Feeding the Hunger Machine

The Nuffield Council has produced the most asinine biotechnology report ever written

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd June 1999.

Monsanto’s advertising agency warned the company not to argue that genetic engineering would feed the world. But the temptation proved too great. “Worrying about starving future generations”, its adverts informed us last year, “won’t feed them. Food biotechnology will.” It’s hard to see how even a body with Monsanto’s self-belief could have imagined that this claim would stand up.

For the corporation had already made its position quite clear. “What you are seeing”, one its executives explained in 1997, as his company purchased scores of seed merchants and biotech firms, “is a consolidation of the entire food chain.” The vertical integration it was engineering would grant it a control over food consumption that would have made Stalin writhe in envy.

Monsanto’s argument was swiftly and comprehensively dismissed. Development agencies pointed out that people starve not because there is an absolute shortage of food (the world currently produces a surplus) but because food and the means to produce it are concentrated in the hands of the rich and powerful. Corporations seeking to consolidate the food chain threatened to make this situation far worse. Monsanto, sadder and perhaps a little wiser, slunk away. But seven days ago it acquired a new and unlikely champion.

The Nuffield Council for Bioethics is a highly respected independent body, whose recommendations frequently influence government policy. Last week, its panel on the ethics of genetic engineering published its long-awaited report. Research into GM crops, the panel acknowledged, has tended to favour producers in Europe and the US. Patenting of the new technologies, it pointed out, presents “potentially serious difficulties for developing countries”. But, the report maintained, if the research effort could only be directed a little more evenly, GM crops would “produce more food, or more employment or income for those who need it most urgently.” “The moral imperative,” it reasoned, “for making GM crops readily and economically available to developing countries who want them is compelling.” This is perhaps the most asinine report on biotechnology ever written. The stain it leaves on the Nuffield Council’s excellent reputation will last for years.

The panel made three fundamental mistakes. The first was to assume that the technology is neutral and could, given the right conditions, be evenly deployed and distributed. In truth, genetic engineering is inseparable from its ownership. No genetically engineered crop reaches the market without a patent. Most of these forbid the farmer from saving seed for future plantings: control of the foodchain remains with the corporation at every stage of production.

The second was its crude, even childish supposition that any technology which produces more will feed the starving. The world is littered with the wreckage of such assumptions. Ethiopia’s modern agro-industrialists were exporting animal feed to Europe throughout its devastating famine. Latin America’s Green Revolution, Christian Aid points out, raised food production by eight per cent per head, but malnutrition increased in the same period by 19 per cent. The Kalahandi region in India suffers repeated famines, but produces major surpluses every year. In every case, starvation happens because the wrong people own the foodchain.

The panel’s third mistake was its inexplicable premise that biotechnology will somehow boost employment. Monsanto’s leading biotech products – herbicide resistant crops – are sold with the promise that they reduce the need for labour: farmers give their money not to local labourers but to one of the biggest corporations on earth.

So why did such a distinguished panel make such evident mistakes? You don’t have to look very far for an answer. While people of every kind sat on the committee, all its biotechnology experts were drawn from the same ideological pool. It is not hard to see how Prue Leith, for example, well meaning as she doubtless was, would have felt obliged to defer to the superior wisdom of the former Chairman of the Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes, or the Unilever Research Professor of biological sciences.

So how do we feed the world? When I suggest that the answer lies in a combination of land reform and organic or semi-organic farming, you’ll think I’ve gone soft in the head. But Jules Pretty of Essex University has documented a quiet revolution sweeping across the developing world, in which peasant farmers have doubled or tripled their yields by means of modern organic techniques. They require few inputs, lots of labour, no debt, and no help from predatory corporations. Only by such means can the world’s poor maintain control over their food supply, and protect themselves from the technologies that the Nuffield panel celebrates.