manipulation a worthy trade-off for reducing world hunger? Clearly those responsible for the award of the World Food Prize believe so; or at least their pockets do. But first there are many questions clouding a coherent discussion on the matter which must be answered first.
Genetic modification of crops began in 1996. The reception to this practice has been polarised. The European Union has condemned GM food, citing environmental risks and ethics as its reasoning. As a result, China has also refrained from adopting GM crops, relying on entry into the EU trade market for a significant portion of its agricultural revenue. In contrast, the United States and other parts of the American continents have embraced GM technologies. While much praise is directed at the potential for GM crops to combat food insecurity where the risk is greatest, it is contradictory at best to note that the majority of GM crops reside in Canada, the USA and Argentina. Australia has acted cautiously in comparison to the USA, but seems to be slowly following the path of the US. A two-hectare GM wheat trial in central Victoria, scheduled for 2013 to 2015, will be the largest of its kind. A decision looms as to whether Australia’s farmers will endorse or reject GM crops. It will not be possible to take a middle way in GM production, since the nature of GM crops is that they produce higher yields, thereby crowding out traditional farmers who refuse to adopt the technology.
Major uncertainties reside in the long-term ramifications of GM crop use. A report by the World Food Organisation cites several concerning potentialities, including unpredictable demand for water and nutrients, undesired gene transfers and mutations, transfer and creation of allergens and ecological break-down as a result of favouring certain food sources over others. Current GM practices are characterised by a lack of controls for potential environmental snowball effects, and little academic research into the safety of GM. Monsanto has conistently blurred the facts, utilising the data of pseudo-environmental research bodies such as the Climate Corporation – founded to assist farmers to produce more food with fewer resources – to keep allegations of unsustainability at bay.
While there are clear advantages of GM food, the sources of public concern continue to be consciously ignored by Monsanto. This lack of certainty surrounding the existence or nonexistence of long-term environmental risks, which potentially outweigh the acclaimed advantaged of yield-enhancing GM technology, makes it difficult for the public to direct their outrage. Until such a time as Monsanto gives me reason to believe – despite my antipathy of their ruthless crowding out of small-holder farms and monopolisation of seeds – that the social and environmental benefits of genetically modified food outweighed the disadvantages then I would concede that there was no reason to reject GM food production on the grounds of sustainability. Of course, this would not justify its business ethics, but that is a topic warranting its own discussion. Until then, I shall continue to employ the precautionary principle with respect to my diet. Strictly local or organic puh-lease.