development food health poverty technology

GM food – safe enough for Africans, but not for us

Is that the subtext of news today that the UK is quietly investing £100 million into GM research for Africa? It certainly sounds like it – genetically modified crops still can’t be grown in the EU, but are being aggressively promoted in Asia and Africa. As the government has admitted, if it can get them accepted in the developing world, people may come to accept them here as well. No doubt it’s a political matter, but the double standard is striking. If something isn’t considered safe for human consumption in Europe, why on earth would we suggest it’s safe for Africans?

The question comes up again because of the government’s new white paper on eliminating poverty, which includes some quite large new funding initiatives for agricultural research. It’s in the aid budget, but of course Africa doesn’t have any biotech companies – the £60 million for researching drought-resistant maize will go to biotech, not hungry Africans.

The paper itself avoids the words ‘genetically modified’, naturally, and talks instead of agricultural ‘innovations’. As we’ve written about many times before, Africa doesn’t need innovations – we haven’t tried the basic solutions yet. It’s not necessarily GM that I object to here, but the inappropriate technology, using a crane to crush a fly.

For example, one suggested ‘best bet’ for spending taxpayers money on GM research is ‘raising the vitamin content of staple crops.’ This sounds a lot like the long running PR exercise that is Golden Rice – rice that contains vitamin A, and meets a well documented deficiency in Africa’s malnourished children. It sounds wonderful, until you stop and think that half a carrot or a handful of beans would give you all the vitamin A you need. Why spend an estimated £80 million on developing a newfangled high-tech rice, when you could just encourage people to grow beans?

GM food is like finding someone trying to read in the dark and giving them night-vision goggles instead of a candle. Those promoting it are asking the wrong questions, and presupposing that the answer is better technology.

Instead, here are five ways to reduce hunger and increase food security that are cheaper, faster, and fairer than GM food:

  • Ban speculation on world food crops.
  • End EU and US agricultural subsidies.
  • Drop biofuels targets.
  • Reverse IMF policies of growing cash crops for export first.
  • Train small scale farmers to use basic irrigation and crop rotation techniques.

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