GM FOODS: On the Basis of Capitalism Genetic Modification is designed to Benefit Corporate Business
GM FOODS: On the Basis of Capitalism Genetic Modification is designed to Benefit Corporate Businesses
By Eko John Nicholas
Globally, the controversy over the use of food and other goods derived from genetically modified organisms, as against the conventional ones, and other uses of genetic engineering in medicine, research, industry and agriculture has not been settled. There are debates on whether GM food should be labeled, the role of government regulators, the objectivity of scientific research and publication, the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, and the role of GM crops in feeding the world population.
In Nigeria, the GM foods have become an issue of national debate since last year when the Minister of Agriculture Akinwumi Adeshina announced the plan of the government to introduce bio-technology in order to increase the country’s food production. Even the recent supposed clarification of the Adeshina that “what we have in Nigeria is biotechnologically improved crops to raise yields for farmers and not genetically modified crops as being speculated” (This Day May 13, 2014), has not put the issue to rest. This is because Adeshina had in May last year announced at the 53rd Annual General Meeting of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mine and Agriculture (NACCIMA) that, “â€¦ Syngenta, Monsanto Company and DuPont Company have indicated interest in investing in Nigeria. In fact, in June 2013, Syngenta plans to set up an office in the country.” The companies mentioned by Adeshina are multinational agribusinesses with GMO patents.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
Humans have altered the genomes of plant and animal species for thousands of years through selective breeding, using plants and animals, like wheat, corn and dogs, which are significantly different from their wild ancestors. Plants, animals and micro organisms are generated in the laboratory and their genetic makeup are manipulated for desired qualities through what is called genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering introduces DNA prepared outside the organism either directly into the host or into a cell that is then fused with the host. A genetic material from another species added to the host results to organisms termed transgenic, while same species or species that naturally breed with the host organisms is termed cisgenic. DNA modification can also be used to remove genetic material from the target organism, thereby creating a gene knockout. The end products of these genetic modifications in plants are expected to be of beneficial traits in crops, with improved shelf life, disease resistance, stress resistance, herbicide resistance, and pest resistance, production of useful goods such as biofuel, drugs, and ability to absorb toxins and for bioremediation.
The unpredictable nature of these techniques has meant that unintended traits with unexpected consequences, harmful to the environment have been produced. One of the common types of genetically modified crop has glyphosate-resistance trait, which was seen as beneficial to the environment through a reduction in the use of pesticides and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But findings however suggest the opposite. The spread of glyphosate-resistance weeds in herbicide-resistance weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides used, as more resistance weeds continued to emerge. As a result, it gives rise to the release of harmful toxins to the environment, prompting farmers to return to the conventional practice of yearly plowing as part of their strategy for weed control, which is safer for the environment, and at a reduced cost.
There are also concerns that the genetic diversity of crops could be endangered and decrease as development of GM varieties would lead to few cultivars being used overall and that they might indirectly affect the diversity of other organisms. Also of concerns are the widespread use of genetic modification designed to resist agrochemicals, could lead to the chemicals’ increased use, which in turn might cause damage to the environment and biodiversity.
Proponents of biotechnology have argued that the use of GM crops in human diet, holds the key to ending hunger, and could permanently banish famine from the globe, especially in poor countries in Africa where food crisis is now commonplace. However, believing in the use of GM foods as the main weapon for fighting famine is misplaced. This is due to the contradictions of capitalism, as system which is ever willing to sacrifice the needs of the majority for the private profits of rich few individuals and big businesses. This drive for profit for instance means that farmers are legally forbidden to use the seeds produced by GM crops for the following growing season and so they have to go back to the biotech corporations to buy the seeds for their next harvest. Besides, the GM corporations like Monsanto has patent for what is called “terminator gene” or terminator technology where the plants grown from GM crops are made to produce sterile seeds, though the company claims it has not used the technology. This however means that farmers are permanently enslaved to whims and caprices of the biotech companies which are driven by super profits.
Against this background, GM foods for human diet, rather than solve the food crisis in developing countries would rather compound it. Already research priorities in biotechnology are determined by giant multinational biotech corporations like Monsanto, the first company to patent living thing in the US. Given the profit-first interest of these companies, they concentrate their massive investments in research on consumer industrial crops like wheat, soybean, cotton and corn that have high returns on investment. This is as against crops like millet, cowpea, and others which are important to developing countries, but with low potential for financial rewards.
There is a widespread public perception that the consumption of GM crops in human diet, could pose serious health challenges to the consumers, as against the conventionally farmed crops or organic crops and hence, the growing opposition to GM food products in many countries. With the growing public suspicion towards big business, and the lessons of past tragedies in the pharmaceutical and food industries, there is reluctance to trust company or government statements that GM foodstuffs are safe.
