GM Companies Aim To Own
Entire Global Food System

Sydney Morning Herald

A handful of companies is moving towards owning every stage of the global food system, writes Gyorgy Scrinis.
Public opposition to genetically modified foods has been a stumbling block to the commercialisation of GM crops and animals. The agri-biotech industry is hoping GM foods with "consumer-friendly" traits might overcome some of this opposition.
But they have also been running big advertising campaigns in an attempt to convince the public that GM foods will be required to "feed the world". These are the kinds of predictable arguments being aired at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne.
In reality, the new genetic technologies will largely be used to feed the power and profits of agri-food corporations, and they are more likely to exacerbate - rather than alleviate - the problems of widespread hunger and malnutrition in the Third World.
GM products are primarily being developed to fit into large-scale, chemical-intensive, mechanised and capital-intensive farming systems. Any increase in yields of crop and animal products will be headed for its usual destination: well-off consumers.
Research and development of GM products is largely aimed at adapting crops and animals to the requirements of the global food industries. For example, producing non-softening fruits for long-distance transport so well-off consumers can have access to year-round supplies of out-of-season fruits.
Genetic technologies are also facilitating the rapid corporate integration and concentration of the food system, as a handful of corporations move towards the ownership and effective control of every stage of the global food system. One such strategy for monopoly control is the patenting of all GM crops, with the aim of preventing farmers from saving and replanting their own seeds.
Overall, genetic technologies are facilitating a shift from a chemical-industrial to what I call a "genetic-corporate" form of agriculture - and this food system is undermining the food security of the world's poor and malnourished.
Widespread hunger already exists today, in the context of a global oversupply of food. This is one of the cruellest ironies of the contemporary era. Most countries with the greatest incidence of poverty and hunger are net exporters of food. Growing more food can, in fact, exacerbate food insecurity for the world's poor depending on how, where and by whom this food is produced.
Genetically engineered crops and animals further threaten the food security of the poor in a number of ways. First, to the extent that they enable large-scale, chemical-industrial farms to increase their productivity or profitability, this competitive advantage will enable the further squeezing out of small-scale farmers.
Second, GM crops may accelerate the erosion of farm labouring work in poor rural areas through the further introduction of labour-replacing technologies.
Third, by engineering crops to be sterile, and buying out smaller seed companies, agri-food corporations aim to diminish the availability of unpatented and self-reproducing seeds.
Proponents of GM food have celebrated the engineering of vitamin A rice (so-called "golden rice") as an example of a crop that - if and when it is made freely available in a decade or so - will help alleviate malnutrition in the Third World. Here is a breath-taking example of what I call the "ideology of genetic precision".
Such arguments effectively promote the idea that malnutrition is the result of the nutritional inadequacy of non-modified foods, and can be alleviated through the nutritional modification of these foods, rather than the result of a lack of access to an adequate and diverse diet.
This isn't to deny that genetic technologies could be used to modify traditional crops in ways that may benefit small-scale, capital-poor farmers. But that is to miss the big picture in terms of the primary direction of GE research, and in terms of the primary causes of hunger and malnutrition.
What is actually required is a redistribution of fertile land, of incomes and of economic power, rather than access to genetic products.
There is an obscene arrogance in the idea that GM crops will "feed the world", or that the poor need to be fed by us. For, in reality, poor people and communities around the world will either feed themselves, or they will not feed at all.
Genetic-corporate agriculture is, in fact, a system for feeding on the world rather than for feeding the world. It is about corporations and well-off consumers continuing to feed on the food, the cheap labour and other extractable resources of the Third World; about large-scale industrial producers consuming and displacing more small-scale and subsistence producers and rural communities; and about transnational agri-food corporations feeding on the work of more farmers by swallowing up and patenting the seeds and knowledge developed by traditional farmers over thousands of years.
Dr Gyorgy Scrinis is a research associate in the Globalism Institute at RMIT University.
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald.



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