Does Monsanto have the Midas Touch: “Golden Rice” a golden opportunity or false hope?

Monsanto’s newest GM crop, golden rice, masquerades as a philanthropic venture -to alleviate vitamin A deficiency in third world children- and is paraded as a “silver bullet” technology.   It has the backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Helen Keller International, the Rockefeller Foundation and the U.S. agency for International Development. 

Who could possibly object to such a “good” cause.? 

I was outraged to read UKs environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s rhetorical campaign claiming that opponents of third world GM crops are “wicked” and “disgusting”.  Like other hysterically unqualified defenses of rationality, this carries a worrying whiff of fundamentalism.  His recent comments have raised a unanimous ire from the environmental movement community such as: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, ActionAid and other non-government organizations.   The fact that he went so far as to claim that “these protests will be condemning millions of people to a premature death” is nothing short of spin doctoring.  Even more concerning is the editorial that the journal Science published makes a series of highly dubious claims and that some of its authors have links to GM companies – of course this conflict of interest was not stated in the editorial.  There not alone, the globe and mail is also spreading misinformation.

Sure, Monsanto WILL be helping children but at the end of the day they are an agricultural/biotech company so the interest lies, not in sound science or sick children but, in the bottom line.  The best way to make money is control the market and before you can do that you need to convince people that there’s something else at stake. Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia, has said: “Golden rice is really a “Trojan horse”; a public relations stunt pulled by the agribusiness corporations to garner the acceptance of GE crops and food.  The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money.”

GM Bt cotton and seed monopoly has a created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India; one farmer every 30 minutes commits suicide.  Farmers must borrow large sums of money to invest in GM technology. They do so based on promises that yields will increase and profits will soar. But when the promises fail to pan out and farmers are unable to keep paying for the expensive pesticides, they typically end up losing everything, including access to reusable heirloom seeds. So, many end up killing themselves because they literally have nothing left.  Through patents on GM products Monsanto sues farmers and traps them in debt, while the PR machinery spins tales of improving farmer’s welfare, and the deception that GMOs feed the world (the real issue here is global population; a contentious issue that no one seems to want to talk about).  Monsanto’s talk of “technology” tries to hide its real objectives of ownership and control over seed where genetic engineering is just a means to control seed and the food system through patents and intellectual property rights.

Let me tell you a little story about a product that Monsanto made over 50 years ago: Agent Orange.  Sure it was never marketed to save children -in fact quite the opposite, if they had advertisements it would have been like this– but I bring this up for one reason, and one reason only: accountability.  Although Agent Orange was only used for a decade its effects persists to this day.  That is, three generations of exposed Vietnamese families and American veterans suffering from horrific birth defects and disabilities.  Monsanto and Dow contaminated the land of Vietnam, destroyed the forests, killed, maimed, and crippled millions of people, but never admitted responsibility or paid a cent in compensation to the victims and their families.  As Baron Thurlow once said about corporations “[they] have no soul to save, no body to incarcerate”, we saw this with the financial-crisis where virtually every major bank and financial company on Wall Street destroyed trillions of dollars of the world’s wealth and nobody went to jail.  If golden rice gets the go-ahead Monsanto stands to gain immensely, they will happily reap profits and if anything went wrong people it will be PEOPLE paying for it for untold generations and… nobody goes to jail.  I’m sure positive Monsanto would get off the hook and little, if any, reparations would ever be made.

I believe the most moderate, ethical and scientific view in SUPPORT of golden rice is that of Professor Huw Jones, research group leader at the Center for Crop Genetic Improvement at Rothamsted: “There are three key issues: Is it safe? Is it effective? And will there be informed choice in the grower/consumer communities?  If the answer to all is yes, then it is a no-brainer that golden rice should be part of the solution to malnourishment in Asia.  The field trials must be done and let’s let the local communities decide.”  Clearly here, the greatest assets are skepticism and democracy.  We need to use due diligence to investigate this before we go ahead.  In the meantime, furthermore instances of power-play (like Mr. Paterson’s) specifically designed to evaporate people’s normal critical faculties is a kind of extremism that airbrushes out alternatives and attempts to deny the space not only for discussion, but even for imagination.

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