Sunday, October 27, 2019

Golden Rice - the Magic Bullet?

The Socialist Party's position on Genetically Modified produce has been acknowleging the risks of GM crops that are resistant to pests, cross-pollination which could lead to the development of “super weeds” that are difficult to eradicate, and other dangers such as producing crops that insects will not eat that will lead to their extinction and that birds and other small animals that feed on them will be imperilled but more importantly under capitalism the very real threat of the development of a gene by the giant corporations that produces sterile seeds (the terminator gene), creating a monopoly and trapping small farmers into a relationship with them. This has meant that GM techniques have not necessarily been used in the way they would have been in a socialist world where the priority would be satisfying people's needs not profits. this is not the fault of GM technology itself but of the type of agriculture that has developed under capitalism. Existing types of GM crops have been developed as a response to the ever-present pressures under capitalism on firms, including agribusinesses, to reduce their costs of production so as to be able to outcompete rivals in the race for profits. If GM crops were not cheaper to grow they would not have been marketed or planted commercially.

 But the Socialist Party has not dismissed the advantages that could be gained by the deployment of GM technology in agriculture. People are right to be concerned about the food capitalism serves up to us but to blame GM technology for the effects of its application within the context of capitalism is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The prudent application of GM technology could be of some benefit to humanity and may be developed in socialism where food will be produced simply to feed people and not for profit.

International regulations have been blamed for delaying the approval of a food that could have helped save millions of lives this century. The claim is made in a new investigation of the controversy surrounding the development of Golden Rice by a team of international scientists. In 2006, the “golden rice” was introduced with genes from daffodils, giving it its yellow color and eventually its name. 

Golden Rice has not been made available to those for whom it was intended in the 20 years since it was created,” states the science writer EdRegis. “Had it been allowed to grow in these nations, millions of lives would not have been lost to malnutrition, and millions of children would not have gone blind.”

Vitamin A deficiency is practically unknown in the west, where it is found in most foods. For individuals in developing countries, however, vitamin A is a matter of life or death. Lack of it is believed to be responsible for killing more children than HIV, tuberculosis or malaria – around 2,000 deaths a day. On a global scale, about a third of children under five suffer from the condition which can also lead to blindness.

Golden Rice is a form of normal white rice that has been genetically modified to provide vitamin A to counter blindness and other diseases in children in the developing world. It was developed two decades ago but is still struggling to gain approval in most nations. Because of the general opposition to GM crops that daily supply has not materialised. Many ecology action groups, such as Greenpeace, have tried to block approval of Golden Rice as it was diverting resources from dealing with general global poverty, which it maintained was the real cause of the planet’s health woes.

The real problem though rested with an international treaty known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms, and which came into force in 2003. The Cartagena Protocol contains a highly controversial clause known as Principle 15 or, more commonly, the precautionary principle. This states that if a product of modern biotechnology poses a possible risk to human health or the environment, measures should be taken to restrict or prevent its introduction. As a result, every aspect of Golden Rice development, from lab work to field trials to screening, became entangled “in a Byzantine web of rules, guidelines, requirements, restrictions, and prohibitions”, and it is only in the last few years that steps have been taken to give it approval – though so far only in the US, Canada and Australia. It is still awaiting the go-ahead – hopefully by the end of this year – in countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh, where it is far more urgently needed.
The doctrine, in the case of Golden Rice, was interpreted as “guilty until proven innocent”, says Regis, an attitude entirely out of kilter with the potential of the crop to save millions of lives and halt blindness.

Who will benefit from golden rice? As with other GM crops, golden rice will also be controlled by large agribusiness companies. The ‘nutritional scheme’ based in golden rice will involve the control of agribusiness over the whole value chain: from seed to distribution. Given the fact that it is a global trend to forbid farmers to save their seeds, even if golden rice will be patent-free, the seed will be corporately controlled. What would happen then with traditional rice producers and with the thousands of peasant traditional varieties of rice that they hold?

 Regarding trade, in many countries, rice producers do not have any influence in price fixation. Nationally, the price is set by local powerful groups that control both processing and distribution of rice. Internationally, the price is set at the Bangkok and Chicago Stock Exchange. The international trade of golden rice would be controlled by the same economic groups that control other GM commodities. Accordingly,  golden rice will not generate food sovereignty and, on the contrary, it will increase dependence for both producers and consumers."

There is no reason to protest that genetic modification in food is perilous in its own right. However, there is always peril in giving a great social responsibility to a profit-hungry corporation. As socialists we would expect them to be subverting health and the public good for profit. The dilemma over golden rice requires not an anti-scientific or neo-Luddite reaction, but an acknowledgment that the monopolistic ambitions of corporations lead to the retardation of technology rather than progress.

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