Two recent articles have raised a concern with GMOs being a part of a colonial system. Is that so, and how can that be addressed?

The articles are linked here:

The Counter: https://thecounter.org/decolonizing-the-gmo-debate-food-system-reform/

Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-biotech-crops-can-crash-and-still-never-fail/

The article in The Counter, states that food systems reform has moved toward food justice, discussions about GMOs have not. The author’s students want to discuss food justice and the place of Indigenous knowledge and racial inclusion. Hopefully this discussion is broad enough to understand that the characteristics of food systems would differ from region to region and one country to another. Each country and the food system of that food country has the right to decide what is best for their food systems, that is their sovereign right.

Apparently, the discussion on GMOs has not evolved enough to keep up with the justice concerns. The debate, according to the article, is dismissed by some with the assertion that the “science is in”. Perhaps this impression about the discussion is because for the longest time, the argument most frequently made was that GMOs are unsafe for consumption, so evidence was needed to address that and to that extent the discussion focused around biosafety.

Can we bring the food justice criteria to this discussion? Of course we can. For context though, genetic modification of seeds is a method of improving crops. It is not a factor independent of the food system, it is a part of the system and as we seek to ensure a more just system, the fairness issue of GMOs can certainly be discussed.

So these students would be excited to know that Nigeria is moving ahead with Bt Cowpea or Bangladesh with Bt Eggplant, crops that are crucial to local diets, and will bring better incomes for farmers. Indeed, across countries in Africa and Asia, better seeds are being developed with genetic modification that serve the needs of those countries. Colonialism is the control of a country’s systems and resources by another country so that it has no freedom of action. How a crop improved by scientists of any of these countries, with seeds distributed in most cases by the government could be characterized as colonial is unclear. Calling an indigenous crop improvement effort an “oppressive knowledge system belittles the hard work of the scientists and farmers in these countries.

If most of the discussion so far has focused on the science, it is precisely because of the constant demand to prove that GMOs were not harmful. Now there is a demand to focus on social contexts and we can certainly do so, but why is this being asked?

Why is food justice a precondition to adoption of biotechnology? Or is this a proxy for blocking this technology altogether? Let us take a look at how we evaluate the technology we use in other areas of our lives. Do we first ensure that our ubiquitous cell phones and home technology are furthering the cause of a just society before we buy them? Should we bring the discussion to focus on equity, inclusion and other concerns that the students in the author’s class have? Absolutely. But till we move forward there, do we forgo the use of this technology? We know that they probably do not meet that goal but we do use them for their benefits. The same standard should apply to GMOs. This is a technology which can bring rapid improvement to the crops we grow and ensure food security. It will have both pros and cons but like any other technology we can seek to move toward a just and fair system while we apply the benefits of the technology.

With regard to the scientific case for GMOs, the author says, “The issue is not science or no science. That binary is tired”. On letting go of binary thinking, we are in agreement! The article gives the example of the indigo tomato to fight cancer and regrets that we do not instead address the pollutants and toxins that can cause cancer. Well, why can’t we do both?

Or the fact that scuba rice can withstand flood waters but the author would prefer we focus on land use that leads to flooding. Again, we can and should do both.

Where GMO seeds are being used, the demand for improved seeds comes from the farming community in these countries. Maybe the movement to get improved seeds (even courting arrest) by Indian farmers is not well known in other countries, but it should be. For food systems to be just and inclusive, their voices need to be heard and amplified.

Governments and the people who elect them have the freedom to make the choices that serve them best, that is their sovereign right. Seeking to impose our standards on their decision making process is the colonial process in action.

The final sentence in this article notes that the dominant food system based on colonial assumptions cannot be dismantled while “ the other side” continues to support it.This is a binary we absolutely need to reject. It would be great if preconceptions of “side” were put away so we can have an honest discussion without misrepresenting anyone’s position.

What those students will discover, I hope, is the context within which choices and decisions are made is crucial. For some populations, hunger and malnutrition are what defines the debate, for others it may be access to resources. The contexts are diverse, but one challenge is global: how do we ensure food security in this time of climate uncertainty? That problem requires all of the tools we have, including GMOs.

There is much to discuss in the second article from Scientific American but this sentence seems a good place to start : “ At its base GM crops are rooted in a colonial-capitalist model of agriculture based on theft of Indigenous land and on exploiting farmers’ and food workers’ labor. Women’s bodies, Indigenous knowledge and the web of life itself.”

