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Volume 70, Issue 46, Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Opinion

Read Dr. Frankenstein his rights

Matt Clement
Opinion Columnist

Dr. Frankenstein has been in the lab again, but this time the monster is filled with chloroplasts and sautéed. That's right, genetically modified food is the new potion being brewed by wacky biotech scientists, the Dr. Frankensteins of today.

But to say that GM food is new is misleading. In December 1998, Science magazine reported, "more than one-half of the world soybean harvest and about one-third of the corn harvest now comes from plants engineered with genes for herbicide or disease resistance. These commodities find their way into hundreds of foods such as breakfast cereals, cooking oils, corn syrup, soft drinks and candies."

So, people have been eating GM food for years, and there is still some question as to the health concerns that come inherently with it. There is a lot of commotion about the potential health risks from consuming GM food, but whether or not these health concerns are legitimate is not the topic here. In fact, if this question is even being asked, the real argument against GM food has already been missed.

There should be concern about biotechnology, but by asking the question whether or not GM food threatens the consumer's health, critics have already accepted the reasons given for developing the technology in the first place. Namely, the world does not have enough food to feed itself. Most proponents of GM food argue that crop productivity is to blame for the continuing high rates of undernourishment. Most say that farmers are not yielding enough food to feed the billions of people on the planet, let alone the expected population explosion in the near future.

Poof! An indisputable argument appears in favor of GM food. There is not enough food right now, and there will not be enough for the future. If hunger is to be overcome, a remedy must be found. And, since science helped in the past with things like antibiotics, it will be called upon again to figure out how to increase agricultural yield. So, biotech scientists mix and match, stir up, alter and modify genes and presto! Soybeans are resistant to herbicide.

Sadly, these efforts are in vain. Food biotech was never needed because there has been plenty of food to go around for the whole world. Jesus' loaves have multiplied; they're just not getting to the rabble's table. The United States Department of Agriculture reports, "Per capita food availability on a global basis increased from about 2,300 calories per day in 1961 to almost 2,800 calories per day in 1998." Understanding the facts that they present, the USDA concludes, "The world's resources are adequate to produce enough food for its population. However, because the available food is distributed unevenly, many countries experience food insecurity, where food supplies are inadequate to maintain per capita consumption or meet nutritional requirements."

So there is enough food. The real obstacle to eliminating an estimated 900 million cases of undernourished individuals is the distribution of food, not the production. Genetically modifying food is an expendable activity. Here's the irony: scientists, believing they are doing something good, continue to work hard in perfecting a technology that is irrelevant. All their brilliance, time and energy should be diverted to solving the real problem: rearranging the institutions that are involved in distributing food.

After independence from a history of colonialism, many countries began to implement more democratic forms of food distribution and health care systems in general. The achievements were remarkable. In the 1960s and 1970s, life expectancies in developing countries increased dramatically, incidences of hunger declined, and the world seemed to be making a relatively quick turnaround.

Some would attribute the success in fighting hunger to new, highly productive varieties of wheat and rice known as the Green Revolution. However, not all the credit should be given to these new varieties. In fact, in the United States, food was in abundant supply even during the Great Depression, well before the Green Revolution. Even then, though, the access to food was an epidemic; U.S. soldiers killed four marchers during the Dearborn hunger strike in 1932 at a Ford automobile plant.

The fight against hunger, therefore, must incorporate things other than technology. Above all, improved access to food is a proven tactic in the fight against hunger. But what threatens access to food? Wangari Mathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, said, "Biotechnology and patenting of life forms is now the new frontier for conquest, and Africa ought to be wary because a history of colonialism and exploitation is repeating itself."

Mathai, therefore, throws a changeup in the story. She claims that Frankenstein's creation is very relevant. Wangari is saying that GM food will have a negative effect on people's access to food, not because of the technology itself but because of patenting policies that are so easily implemented with biotech food. With biotech, it is easier to say that food has been invented, therefore easier to patent; in the end this only creates more obstacles for people to overcome to access food. While all this is hypothetical, history has proven that even if food is available, access is a completely different story. History has also shown us who will be the winners: big agribusiness corporations, who continue to rake in ever-increasing profits. So, the pigs sit at overflowing troughs, filling their fat faces, telling the Frankensteins of the world that there's not enough food. Samuel L. Jackson was right. Pigs are filthy animals and have no personality.

Clement, a columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at balec@uh.edu.

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