Golden rice is no silver bullet: hunger needs a political solution

20 February 2013

Golden Rice
Golden Rice

Golden Rice has recently made international headlines following the Philippine Government’s decision to allow the plant to be released throughout its jurisdiction. Golden rice is genetically modified (GM) to have a higher content of vitamin A than other rice varieties, and Bangladesh and India are also considering adopting it.

The Philippines’ decision comes hot on the heels of the “confession” by high-profile anti-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas that he was wrong to have opposed GM crops.

These announcements have been accompanied by condemnations of those opposed to GM crops. They are accused of robbing the world’s hungry and malnourished of a solution to food insecurity.

However, there are still reasons to question the spread of GM crops, including Golden Rice.
Can technology solve the problem of global hunger?

This is not a new debate. Back in the 1960s and 70s, scientists argued that the “Green Revolution” of that era would end global hunger. This revolution in industrialised farming practices did increase yields, at least in the short-run. But it was often followed by the depletion of soil and water quality and the rapid exhaustion of non-renewable resources such as oil and phosphates, undermining the long-term productive capacity of agricultural resources in many places.

At the same time, much long-held knowledge and expertise in farming practices specific to certain regions and cultures was lost. Biodiverse approaches to farming were replaced by monocultures, reducing dietary variety and contributing to malnutrition.

In a similar way, relying on a single crop to produce vitamin A may exacerbate other nutrient deficiencies.

Technocratic solutions, whether associated with the Green Revolution or the Golden Rice project, do not address the central structural problems. Hunger is a result of unequal distribution of resources.

As David Harvey pointed out when responding to advocates of the first Green Revolution, there are already sufficient resources to meet the needs of the world’s population to a high standard of living.

This remains the case today. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that we are producing more than enough food for the world’s population but poverty prevents people from accessing it. Hunger is a political problem and its resolution cannot be divorced from an analysis of competing political and economic interests.

We live in an economic system based on a relentless drive for growth, a compulsion to competition and structural inequality between classes. This undermines any attempt to resolve problems like global hunger and ecological destruction. There is always a tendency to deplete human and biophysical resources, leading to the kinds of social and ecological crisis that the world faces today.

Capitalism can and does find temporary fixes, but the growth imperative leads to the creation of new problems. The Green Revolution is an instructive example, where attempts to solve the problems of unequal access to food resources by increasing production led to a decrease in the productive capacity of agricultural resources, and failed to alleviate the problem of hunger.

To paraphrase both Freidrich Engels and the recently deceased geographer and anthropologist Neil Smith, the bourgeoisie have no solution to social and environmental problems; they simply move them around.

Technologies become tools not so much to address material needs as to solve economic problems and crises. Contrary to promises made over the past few hundred years, they often intensified exploitation and oppression, rather than alleviating it.

For example, advances in productive technology have not led to a shorter working week, as was once proposed by the trade union movement and anticipated by sociologists of post-industrialism. They have helped to reorganise work, with some losing jobs while others now work longer and harder. But they have also required an increase in consumerism to absorb the increased production.

GM crops might successfully resist pesticides but lock farmers into buying the pesticides they are engineered to resist and to expensive patented seeds rather than practicing the ancient and ecologically attractive alternative of growing their own.

This is not to oppose science and technological development but to ask: “which science, in the service of which interests and shaped by which social forces?”. The type of technology that is discovered, invented and developed at any particular time is highly dependent on the prevailing social and power relations.
The politics of agricultural technology: locking-in GM crops

GM crops continue to receive so much attention and research funding despite clear statements from leading agricultural scientists that they have not been shown to be more beneficial than crops bred by other means.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report of 2008 brought together over 400 of the world’s agronomists and other experts on food and farming. They found that agroecology and locally based food economies are the best strategies for combating poverty and hunger. The UN’s Olivier de Schutter has made similar calls. But these ideas receive short shrift from global policy makers and the industry.

The existing agricultural research regime favours privatising resources with intellectual property rights, backed by global trade rules, providing financial incentives to develop GM crops. An increasing reliance on private funding and public-private partnerships for research means that projects are increasingly driven by a profit motive.

Corporate consolidation also means that a handful of companies now control much of the seed. All this tends to “lock in” genetically modified crop development and “lock out” agroecology. But the process also locks out independent research. That includes research into new production techniques, particularly research which might do more to combat poverty and hunger by identifying the types of social and economic reforms necessary to rebalance power and democratise the economy.

Those who take hunger, malnutrition and inequality seriously have every reason to question the usefulness of Golden Rice and GM technology in general. The Conversation

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