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The issue of genetically modified foods, and genetic diversity, was one of the main issues addressed at the recent U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. NOW and the BBC held a roundtable at Johannesburg and the issue certainly spawned some debate among our panelists.

  • Read the entire Earth Debate
  • Learn more about sustainable development issues
  • The panelists

    The Earth Debate: GMF on the Hot Seat

    NARRATOR: Just a few hundred miles from where the summit is being held people are dying of hunger. Across Southern Africa millions are in the grip of a major famine. We face oppressing challenges. How best to help the countries most at risk of desertification? How best to feed the hungry today without creating dependency on foreign aid?

    How to feed an extra 3 billion people expected by 2050. And how best to insure that fair trade really is fair. At present rich countries give far more in subsidies to their own farmers than they do in aid to poorer countries. Many traditionally grown crops in the developing world are lost through viruses and pests. Biotechnology firms. have now produced genetically modified seeds designed to be resistant to these deadly viruses. Could some of the challenges be met by advances in technology?

    Are out Western campaign's justified when they protest against the growing of genetically modified foods. In places where the alternative is often starvation?

    NISHA PILLAI: The problems. of hunger and famine are immense, especially in this part of the country. Are there any solutions? With me here is Florence Wambugu, one of Kenya's most eminent scientists.

    Florence, first off, tell me, what is the significance of the hunger debate, especially here in Johannesburg at the Earth summit?

    DR. FLORENCE WAMBUGU: First, let me say that the most important issue right now in Africa is hunger, poverty and malnutrition. Let me also say that hunger is not a concept. It's a person I know; they are people I live with. As we are talking, we have about ten million people threatened by hunger. We've got 300,000 who are going to die unless a decision is made.

    NISHA PILLAI: I want to ask Vandana, imagine you were a Zambian government minister and you had to make this decision, do you think you could have turned away G.M. food aid from someone who is starving, when possibly it could make the difference between life and death?

    VANDANA SHIVA: When the same situation happened in India, with the cyclone, 30,000 people dead and many hungry, when we tested the food and found it to be G.M. and we just gave the information to the people who were victims, who were hungry, they led a protest to the aid agencies and they said just because we are poor, just because we are in emergency doesn't mean you can force us to eat what we don't want to eat. Emergency cannot be used as a market opportunity.

    NISHA PILLAI: Let's move beyond food production and look at some of the global politics of food a little bit more closely. Because people say in some countries it isn't worth the producing because it's cheaper to buy it from abroad. Such is the power of dumping.

    Naomi Klein, do you think that the dumping of heavily subsidized foods by the U.S., by the European Union, ultimately in some way leads to famines here in Africa?

    NAOMI KLEIN: I think it does and I think there is a kind of crisis of credibility facing globalization right now, because the U.S. government and the European Union is in a position where they are not just making the rules, they are also breaking the rules and that is clear around the world.

    But, I just wanted to say one of the things that I think is missing from this discussion is the question of land reform. Because when you speak to a lot a hungry people in this country about what they think the solution is they say they think the solution is land reform. And in fact they have organized themselves into groups like the landless peoples' movement and are having summits of their own this week.

    There is something called the week of the landless, where there are global exchanges between Indian farmers, between farmers in El Salvador, farmers in Brazil and African farmers, and they are saying our governments have all promised us land reform and have all broken that promise in the name of being more globally competitive. They are saying "we think that land reform, giving people land to plant their own food is a solution to hunger."

    And not only isn't that on the agenda at the Earth Summit, but the people who are talking about this are being told they can't protest. They can't have a voice in this process.

    NISHA PILLAI: $20,000 a year is what the U.S. Government spends on average subsidizing U.S. farmers. Is this a problem in India as well?

    SUNITA NARAIN: No, it's not a problem. I think what is the fact is that you have unfair terms of trade. The fact that the U.S. continues to subsidize farmers, the fact that the EU continues to subsidize farmers, and the fact that Indian farmers with the meager subsidy that they get from the government, there is no way that you can compare the two. But I do think that this issue needs to be broadened a little more to say hunger is not about technology, as someone said. Hunger is about politics. And if you look at India, we have a food surplus today, but we are still very hungry. We have desperately hungry people. And therefore, it's about good politics, about giving people entitlements to food. And most importantly, talking about water and land as a major input to growing food. And governments are not very good at this. You have to recognize that, and I think multinational corporation's therefore have been able to just run around amok and governments have allowed them to get money for it.

    NISHA PILLAI: Fred Smith, give us the U.S. Government position on this.

    FRED SMITH: The U.S. Government's position is weird. We believe in free markets and subsidized agriculture. If you can make sense of that, you're doing better than I am.

    NISHA PILLAI: So it's totally untenable then?

    FRED SMITH: Well, it's certainly politically logical, because there are special interest groups who like to be subsidized. Every proposal by Peter to pay Paul has Paul's enthusiastic support and there's a lot of Pauls in the farming community.

    One of the challenges and one of the frustrations essentially I feel at this summit is by seeing technological change, biotechnology particularly, as a threat, that there is essentially locking away the one thing that could free up some of the Earth surface for environmental purposes.

    NISHA PILLAI: We heard Sunita talking just now about how small the subsidies that Indian farmers receive are because the Indian government can't afford it.