The reality is that most of the seeds now being developed and made available, often free, to farmers, come from public sector funded/aided research. No big company snapped up the patent on GM mustard in India and the Bt eggplant technology developed in India was transferred over to the public sector in Bangladesh, to give just a few examples.

The theft of land did not start with the introduction of biotechnology nor will blocking this tool stop this practice. The demand for better seeds, as mentioned above, comes often from the farmers themselves who want to have the option of better harvests and incomes and fewer applications of pesticides. GM crops that are herbicide tolerant, spare women from the excruciating drudgery of weeding, and long term physical damage. All of this is well documented and widely available information. About the Indigenous knowledge and web of life, no links are provided for us to consider.

The attack on the Green Revolution is an old one, and it is disappointing to have to set the record straight repeatedly, but here goes: the adoption of improved wheat and rice varieties moved India from acute scarcity on to the track of food security, the states in which it was first implemented are among the most prosperous, and the more recent farmer suicides are related to crippling debt, not crop failure. The improvement in incomes also supported the spread of education and widespread improvement in standard of living. The link provided to the suicides is a book with no description, aptly for an argument that has no basis in fact.

Now we come to the assertion that “multiple agribusinesses’” are involved with Golden Rice and Bt Eggplant. IRRI is not an agribusiness, and Sygenta actually waived their fee on the technology for Golden Rice. If Syngenta is selling Golden Rice and collecting profits, that would be helpful to know but so far there seems to be no record of it. The authors deem carrots and leafy vegetables as more “culturally appropriate” than rice as a provider of Vitamin A. Since Golden Rice has been approved in Bangladesh and the Philippines where rice is a staple, this comment is hard to understand. Golden Rice, according to them, degrades with storage at room temperature, so do carrots and leafy vegetables. In fact, they will perish faster.

The world watched and welcomed the arrival of vaccines in the past year. We relied on the knowledge and expertise of those who developed and tested it and for the most part have been thankful to have this measure of safety. Yet, we have to make the case again and again for a solution to children going blind and losing their lives to a simple nutrient deficiency. As noted here: https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/79701

“ the scale of annual child deaths from VAD, pre-pandemic in 2019 and all-ages deaths from COVID-19 in 2020, the first calendar year of the pandemic, are of the same order of magnitude.” Why then, do we have to continue to address objections of those who are in countries where Vitamin A deficiency is not a concern? Trying to control other countries’ public health policies, by whatever means, commercial or political, is actually colonialism.

With Bt eggplant, perhaps a more in depth look would have brought forth the information (freely available to the public) that it successfully completed the regulatory process in India, and then a “moratorium” was imposed by the then environment minister, as a matter of personal discretion. It’s success in Bangladesh is also widely recorded and available.

Instead of biotechnology the authors favor the promise of agroecology.The only link to the case for agroecology is behind a paywall so I am not able to access it. I look forward to reading it whenever it is available so that we can create a system that puts together advances in technology with knowledge that may be overlooked, and works for all. There are benefits from both new technology and existing knowledge in the community, and we will need all the tools we have to combat hunger and malnutrition, challenges that are exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Since both articles focus on what, according to them, GMOs cannot do, here is an example of what GMOs can accomplish. Consider the case of common beans, grown in family farms, integral to Brazilian cuisine and a primary source of protein for many. Each year the Bean Golden Mosaic Virus, even with extensive pesticide application, causes huge crop losses, enough to feed millions of people. When pest damage results in a smaller harvest, prices go up and the general population is affected both financially and nutritionally. After a two decade long development and regulatory journey funded by the public sector, the BGMV resistant beans are now available in grocery stores. Farmers can expect better incomes and lower pesticides costs, and consumers have access to a good source of protein that has long been a part of the cuisine.

As such, there is much in these pieces that is not consistent with current understanding and experience. These are presented as opinions but that cannot be an excuse to push alternative narratives that undermine the ability of countries to solve problems they face. Fact-free opinions can cause extensive damage as we can see in the current public health crisis and this should give us pause to consider the implications for food security as well, because that is the primary function of the food system. If people are hungry or suffering from disease and malnutrition, justice and sovereignty remain mere words.

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Arpita Bhattacharjya

Arpita Bhattacharjya

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