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Erik Millstone on 'How might agricultural biotechnology help poor farmers in Developing Countries?'
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Erik Millstone on 'How might agricultural biotechnology help poor farmers in Developing Countries?'

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A presentation given by Erik Millstone, co-convenor of the STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain on 2 December 2009 at the Royal Society of Chemistry, London. The meeting was jointly organised by …

A presentation given by Erik Millstone, co-convenor of the STEPS Centre food and agriculture domain on 2 December 2009 at the Royal Society of Chemistry, London. The meeting was jointly organised by the RSC and the Institute for Food Science & Technology.

Published in: Education, Technology, Business

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  • 1. Ethics of GM crop development Erik Millstone December 2009
  • 2. Philosophical preliminaries: I recognise that groups and individuals often make different and conflicting moral judgements, but assume that there are some ethical issues on which we can definitely distinguish between right and wrong. Those fundamental ethical benchmarks can and should be grounded by reference to universal human needs, primary amongst which is the need to eat safe and nutritious food, and to drink safe clean water.
  • 3. Chronic under-nutrition, in a world in which, in aggregate, there is more than enough food for everyone, is ethically unacceptable. Currently something like 1,000,000,000 people are chronically under-nourished. The needs of the most hungry constitute the primary ethical benchmark for judging agricultural and food systems and practices.
  • 4. A similar number suffer with chronic over-nutrition, ie are over-weight or obese; which is an important issue, but ethically less important than chronic hunger. Chronic hunger is caused by poverty not by scarcity. It is an artefact of socio-economic regimes, not the product of biology.
  • 5. In 2008 the FAO estimated that in aggregate the world’s total production of cereals was ~2,285,000 million tonnes. The FAO also estimated the world’s population in 2008 at ~6.7 billion. To a good first approximation in 2008 the average per capita food availability was ~340kg/cap/year, or ~1kg/person/day.
  • 6. If those cereals had been uniformly distributed across all of humanity they would have been sufficient to support healthy lives for all who were not otherwise unwell. One kilogramme of cereals is sufficient to provide more than 2,300 Cals/day/cap. There are post-harvest losses of cereals, but people also eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, meat and dairy products.
  • 7. The development of GM crops can and should be judged against that background, and by reference to the criterion: will they contribute to diminishing chronic hunger, poverty and under-nutrition?
  • 8. The Green Revolution showed that inappropriate technologies can be technically successful but a socio- economic failure because it amplified inequalities. More food was produced in eg Punjab, but ironically more people suffered chronic hunger, because the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. In Kerala and Taiwan, there was a more beneficial outcome.
  • 9. The ‘unit of analysis’ is not so much ‘the technology of genetic manipulation’, as the particular ‘technological trajectories’ along which it is being, or could be developed, and regulatory regimes within which they operate.
  • 10. I have no trouble identifying conditions under which GM technology could be used in ways that could benefit poor subsistence farmers in rural areas of developing countries, eg GM staples for the Sahel region that were safe and nutritious, but unpalatable to locusts - though only if other socio-economic conditions were also met.
  • 11. A key question is: are the GM crops currently available, and those under development, suitable for the needs and interests of poor rural subsistence farmers? The answer is unambiguously: NO. Herbicide tolerant crops were developed eg by Monsanto to extract rent from ‘Round Up’, once the patents on glyphosate expired.
  • 12. Those corporate strategies were enthusiastically backed by eg the UK government. DTI, Jan 1991
  • 13. Subsistence farmers in SSA have never used herbicides. They hoe out weeds. New technologies for SSA must be employment-generating not labour- displacing. Insect resistant Bt crops have been developed for the pests on industrial farms not subsistence farms; they are far too expensive for the poor.
  • 14. WEMA and Harvest Plus will be irrelevant to the needs of subsistence farmers, unless the seeds are • very low priced or free • OPVs rather than hybrids • free of IPR restrictions • productive without other costly inputs • reliable across climatic and seasonal variations. WEMA is designed to be • fully commercial • hybrids • partly IPR protected • highly input responsive, and drought-specific.
  • 15. A poor-farmer-friendly GM trajectory would be very different. It would need to be: • farmer first, bottom-up choice of R&D goals • independent of MNC corporate control • socio-economically and cultural sensitive • employment-generating not labour-displacing • resilience-enhancing • dependency-reducing • affordable • sustainable and • risk reducing.