Saturday, 26 December 2015

The poor

The following view is quite popular over at the skeptics closed facebook group.
"...there is a massive human and financial cost to opposing GE technology. The privileged western white people who think no one should have the choice of GE food products is literally having a detrimental effect on people in developing nations. This anti-GE attitude is depriving at risk people of technology that can make a real difference. In my eyes you are part of the problem."
It's a very strong claim ("massive human and financial cost") that incorrectly suggests I oppose GE technology, that by doing so I'm having a detriment effect on people in developing nations, and that I'm therefore part of some undefined problem.

Despite a fair bit of prodding from me, no-one in the group has been so far willing to even outline a counterargument that they've considered and rejected before reaching this strong conclusion - pretty skeptical eh?

A good place to start is food security, on which topic the WHO defines three aspects 

  • Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
  • Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet. 
  • Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.
The WHO also tells us that "food security is a complex sustainable development issue, linked to health through malnutrition, but also to sustainable economic development, environment, and trade." So the WHO thinks that food security is not just about science, much less any particular scientific technology. I agree. The WHO goes on to say that "there is a great deal of debate around food security" and helpfully outlines some of the faultlines in this debate.

Another useful question is: what causes famine? The US trade-centric Borgen Project cites three causes: conflict, climate change and donor country politics. Oxfam points its finger at a "triple failure" of production, access and response. The role of politics also features in many analyses of particular famines such as those in Somalia, Ireland and China. If my pals in the skeptics even know of such analyses, they've found a way to set them aside and focus instead on people who (they think) oppose GE technology.

Even if we just look at food production the whole agricultural system is important, including the role of biodiversity and self sufficiency. Stringent intellectual property regimes for GE technologies have been criticised, as have restrictions on seed saving. Meanwhile, in first generation GE crops the over-use of glyphosate is creating resistant weeds and some farmers are turning away from them for economic reasons.

None of this is to suggest that developing countries should be denied "the choice of GM food products". My point is simply that it is very wrong indeed to accuse someone of harming people in developing countries simply because they're not cheering for GM loudly enough.

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