Through the work of the Columban missionaries in Latin America, the ethical questions regarding Genetically Modified (GM) agriculture were brought to light. Their missionary work meant that they were involved with the poor farmers when, in the 1990s, they were used as guinea pigs in experiments by international agri-chemical companies such as Bayer, Monsanto, Adventis etc. These farmers were approached about growing GM crops with promises of greater yields and the use of fewer chemicals. Even Cardinal Martino, of the Vatican, was convinced by this sales pitch and, with the US embassy at the Vatican, co-hosted a conference on GM foods. The Vatican interest, of course, was born out of the hope that GM crops promised answers to some of the food problems of the developing nations of the world by developing crops that are resistant to diseases, insects or drought.
The promises of GM food, however, have proved questionable, but the consequences have been dire. The Latin American farmers, who were the subject of the experiments, found that their local crop varieties became contaminated once the GM seeds entered the market place and so, by law, they were obliged to pay royalties to the bio-tech seed companies. Saving or swapping unique seed varieties among themselves became useless as traditional seed banks were now contaminated.
This is an issue that has also affected farmers here in Australia. In interviews, canola farmers spoke of lost premiums as crops became contaminated with GM seed (A 26-minute DVD called, “Unjust Genes: Life and Death for Sale,” with an accompanying booklet is available from the Columban’s website).
Perversely, some GM seed the farmers were forced to pay royalties on was developed from traditional seeds that these farmers had developed over centuries. This robbery of the poor by the rich companies was sanctioned under the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement and local patenting laws.
The GM problem did not end there for these farmers, however. Some farmers and their families fell sick to allergies, stomach complaints and skin disorders. The only new factor in their lives seemed to be GM food. This connection is not conclusive, of course, but it has raised health concerns born from the fact that GM crops are not merely a continuation of traditional biotechnology techniques such as selective breeding or using yeasts. Genes were now being transferred between unrelated species to create Transgenic food, something that does not happen in nature. The methods of gene transfer using viruses, anti-biotic markers, and more recently nuclear transfer, raised questions of safety. Scientists around the world have published articles questioning the science itself and the long-term impact on health of humans and ecosystems, which is little researched.
The main culprits in this story are the international bio-tech companies whose main interest is profits. In this interest, they need to control the human food chain and make money from their monopoly. The main instrument to get their way is the law – enacting local laws on intellectual properties and patenting.
But the problem deeper than the bio-tech companies. The trend in universities (since the passage of the Baye-Dohl Act in the USA), which has been to get Universities to generate their own funding streams from their own inventions, rather than rely upon government funding. This has also happened in Australia and is seen by governments as a way to offset the cost of tertiary education. Consequently, inventions that Universities would once have published and distributed freely as a public good are now hedged around by patents. Since universities are not in the business of developing these inventions, they are sold off or licensed to companies who are in the market (eg Monsanto) who, of course, also have their own in-house research too.
As soon as something goes to market, money is involved – big money, in the case of agriculture. Now agriculture has been particularly affected by globalization. Farmers have been squeezed between the providers of supplies (farm machinery, seeds etc) and the big conglomerates that lock them in to the global markets. Theoretically they have the choice to participate or not, but in practice they will find themselves without a market if they resist. The global food production industry screws them down against each other so they derive a meagre living while the big producers make a pile. This is called the “free market”. Now theoretically farmers can choose to use GM seeds or any other kind of seed they want, there is no compulsion. In practice, various incentives and disincentives combine to force them into using GM crops and once on board it’s hard to get off.
Once again we are faced with technology, driven by greed, outstripping our ability to evaluate the ethical, environmental and health consequences involved. The promise of crops that are resistant to diseases, insects, and drought, obviously appeals to concerns regarding food shortages in the developing world. The free market economy, however, does not give us time to properly study the consequences of such innovative food producing practices. It is unlikely that the system will change, and so we must try to keep up and challenge, as often as we can, the blind drive for profits that avoid responsibility for the consequences of implementing technological advances without proper evaluation.