genetically modified foods, and discussed some of the arguments for and against genetically modified foods. The paper looks, in particular, at the decision by the U.S. To send GM grain, via the WFP of the UN, as part of their food aid to Africa. The paper concludes that the U.S. were not correct in their decision to send GM grain to Africa, were incorrect in forcing African nations to accept the GM grain, and indeed, acted unethically through their decision to act as they did.
The debate about genetically modified foods has been raging amongst academics, the media, and lay people for more than a decade now: whether they should be allowed, whether they should be sold, whether they are safe, whether they are an answer to the problem of starvation amongst developing nations. All of these questions, and many more, regularly raise their heads for debate, but the truth behind the answers to these questions is highly complex, and is not agreed on by academics, nor philosophers.
Many arguments abound for and against genetically modified foods, and some of these will be discussed here. Some people posit that genetically modified foods may pose health risks for certain groups of people (just as certain people are allergic to peanuts, genetically modified foods may elicit similar reactions), and that genes embedded within genetically modified foods (for example, genes for antibiotic resistance) may be picked up by human hosts, thus leading to widespread, uncontrollable, outbreaks of disease. This is supported by arguments from many GP's, and academics, who argue that the health effects of genetically modified foods have not been widely tested, and that, as such, genetically modified foods should not be allowed to enter out food chain.
Advocates of genetically modified foods say that these foods could offer the way to many health benefits, with the potential for foods to be modified to have a lesser fat content, to have a greater nutritional content etc. They also argue that genetically modified foods will provide a blanket solution for the world's diseased, as vaccines could be engineered into foods, so that all children receive vaccines, and mortality rates are reduced in the developing world.
People against genetically modified foods argue that the use of GM crops, manufactured (and more importantly, patented) by a small number of (U.S.-owned) firms, will lead to small farmers becoming beholden to these large firms, which will mean the death of small business, in the developing world (which we are already seeing, on a huge scale), but also in the developed world, including the U.S. This would be globalization wrought on an epidemic scale, and would have devastating consequences for the world economy, as the large, monopolistic, firms could charge any amount they wanted for their seed, leaving competition a thing of the past.
Advocates of GM argue that genetically modified foods could actually help small landholders, who lose crops through pesticide attack, and disease. GM proponents argue that a plant, engineered to withstand these attacks, would allow these farmers to grow more food, with less pesticide/herbicides etc., and therefore to become more prosperous. But, as we have seen, this can only be a viable scenario if the genetically modified foods are not patented and run by monopolies.
Other opponents of GM food argue that GM crops could harm the environment, with no large-scale test having been conducted on GM crops in the wild, and with the only such large-scale experiment being denounced by scientists, as being statistically untenable (Concar, 2003). Advocates argue that crops engineered to resist disease and pests will promote the lessening use of herbicides and pesticides on agricultural land, as we have seen.
Another argument put forward by opponents of genetically modified foods is that making GM species goes against Nature, whereas proponents argue that creating genetically modified foods is nothing more than accelerating evolution, and that, as such, there can be nothing wrong with creating such species. This argument does not hold water, however, as natural selection acts on intraspecies variation, and never on interspecies variation: evolution never produced a viable species through the marriage of two distinct taxa, as GM proponents are proposing, with their ideas about using plant genes in animals, and bird genes in fish.
Until recently, the argument about the incorporation of genetically modified foods into our society revolved around 'simple' questions, such as whether products containing genetically modified foods should be labelled, and ethical debates, such as those given above, which have largely been unanswered, and unheeded by the majority of GM proponents, but recently, the decision by the U.S. To send GM food as part of their food aid packages to Africa, turned the debate to much more sinister, and serious, matters, that has repercussions for developing nations the world over.
The U.S. grows two-thirds of GM grain, and cynical journalists, and academics, have suggested that the U.S. sees developing nations, that are starving, as potential markets for their food (see Murphy, 2002). Laying this argument aside, what do African countries think about the U.S. decision to send GM grain to their countries?
Most African leaders have argued that the importing of GM grain would threaten their people's health, the environment of their countries, and their agricultural industries (Murphy, 2002). The primary concern of many African countries, in particular Zambia and Zimbabwe, who held out to the last minute and didn't accept the GM grain until it was absolutely necessary, is that the grain would be used not only as food, but would also be seen as seed, and planted by farmers, leading to potential contamination of the native grain. Zambia, as reported by the BBC, decided in November 2002 to reject donations of GM grain, even though three million of it's people were said to be starving (Plaut, 2002).
This issue was further complicated by the U.S. government's decision not to separate out the GM and non-GM grain before sending it to Africa as food aid: it was this decision which led Mugabe of Zimbabwe to refuse the grain until the grain was milled (thus allowing for no planting of grain as seed, and not allowing any chance of cross-contamination).
A report, by the WFP, regarding their use of GM grain in food aid to Africa, which was made public by the BBC, showed that the strain of GM grain imported to Zambia, called 'Starlink' has not even been authorised for human use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Plaut, 2002). Does the U.S. have any right to be using these starving humans as guinea pigs for their products? This is a highly unethical, and cruel, practice, which cannot be justified in any manner.
A further article, in the Guardian newspaper, supports the assertion that the U.S. is using the African food crisis as a way of benefiting their GM interests, and has accused the U.S. Of using the UN to distribute it's domestic GM food surpluses, which otherwise would not find a market (Vidal, 2002). The article says that the U.S., as the largest food aid donor, has offered more than $266m in GM grain as food aid; in contrast, Europe have given money to these nations, to buy food on the open market (Vidal, 2002).
The issue of giving money, rather than grain, was supported in the article, which showed that more than enough grain was available within Africa, to feed the starving, for example, in South Africa, but that the logistics of transporting the food from one region to another were problematic: the Zambian High Commissioner for London, SK Mubukwanu, requested help with the logistics, in the form of monetary donations (Vidal 2002). The decision by the U.S. To send grain, and not money, as requested, to ease the terrible food crisis, can therefore be seen as rather patronising, as a return to the ideals of imperialism, where 'the U.S. knows best', and 'the suffering African nation can be beholden to us, and receive from us whatever we deign to foist on it'.
As we have seen, there are many arguments both for and against genetically modified foods, all of which have an ethical background, which, it seems to me, has not been debated in sufficient detail. This is frightening, as never before has humankind, through its extension of scientific frontiers, faced such a milestone in its development. We now have the potential to genetically alter species, to produce new species, and we are running ahead of ourselves to develop this technology, before we are either scientifically aware of the results, and implications, or philosophically prepared, as a society, for the outcomes of such technology (whether these be positive or negative).
That the U.S. forges ahead with this technology, and tests this technology on (human) African guinea pigs is beyond belief, and should be beyond the understanding of any reasonable person. The U.S. needs to gain a little more respect for the rest of the world, and in its dealings with the rest of the world: it cannot bully countries into…