Science & Comment
By Tom Drake
The issues of genetic modification, biopiracy and biodiversity were raised in Hugo’s excellent article
on a new wave of ‘philanthro-capitalism’ in Africa, as promoted by the
Gates foundation. For me, the issue here is not really one of genetic
modification, but of monocultures and of patenting other’s natural
resources. The term ‘genetic modification’ tends to put the
Franken-Fear into people, with connotations of unnatural tampering to
create monster food. However traditional farming methods have been
controlling the genetics of crop families for centuries by breeding in
desired attributes. Over a few generations this can have startling
effects as seen in the Belgian Blue or ‘Supercow’.
Although there may be little practical difference between the two the
public has less stomach for food that has its origins in a lab.
is the practice of patenting therapeutic uses of plants or a particular
compound found in a plant, even though local people already know that
plant and its uses. There continue to be examples of pharmaceutical and
cosmetics companies engaging in this and although international law is
on the side of the local Africans the legal battle costs money, which
the companies have and the local people invariably don’t.
The main risk here is of aggressive agro-industrialisation producing
huge monocultures of crops with little genetic diversity. This will
undermine the existing (although not necessarily ‘natural’)
biodiversity in the seed population, as well as creating massive
exposure to disease adaptation. Mass expansion of single crop farming
destroys eco-systems and damages the land. This has been seen before
with the demand for palm oil driving heavy rainforest deforestation and subsequently leaving the ground infertile.
GM crops confer a clear advantage when farming in potentially
difficult areas but have a negative impact of biodiversity. Take them
or leave them, biodiversity is still potentially under threat by the
manner of this ‘green revolution’ as non-GM monocultures will have an
equally devastating affect.
I’m sure intensive farming can be executed while minimising these
problems but in a situation where the power of the investors is high
and regulation is low the push for profit may well overshadow such
concerns. In addition, what will happen to the ownership of these
industries? If established as intended, it is hard to imagine anything
other than the means of food production for the world’s poorest
continuing to be owned by the world’s richest. It seems to me that
without a mechanism to return ownership of the industries established
to African people, philanthro-capitalism is a hairs breadth from being