So last Tuesday, I attended the the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII) Symposium as a spectator for the chance to get some insight into the plight of the government and scientific community actors trying to put the advances in biotechnology to work for countries in the Global South.
I came away with two significant additions to my perspective on the topic and one more question to ponder.
1. Organizing without Education is Exploitation: Even though the participating governments are rapidly developing the capacity to manage transgenic crops and create new strains of disease or pest resistant crops themselves, the local program participants are consistently steamrolled by the well organized and well funded voice of the international anti-GMO movement (Greenpeace, etc.). It seems that in the fight for grassroots “legitimacy” or the competition to best represent the local actors by helping them promote their own agenda, the large multinational actors are always confident that they know best. The biggest asymmetry here seems to be between the funding allotted for propaganda/public awareness between the ABSPII program and the anti-GMO movement actors. The irony here is that the ABSPII funding goes heavily to the science and dissemination of their biotech while the protesters don’t seem to think a scientific argument is necessary to support their cause. Here we see the reversal of roles as the environmentalist discredits scientific evidence as a motivator for behavior change. The real science behind this fear of patented genes and crop varieties is the math behind the profits that the Monsantos and Syngentas of the world have been reaping while holding small producers in wealthier nations hostage with aggressive prosecution of cross-pollination or patented seed variety possession.
It seems like the ABSPII group went out of its way to put the rights and technologies in the hands of the local agricultural extension and university systems but forgot to send the memo about their egalitarian means to the anti-GMO activism community and thus were blindsided by a well-orchestrated outcry. This outcry came from a well funded and professionalized activism group that started with an information campaign to inform the local population of the evils of GMO crops rather than paint a balanced picture of the science behind them or, even more idyllic, open a dialogue with the stakeholders. This type of intervention in people’s lives with little regard for their opinions or concerns about events in their own lives smacks of the paternalistic approach that almost every development intervention since the Marshall Plan tells us is oppressive and a detriment to the impacted communities.
2. Organized, Polarized and…Where’s the Science?: The debate over bringing transgenic or GMO crops to the fields of the world is incredibly complex and can encompass almost every aspect human life and how we, as a global culture, choose to interact with or exploit the biosphere that we rely up on for our survival. That being said, hard scientific evidence demonstrating contamination or destruction resulting from GMO crops isn’t being cited in this debate. We aren’t talking about the cascades of toxic genetic pollution erupting through the crops because they don’t exist. The anti-GMO argument seems to stem from a near-religious sense of right and wrong coupled with fear of market manipulation and exploitation by large multinationals (Syngenta, Monsant, etc.).
In that case, an open source genetic event research and patent regulatory environment is what the anti-GMO crowd should be pushing for. Why not push for a system to empower the local actors with the technical capacity and facilities to decide on their own if or how to take advantage of these genetic events for their own benefit.
The catch is that by acting through public university channels and local government extension agencies, ABSPII has been doing just that. The ABSPII group negotiated the open source use of so-called “orphan” crops that the multinationals researched, but decided not to release or make public for fear that the liability would outweigh the potential profit.
3. The Question: If we remove the threat of shadowy and litigious multinationals lurking about to harvest, patent and claim monopoly over the genetic diversity that makes up life itself, what are the actual drawbacks of using biotech solutions to increase crop yields?
Put another way, if your community was being ravaged by a disease (in this case poverty) that threatened your friends, your family, even your society, would you be open to an experimental drug treatment that might hold the cure? Would you call for drug trials or dismiss it outright as the risky unknown?
But more importantly, wouldn’t you want to decide for yourself?
For more on one of the ongoing field trials, read Here about the court case over Bt Eggplant in the Philippines