Oxfam Berated by Eco-activists on GM Issues
Oxfam's recent position paper, Genetically Modified Crops, World Trade and Security is a thoughtful and balanced document. It is rightly concerned that the introduction of GM crops in the third world may lead to a consolidation of control of local agriculture by large, agro-industrial companies. It recognises, however, that GM crops, with their higher yields, "could be of benefit to poor farmers in the longer term if applications are directed to their needs." For this reason the paper includes the recommendation that:
"Donor governments and agencies should commit resources for investment in research into the potential opportunities of GM technology to deliver economic, environmental and health benefits to poor farmers in adverse agro-ecological zones."
Of particular interest to Oxfam are nitrogen-fixing crops and those which are drought or salt-resistant, and it sees a need for both public and private investment in GM technologies in these areas.
The paper, of course, is hedged about with references to the precautionary principle, the need for a moratorium on the commercial growing of GM crops in the West, concern about the environmental impact of such crops, etc. Oxfam seeks to further the cause of famine-relief through the application of new technology. At the same time it is at pains to point out that "technological fixes alone . cannot solve this problem, despite the claims that have been made for them." Oxfam is clearly no friend of Monsanto.
This cautious stance, however, has not prevented Oxfam from becoming a new target of the eco-activists. The very suggestion that GM crops may have a role to play in helping to prevent starvation and relieve poverty has offended those whose concerns lie more with misdirected political ideologies than with the suffering of millions of individuals around the world.
Vandana Shiva – the leading eco-feminist from the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi, has responded immediately with an open letter to Oxfam, distributed through the various email lists of green activist groups. She accuses Oxfam of "betraying the South, the poor and food security objectives." GM-free agriculture, she claims, is "good for the poor and good for the environment", although what she means by 'good' in this context is not clear. The farmers' movements in India which currently oppose the introduction of GM crops, and which Vandana Shiva has done so much to champion, are seen by others in India as very conservative groups seeking to preserve an almost feudal way of life. Such movements are also very instrumental in maintaining inflated food prices at the expense of the landless majority in some regions of India. All of this stands in stark contrast to the nostalgic and often patronising image of the peasant farmer and his/her idyllic lifestyle in harmony with mother nature that Vandana Shiva paints.
The real insult in Vandana Shiva's open letter, however, comes in the penultimate paragraph:
"Oxfam will definitely be assisting to provide relief in the recent disaster caused by the super cyclone in Orissa. We hope your food aid will be GE-free."
We are sure that the people of East India will be grateful to Vandana Shiva for that.