However, groups with vested interests in the biotech industries, like the America Association for the Advancement of Sciences have looked the other way over concerns raised on the safety of GM crops to human, stating that “foods containing ingredients from GM foods pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques”. On their parts the groups like the America Medical Association, the National Academics of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine, have simply chosen to adopt “sit down and look” attitude, over the expressed hazardous effects of GM foods. They insist that no adverse health effects on the human population related to GM foods have been reported and/ or substantiated in peer-reviewed literature to date.
By and large the proponents of the GM foods have dismissed the possible health risk, hiding under what is called “substantial equivalence”. This states that the starting point for safety assessment of genetically engineered food products by regulatory bodies is to assess if the food is “substantially equivalent” to their counterparts which themselves are the products of genetic manipulation via traditional methods of cross-breeding and hybridization.
This view was criticized by Andrew Chesson, warning that substantial equivalence “could be flawed in some cases” and that some current safety tests could allow harmful substances to enter the human food chain. Erik Millstone el al, have argued that “substantial equivalence standard was pseudo-scientific and was the product of politics and business lobbying”. They said it was created primarily to reassure consumers and to aid biotechnology companies in avoiding the time and cost of more rigorous safety test
BIG BUSINESS PROFITS
The global value of biotech seed alone was estimated at $13.2billion in 2011, with the end product of commercial grain from biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at approximately $160 billion or more per year! With these huge profits on investment in biotech by big corporations, it will be wishful thinking to expect biotech research priorities to focus on health safety issues from GM crops. These giant biotech companies are willing to turn the mass majority of the poor to guineas pigs in their quest for profits.
Notwithstanding the fact that a good number of the laboratories where these researches and scientists conduct their research were financed by public funds, using tax payer’s monies, the logic of capitalism has meant that the outcomes are sold to individuals and corporations, under guise of commercialization. These individuals and corporations go further to patent their rights, thereby creating monopoly. This profit first motive of these multinational corporations means that the working people are completely excluded from the gains of biotechnology, despite, its huge potentials for the advancement of medicine, agriculture and industry.,
NIGERIA AND GM FOODS
As socialists, we support the idea of making healthy foods available and accessible to the general public, but are opposed to profit-driven attempts by governments, individuals and corporations to force genetically modified foods down their throats by any means when the safety concern has not been addressed. What is needed to meet the apparent food deficits in Nigeria in general is not GM foods, but massive government investments in agriculture with a democratic control.
Rather than pursues these line, the logic capitalism has meant that the country continues import basic food items, spending over $10bn annually on the importation of wheat, rice, sugar and fish. Nigeria remains the highest importer of rice globally. Yet the country is endowed with large expanse of land area close to a million square kilometers, if not more, over 33% of which is arable; 13,000 square kilometers of water; 853 kilometers of coastline and one of best varieties of climate and vegetation that can support wide range of food crops and cash crops.
One of the products of genetic modification is Golden Rice which has two daffodil genes and a bacterial gene inserted, so that the central grain produces pro-Vitamin A, converted to Vitamin A in the body. These the inventors hope will provide enough Vitamin A whose deficiency has been a major source of blindness among children, affecting 250-500,000 every year in developing countries.
However, unpolished rice (Ofada and Abakiliki) indigenous to Nigeria has been found to have more nutritional value, including Vitamin A ,in the outer layer, which is removed to make it easier to store in hot climates and more marketable for export! Lagos and its swamping environs, like Itokin, in Ikorodu, Ofada in Obafemi Owode in Ogun state, are best suited to grow this rice, even in commercial quantity for export. But the government due to its support for corporate business will rather import low nutritional rice than commits public funds to cultivate unpolished Ofada rice with high nutritional values.
FOR SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE
Capitalist society has generated unimaginable knowledge and scientific development, but as a profit-first system it has not found, nor will it ever find, the formula to eradicate hunger from the planet. It is only socialism where the needs of the society form the basis of production that science and technology can be used for the benefit of all. With socialist program giant corporations like Monsanto, Sgngenta, Dupont and other big businesses in the biotechnology industry, which are presently monopolizing research outcomes for the profits and greed of few individuals, will be put under public ownership with a democratic control. This is to guarantee that the beneficial effects of GM crops is available to the general public, and adequate funds are committed to eliminate harmful impacts on human and environment.
This will be linked to the need to centrally plan the economy by public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic management and control of working people themselves in order to free up funds for the benefit of all against the profit of few. Only then can society hope to escape the present ills that have chained it progress under this unjust capitalist system.