The Business of Giving
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Q&A with Phil Bereano on genetic engineering in agriculture
Posted by Kristi Heim
Phil Bereano, co-founder of the project AGRA Watch, has long focused on the ethical and social aspects of global trade and biotechnology. He is professor emeritus at the University of Washington, where he taught technology and public policy. He was also a negotiator in the formation of the UN's Cartagena Biosafety Protocol. Bereano talked about why he has become an outspoken critic of the Gates Foundation's approach to agriculture in Africa.
Q: One of the projects the Gates Foundation is working on with Monsanto, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), is being billed as a way to deal with worsening drought due to climate change, a serious problem for farmers.
A: It may use water more efficiently, but it's not drought tolerant. Drought tolerance is a complicated interplay between several dozen different genes.
There are thousands of varieties of maize, including drought tolerant varieties. The problem is they can't be patented and sold because they are in the public domain. Multinational corporations like Monsanto are attempting to gain control over food by patenting GMO seeds and presenting them as a savior to peoples' needs.
Q: Do you believe any genetic modification (GM) of food has merit?
A: It's very hard to say the existing GM products satisfy any criteria I would find socially useful. A UN and World Bank study said there is no necessary role for GM in the future in order to deal with issues of hunger and increasing production. Agroecological methods are able to do it.
None of the technologies which have been presented respond to the genuine needs of people. Herbicide resistance has not increased food production or reduced food costs for farmers.
But no one really knows because there are no adequate scientific assessments of the risk with the potential benefits. We actually don't know whether it's worth it.
Q: But haven't we eaten many genetically modified foods here in the U.S. for years?
A: Yes, but no research has been done on the impacts. Many conditions take years or decades to manifest themselves. It's estimated mad cow takes 20 years to manifest itself after exposure. We have seen an increase in autism, diabetes and obesity, yet no one is doing this research with regard to changes in the food supply.
Any reasonable approach to new technology would be doing an assessment of it, but the FDA does not do assessments. They claim they are in favor of scientific regulation, but the U.S. government relies on industry assessments.
The burden is being put on the wrong side of the equation. The burden of proof on safety should be on the company introducing the new technology.
Q: It has been about a year since the World Food Prize Symposium in which Bill Gates talked about an ideological divide between those who favor a technology or an environment based approach getting in the way of solutions. Is this divide growing?
A: First of all, we are not anti-technology. Agroecological methods are based on technology and have been shown by a number of studies, including the IAASTD, to be as good if not better at dealing with African hunger. The technologies we support are comprehensible to local farmers, under their control, and not protected by intellectual property rights. The difference is one of control. Food sovereignty is about ownership and power. The difference is not a difference between people who are pro-technology and Luddites.
No one wants to see starving people in Africa. People understand climate change is a major threat, but the justification of these kinds of technologies changes. They used to say GM food was required to feed the world; now they say it's required to feed the world and deal with climate change.
Q: What has been the result of the AGRA Watch campaign so far?
A: It's clear that they're paying more attention to these concerns than they did a year ago. Otherwise the chief of legal affairs of AGRA, African regulators and industry people wouldn't have shown up at the panel discussion we sponsored in Nagoya at the fifth meeting of Cartagena Biosafety Protocol.
The press release we put out on the Gates Foundation buying Monsanto stock appeared all around the world, including the Guardian in the UK. The cat is out of the bag now. There are a lot of voices questioning the Gates Foundation.
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