miércoles, septiembre 24, 2008

Biotech Snake Oil: A Quack Cure for Hunger

Rising global food prices reached a flash point this spring, sparking food riots in over a dozen countries. Mexican tortillas have quadrupled in price; Haiti's prime minister was ousted amid rice riots; African countries were especially hard hit. According to the World Bank, global food prices have risen a shocking 83 percent over the past three years. And for the world's poor, high prices mean hunger.

The global food crisis has many causes, but according to the biotechnology industry, there's a simple solution - genetically modified, or biotech, crops. Biotech multinationals have been in media blitz mode ever since the food crisis first made headlines, touting miracle crops that will purportedly increase yields, tolerate droughts, grow in saline soils, and be chockfull of nutrients, to boot.

"If we are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of cutting hunger and poverty in half by 2015," says Clive James, founder of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an organization whose funders include all the major biotech companies, "biotech crops must play an even bigger role in the next decade."

Not everyone is convinced. In fact, the UN and World Bank recently completed an unprecedentedly broad scientific assessment of world agriculture, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which concluded that biotech crops have very little potential to alleviate poverty and hunger. This four-year effort, which engaged some 400 experts from multiple disciplines, originally included industry representatives. Just three months before the final report was released, however, Monsanto, Syngenta and chemical giant BASF pulled out of the process, miffed by the poor marks given their favorite technology. This withdrawal upset even the industry-friendly journal Nature, which chided the companies in an editorial entitled, "Deserting the Hungry?"