Wednesday 16 October 2013

Am I really a mass murderer?

Just a few days ago I referred to the politicians’ trick of presenting only two alternatives and trying to force us to choose between them as though there were no other way forward.  It’s probably a trick learnt from Sir Humphrey.  As if to illustrate the point, the Minister for Agriculture in England came out with a classic this week.
According to Owen Paterson the only options available to us are either that we adopt GM rice on a widespread basis or else millions of people die from vitamin A deficiency.  As if that weren’t enough, he went on to say that anyone opposing GM is thus a “wicked” person who is directly responsible for those avoidable deaths.
It’s a breath-taking piece of hyperbole – almost as if he set out with the intention of discrediting his own arguments.  But no; he is – apparently – entirely serious.
There shouldn’t be any need to point out the basic fallacy, which is that most of us get enough vitamin A from a varied diet and don’t need GM rice.  If people are not getting enough from their diet because they are over-dependent on a single crop, then the problem is that over-dependence - and the solution is to remove the over-dependence, not to tinker with the rice.
The problem with that solution – from his perspective at least – is that the “wicked” people condemning millions to die would then be seen not as the opponents of GM, but as the supporters of a fundamentally unjust and unequal world order.  People rather like Owen Paterson, in effect.
I’m not a fan of GM foods, it’s true.  But my opposition isn’t based on the question of the safety of eating them – the only concern generally recognised by GM fans.  It’s based rather on a belief that we don’t yet know the long-term effects of releasing organisms with exotic gene combinations – which if they ever could develop through evolution or selective breeding would take many generations – into the environment.  That other species will adapt is a given; how and how quickly is one of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”.
Supporters of GM always point to the advantages for the poor and hungry in support of their position – although I don’t think I’ve heard one claim, effectively, that anyone disagreeing with is a mass murderer.  Not until this week anyway.  But the main beneficiaries to date have been, and are likely to continue to be, the huge multinational agri-chemical businesses which produce them, not those who grow and consume them. 
In short, it’s the rich who gain most of all.  If it really were the only way of lifting people out of hunger and poverty, it might be a risk worth taking; and it might even be worth accepting that the companies concerned could keep their profits.  But that’s a mighty big – and wholly unsubstantiated – if.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The best and natural source of vitamin A in the human diet is through the consumption of meat liver and blood. 3000 to 6000μg. For those of a vegetarian diet, sweet potatoes or kale at 700μg. Rice in it's natural form contains nowhere near these values of vitamin A. Those who think a GM form of rice with artificially enhanced levels of vitamin A is best for people in Africa are effectively arguing that Africans are destined to always be poor and half starving, and that's their lot. It's a bit like saying you'll never be able to afford electricity so we'll sell you brighter oil lamps. It's not wicked to give Africans the chance of being self sufficient in food and this food is as nutritious, natural and wholesome as that enjoyed by Americans and Europeans. It's wicked to plan to continue their diet on a bowl of rice per day, pepped up or otherwise.