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September 2003
Using the South to Promote Genetic Engineering in Europe —Once Again!

By Tewolde Behran Gebre Egzhiaber



Tewolde Behran Gebre Egzhiaber

While I was in the United Kingdom recently, I watched a documentary on British Channel Four Television, which portrayed Africa’s poverty and implied that the average British housewife’s resistance to genetically engineered (GE) food would prevent the South from receiving the benefits of GE. The argument was that bio-technology could solve Africa’s rural poverty and could eliminate malnutrition and undernutrition if the development of their genetic engineering were not rejected in Europe. Interviews with scientists from Kenya, India and Mexico were used to show what wonderful solutions to these problems would come from genetic engineering.

We, as informed Southerners, know that the South’s poverty is caused by deep-seated structural economic imbalances which were established during the periods of slavery and colonialism and are continuing now. We know that though individual technological inputs can help in food production, given that other conditions are equally as important, those single technological inputs are insignificant on their own.

Since it is the transnational corporations which are the beneficiaries of the long history of inequity that has plagued us in our position of disadvantage, I believe that it is our responsibility to reject such a misleading over-simplification of the solution to our problem; especially the use of our condition, by those very beneficiaries of the inequity, to justify the continuation of the benefits that they derive.

Letter to Channel Four Television:
We are appalled at the use made of the poverty of the rural people of the South to justify genetically modified food to Northern consumers. We are appalled for the following reasons:

1. Poverty in the South is structurally rooted in the prevalent North–South relationships. The present systems of international resource control, commodity pricing, education, training, research, finance, banking, insurance, transportation, etc. are all components of the system that controls wealth and poverty, and which started being put in place during the slavery and colonial periods and have matured in this post-colonial period. Southern poverty, especially rural poverty, is a consequence of this.

2. As such, the solution to rural poverty lies in a multidimensional corrective measure that would enable sufficient local control of the appropriation of the benefits that arise from the use of and trade in resources, as well as the application of labor.

3. The assumption that the complex rural poverty that afflicts the South, would be amenable to solution through single technological inputs is grossly incorrect and totally objectionable since it would misdirect efforts.

4. Though technological inputs have a role to play in rural development, and genetic engineering could be a technology to consider, it would remain but one technology among many. For example, even if potential yields of food crops were to be dramatically improved, if storage, transportation, marketing, distribution, and the ability to buy the food were not simultaneously improved, the effort would still remain ineffective. In fact, as we keep pointing out, it is not shortage of food that is the problem, but its distribution. More GE food is not the point: it is improving access and local food security. But corporations do not profit from such solutions.

5. There are high yielding varieties in rural areas but their impacts remain limited by the bottlenecks imposed by many of the other variables. The agricultural research stations that are found in Southern countries have also produced many such varieties and the potentials of these varieties remain unrealized because of the other negative factors. But research must continue so that there will always be higher yielding varieties to have their potential impacts realized as and when conditions allow it. It is a gross oversimplification to state that such seed would solve rural food problems. The picture is the same with seed of improved nutritional quality such as Vitamin A rice.

6. At the heart of the inequity that maintains the present poverty of the South is the inherited positive advantage that the Northern transnational corporations enjoy. We consider the use of the South’s rural poverty to justify the monopoly control and global use of genetically modified food production by the North’s transnational corporations, not only an obstructive lie, but a way of derailing the solutions to our Southern rural poverty. It is the height of cynical abuse of the corporations’ position of advantage. Channel Four Television and The Times newspaper should be ashamed for allowing themselves to be so manipulated into trying effectively to emotionally blackmail the UK public into using GE.

Tewolde Bherhan Gebre Egziabher
is the General Manager of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority, and Ethiopia’s negotiator for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

This article originally appeared in Voices from the South: The Third World Debunks Corporate Myths on Genetically Engineered Crops, a report edited by Ellen Hickey and Anuradha Mittal and co-published by Food First and Pesticide Action Network North America ( To read the whole report or purchase a copy, visit Reprinted with kind permission.



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