It's Monsanto's world. We just live in it

Genetically modified crop pushers need to be above suspicion

Published February 9, 2006 8:16PM (EST)

How the World Works has been light this week, a fact directly attributable to the news on Tuesday of the World Trade Organization's preliminary decision that the European Union's trade restrictions on genetically modified organisms violated international treaty rules.

The controversy over genetically modified organisms is a natural for How the World Works. The interplay of markets, science, intellectual property, living standards in the developing world and environmental concerns is critical to the future of life on this planet. But it is also so complex, and so charged with ideology, that merely to dip one's toe into its murky waters is intimidating to the point of intellectual paralysis. Where does one begin?

One excellent starting point for studying up is, the Science and Development Network, a fabulous news site and archive of information devoted to issues of science and technology and how they affect the developing world. Originally founded by staff members of the U.K. journal Nature in 1999, has since secured regular funding from an impressive group of donors. In recent weeks, it has become an indispensable resource for background info and breaking news.

In the past 24 hours, for example, it has led me to a paper published in January by the environmental watchdog group Friends of the Earth that presents an unbending opposition stance against genetically modified crops and a very useful overview of issues at stake in the global debate. Taken together with an editorial yesterday by the site's editor in chief, David Dickson, the reading assignments have helped me figure out what points of pressure How the World Works will push on in the future.

The first realization is that the WTO trade dispute between the U.S. and the European Union over imports of genetically modified foods, while important, is also something of a sideshow. The truly critical question to ask about genetically modified foods is whether they can help address the problem of hunger and malnutrition in the poorest countries in the world without causing more problems than they solve. The role of science in agriculture in the developing world has been a hot topic since at least as far back as the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s. How we can best balance the inputs and possibilities of science with issues of sustainability and the environment is a hard, hard problem, and nowhere is it more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa, where malnutrition and hunger problems are getting worse, not better.

But as noted in "The GM Debate: Who Decides?" there's a big difference between the days of the Green Revolution and now. Back then, governments, academic researchers and philanthropic institutions took the lead in the research and deployment of new technologies for boosting food and crop production. Today, the private sector, globally dominated to an extraordinary degree by one single company, Monsanto, sets the pace.

This fact alone has to be profoundly disturbing to anyone who cares about issues of transparency, informed debate and the decision-making process. Monsanto is not particularly interested in developing crops that address the direct needs of poor and hungry small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The vast bulk of its profits derive from the production of just four crops -- soybeans, maize, cotton and canola -- whose harvests are not generally consumed as food by humans. And yet, Monsanto lobbyists are busy shaping (and weakening) national bio-safety laws all over the world. Who has the greatest incentive to introduce genetically modified organisms into the biosphere without taking the time to truly understand their long-term impact? Who is the least interested in upholding the so-called precautionary principle -- a fundamental part of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity?

Abiding by the precautionary principle means waiting until one is sure something is safe before introducing it into the ecosystem. Most European Union countries, which have ratified the Convention, adhere to it, a fact that provides the underlying rational for the EU's resistance to genetically modified imports. The U.S., however, refused to ratify the convention, and the WTO does not abide by its restraints. Nor, it goes without saying, does the biotech industry.

My own grandfather was a scientist who worked for the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s, helping to fund projects all over the world that addressed public health issues. I am a strong believer in the potential of science to positively affect the lives of the world's most disadvantaged populations. But it is critical for that science to be deployed with the utmost care and under the tightest possible overview -- and that means keeping the biotech foxes out of the regulatory henhouses.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works Monsanto