Opinion: Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II: Symposium

Greenpeace Image taken from Al Jazeera

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

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About ERay

Capoeirista, Gardener, and Development Practitioner but a cowboy way down deep.
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4 Responses to Opinion: Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II: Symposium

  1. NomSid says:

    Great writeup! right on.
    The involvement and control by the multinational is big concern for me.

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  2. ERay, I think you were in the Food Security class at Brandeis with me – We definitely read case studies about the detrimental effects of genetically modified corn on farmers, and how GMO use is scientifically, and directly linked to the loss of biodiversity – Look into native corn species loss in Oaxaca Mexico.

    If GMOs can assist in alleviating poverty, it would be, at best, a short term fix. You have told me in recent times that global hunger is not an issue of not enough food, but of food distribution and food waste (in countries such as our own). So, we don’t need GMOs to grow more or better for us. In fact I’ve read a number of studies that show that organic (and thus non-GMO) farms actually are able to produce stronger and more nutritious crops, when utilizing bio-dynamic ag.

    The science is simple anyways: When you genetically modify an organism, and establish it outside a lab, there is no way to contain your invention, and without having a perfect understanding of the global ecological effect of that gene modification will have on the entire biosphere, you are essentially unleashing a chain of events that could not feasibly be subdued, should the effects be at all negative. Thats a massive risk.

    I believe this is why, for many anti-GMO activists, the question of genetic modification takes on an almost religious note of right and wrong. In a religious sense, companies and scientists who create GMOs are “playing God.” And, I don’t think anyone can reasonably say that we have a firm enough grip on genetics, that there is no danger of unintended, profoundly negative effects. Indeed, there have been studies linking the loss of species directly to GMO corn use. (I believe it was a moth species – essentially because it disrupts the natural ecological process of life cycles of plants, insects, bacteria, and microorganisms, which exponentially effect the system.)

    I think this post is well written, and I’m always for dialogue. But, having said that, lets have a whole LOT of dialogue before we actually unleash ANY GMOs.

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    • ERay says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. There seems to be so much room for debate from every angle of this issue that it makes me think we are pushing the boundaries of our decision-making capabilities as a society, which is a good thing.

      With those capabilities in mind, I would ask you what, in your opinion, would be the bare minimum of tests or prerequisites before taking a genetically modified organism from the lab to the field?

      Another interesting upshot from my reading on the broader implications of human agriculture through tillage (a practice arguably more unnatural than genetic modification) is that tillage is ALWAYS extractive with relation to the soil’s nutrient content. So far, both Fukuoka (my book review) and Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms, are adamant on this point and the need for modern agriculture to take that fact into account in restructuring itself. This speaks to the need for better farming as a solution rather than relying solely upon the miracle of GMOs. I don’t, however, think that there is a fork in the road where we must choose either GMOs OR the enlightened, no-till farming future.

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      • When I worked on the farm in Maine after Brandeis, we of course were taught the evils of tilling… (though personally, I would not put it near the same level as GMO use)… you can stop tilling… and you can’t stop GMOs.

        And, on that point – that you CAN’T stop GMOs once they are unleashed into the natural environment – I think I’d respond to your question about the bare minimum with: I think my ‘bare minimum’ would not be a minimum at all. I would choose, in my opinion, that we put GMOs through the maximum amount of tests that we have at our disposal as a human society. Unless we are sure beyond a reasonable doubt, via our tests and intellects that they would in NO way negatively effect future biotic processes, then I think it would be irresponsible to use them.

        At this stage in our technological development – and more importantly, our moral and intellectual development – I simply cannot see how can comfortably play with genetics; modifying such small base-level ecological building blocks….

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