    Well in Malawi, not so far away from here, the subsidies and fertilizers and seeds that the government was paying out was forced to stop by the I.M.F. based in Washington. Penny Fowler from Oxfam, you campaigned against this, tell us about it, Penny.

    PENNY FOWLER: Well, I think the situation that's emerged from the doorstep of this summit here in Johannesburg is very serious, obviously. We see 30 million people facing famine at the moment and we're just saying one of the facts behind that, but a very important factor, is that people have been left much more vulnerable and insecure because of pressure on governments to withdraw services from rural populations.

    HARVEY BALE: The goal years ago of the US was to eliminate export subsidies over time. I'm afraid recent decisions seem to reverse that.

    NISHA PILLAI: You have a radical solution or you think it will be a radical solution, tell us about it.

    FLORENCE WAMBUGU: The problem of hunger and poverty in Africa is caused by two things. One is the governance, but most importantly the science and technology.

    NISHA PILLAI: What do you think that biotechnology, genetically modified foods and you are working on those programs, what do you think they could do to change the situation?

    FLORENCE WAMBUGU: Biotechnology has an opportunity for Africa. You don't see that as a... I consider that unique, and the reason why I consider that unique is that the technology is built in a seed.

    The reason why many African countries have not benefited from the chemical technology and previous technology is many small scale farmers cannot read and write. So when the technology is packaged in the seed, most people can benefit.

    NISHA PILLAI: Do you think they're safe, Ricardo Navarro?

    RICARDO NAVARRO: If you have hunger and you try to look for a technical solution to hunger, it's like taking a map from Germany and looking for Miami. You won't find it.

    NISHA PILLAI: But do you think it is safe?

    RICARDO NAVARRO: Of course not.

    NISHA PILLAI: Why, of course not?

    RICARDO NAVARRO: For example, a genetically modified organism is something, that in 4,500 years ago mother nature has not made. I mean those people God.

    NISHA PILLAI: You're like the person who says, "if God wanted us to fly he would have given us wings."

    RICARDO NAVARRO: Yes, well...

    NISHA PILLAI: What is the Chinese position?

    JUSTIN LIN: I think that GM food certainly can reduce the use of chemical pesticides, but at the same time I would say that the solution for hunger is not a form of technology.

    JEFFREY SACHS: There are solutions to this and to see it just as the G.M.O. issue is a big mistake. Because there are many non-G.M.O. science and technology approaches totally environmentally friendly such as intercropping, better species and better crops that could do wonders.

    NISHA PILLAI: Okay, I want to bring Nadine Gordimer in here. Will we be always stuck in this cycle?

    NADINE GORDIMER: We're talking about agriculture and the basis of feeding people. The World Bank Report, which has just come out I think a week ago, points out that by 2025, half the world will be desperately short of water. Particularly Africa, Middle East, South and East Asia. How does that fit with your goal that by 2015 we're going to half the world poverty situation. That is the question I would like to put to others.

    NISHA PILLAI: Over to Bill.

    MOYERS: Francis Lappe, I've known you a long time now and all the time I've known you, you've devoted your life to helping people feed themselves. Should we just move beyond genetically modified products. Should we move beyond the issue of subsidies and just help subsistence farmers make it?

    The Earth Debate Panel included:

    • Dr. Harvey Bale, Executive Director, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, Switzerland

    • Ms. Nadine Gordimer, Author, 1991 Nobel Laureate for Literature, South Africa, Booker Prize Winner 1974, The Conservationist, Global Goodwill Ambassador, UN Development Programme

    • Ms. Naomi Klein, Author, NO LOGO

    • Dr. Justin Lin, Professor and Founding Director, China Centre for Economic Research, Peking University

    • Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, Author, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark

    • Ms. Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India, Director, Society for Environmental Communications; Publisher, DOWN TO EARTH MAGAZINE

    • Dr. Ricardo Navarro, Chairman, Friends of the Earth International; Director, CESTA/FoE El Salvador

    • Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Director, The Earth Institute at Columbia University; Professor of Sustainable Development, Columbia University; Special Advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

    • Dr. Vandana Shiva. Founder and Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi, India

    • Mr. Fred L Smith Jr, Founder and President, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington DC, USA

    • Dr. Florence Muringi Wambugu, Executive Director, A Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International, Kenya, South Africa, and USA

    Invited Experts: Mr. Tom Burke CBE, Environmental Advisor to Rio Tinto plc and BP Amoco plc, Visiting Professor, Imperial College, London; Ms. Penny Fowler, Trade Policy Advisor, Oxfam International; Mr. William F Haddad, Advisor, Cipla Ltd, India, Chairman and CEO, Biogenerics, Inc, United States Research and Development Corp., USA, and MIR Pharmaceutical, Russia; Ms. Gail Johnson, Founder, Nkosi's Haven, South Africa; Ms. Yolanda Kakabadse, President, IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Switzerland; Mr. Martin Khor, Director, Third World Network, Malaysia; Ms. Frances Moore Lappé, Author, Diet for a Small Planet, Hope's Edge; Mr. Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, USA; Mr. Juan Mayr, Former Minister of the Environment, Colombia; Mr. Poul Nielson, Commissioner, European Commission Development & Humanitarian Aid; Dr. Robert T Watson, Director, Environment Department, The World Bank, Washington DC, USA

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