Friday, April 04, 2008

GM food and NGO pressure groups

It has been a long time since the last famine in Asia. Now food prices are rising and people are wondering whether there will be a shortage. Where will the next technological advance in crop productivity come from? Has the time come for GM (genetically modified) food?

If there is a choice between hunger and GM, there is no doubt GM will win the popular vote.

The anti-GM lobbies, which have run a successful campaign for two decades will soon be facing a crisis. As a scientist, I think the anti GM lobbies have been running an unreasonable campaign based on fear. A reasonable approach would have been to insist on strict regulation, safety tests and compulsory labelling.

When I was working in the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) and CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research) I was dismayed at how NGO pressure groups in Europe had hijacked the agendas of the development agencies in their countries and had indirectly taken control of the FAO, CIFOR, and other international agencies that depend on funding from those countries. Asians like myself in these organizations had very little influence on the direction of programmes, because our own countries were not footing the bills.

I had been an NGO leader myself in the Malaysian Nature Society in the 1970s and 1980s, but we were a home-grown NGO that did not receive any funding from overseas. The language of European-funded NGOs baffled us. They were, from the start, against big business, against the companies that were producing and marketing improved agricultural seeds, against GM crops, against oil palm, against logging. They were for the right of the poor to remain poor. They preached that shifting cultivation was good and sustainable. Subsistence agriculture was, to them, the way of the future (of course not for themselves, but for Asians and Africans). Developmental aid should only be only for the benefit of the 'poorest of the poor', not to help strengthen weak countries. As an Asian I felt insulted, so I quit my well-paid positions.

The NGOs are not entirely wrong, but they are irresponsible in forcing their social theories on societies to which they do not belong. Instead of promoting good governance, consultation, proper enquiry and research, they indulge in publicity-generating pressure tactics and short-cut dead end solutions. They have had relatively little influence in Malaysia and China and none at all in Singapore, but they are everywhere in Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia, and Africa. When I was in FAO, one consultant back from Ruanda was lyrical about how happy and sustainable Ruanda was, with every family cultivating its own plot of land and making do without cash--the root of all evil. This was Ruanda just before it erupted in ethnic strife and blood-letting. Are there more Ruandas on the way?


Jimmy said...

I agree with you anti-GMOs lobbies have not been helpful in the gmos debate. They dwell on sensationalism instead of sticking to facts. Nobody, including these groups, can stop technological advancement, including in the field of agriculture. These are issues I've written on in my blog GMO Africa (

The LawMan said...

But you have to admit that foreign leftist NGO's have their uses for domestic ends in countries like China. This is not about GM crops but it is about NGO's acting sensationally. If it weren't for the sensationalist foreign protests, China would have simply shot all the Tibetans who were unhappy about Chinese imperialism in their corner of the planet, and left their bodies to rot in the open. But because foreign NGO's raised a ruckus, so foreign governments have felt some pressure to antagonise their major trading partner a little bit, which can't be a bad thing. I'm very sorry for the locals on the Mainland and their fellow nationals overseas because they haven't really learnt the benefit of multiple points of view. Their self-righteous rubbish comes only because because their government has been particularly effective at restricting the flow of information within the country.

Neophyte said...

I think the leftist agenda is not so much anti-development or a primitive romanticism of underdeveloped agrarian societies but more against corporate control of technologies, which gives corporations ability to control entire nations and economies.

That said, I don't see anything wrong with rallying against palm oil or logging because unbridled expansion of these industries will spell disaster for biodiversity and the livelihoods of those dependent on forests for survival. Sure, it is a qucik way to economic development, and there is blatant hypocrisy in what many industrialized nations stand for. Nonetheless I think developing nations should be inventive and think of ways to be able to sustain their own people and safeguard their food supplies and learn how to be independent of corporations GM or not.

That said, the reason I'm against GM is because the people who control the technology are in it for profit and not for humanitarian reasons. And much of the profit does not come from the crop itself, but the ability of the corporation to exert demands on its use such as disallowing seed saving under patent regulations, and peddling all sorts of fertilisers and pesticides to go with the crop. I'm not a scientist so much of what I read comes from journalistic sources. I wouldn't have that much of an issue with GM if it weren't for the legalistic structure within which it operates.

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