How will we feed a hungry world? The answer promoted by a few transnational companies is to grow genetically modified crops. Destructive viruses? Voracious insects? Devastating fungi? There'll be a gene to cure every ill, and no more of those nasty pesticides. Yet, despite the promise of a green and pleasant land of bountiful crops, with sprayers rusting in the barn, the public in Britain has turned against genetically modified crops. Hostility has been ignited by a toxic combination of professional scaremongering, fears about food safety stemming from mad cow disease and the determination of one company, Monsanto, to make sure that Europeans buy its products whether they want to or not.
The latest move of the GM lobby to win over a hostile public is to try to persuade Europeans that they're being selfish, in that their refusal to support GM products is holding back the development of a technology that's desperately needed to feed hungry people in poor countries. The silliest move in this game of public relations is Monsanto's trademark, "Food - Health - Hope", a slogan which appears to claim that food is a monopoly product of a giant multinational and that health and hope are just commodities to be bought and sold.
The question of how we will feed hungry people can be viewed in two quite different ways. For those who believe that the answer lies in GM technology, the "we" of the question means the GM companies while the solution lies in providing new crop varieties to the poor, to replace the inadequate crops they grow at the moment (they must be inadequate, mustn't they, if the farmers who grow them don't have enough to eat?)
Is there any truth in this? For centuries, a tenet of "Western" culture has been that we have a duty, Kipling's "white man's burden", to share the benefits of our technology, our knowledge, our political and economic systems with less fortunate parts of the world. And what a disaster it's been! The European-inspired ideologies of imperialism, communism and neo-colonialism share much of the blame for instability, poverty and famine in what, as a consequence of the havoc so wreaked, are now the poorer countries of the world.
The other way of looking at the question of hunger is to ask instead, how can poor people feed themselves? There's a long list of reasons why they cannot do so _ landlessness, debt, iniquitious feudal systems, no access to credit on fair terms, inadequate systems of distribution, degradation and erosion of the soil, poor education, having to save to pay dowries, inability to work because of illness for which the cure is too expensive, warfare... Yes, diseases and pests take their share, but absentee landlords, moneylenders and corrupt officials take far more. No single crop variety, never mind any single gene, can do anything to help poor people if they don't have the economic power to take advantage of new technologies or if the only beneficiaries of their investment will be members of powerful elites. A company which sets out to persuade poor farmers that their problems will be solved if they will only buy a new, perhaps costly variety of seed is simply adding its own name to the long list of parasites that feed on the disadvantaged.
GM plants already control insects and defeat viruses in the lab and glasshouse and will soon start doing so in the field. For farmers who have the capacity to use them, they could become a small but valuable component of an ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture. But without social justice and fair trade, they will do nothing to feed hungry people.