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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Strategic CSR - GM Foods

Internally, I have long debated the value of genetically modified (GM) crops. The PR surrounding them is compelling (increase crop yields as a way to minimize hunger and malnutrition around the world), yet they still seem somewhat creepy (modifying plants to taste differently and repel insects). Speeding up the process of evolution seems dangerous in ways that we may not be aware of before it is too late. In contrast, the editorial by The Economist in the url below takes a definitive stand in favor of further exploration and study. In the process, it also does a good job of pointing out the dangers of unrepresentative NGOs.
First, the editorial makes the statement that, following the recent retraction of an academic paper from 2012 that suggested GM foods might cause cancer (the paper’s methods were found to be flawed):
“There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings. There is plenty of evidence, though, that they benefit the health of the planet.”
This is important because of the challenge posed by the global population expansion:
“One of the biggest challenges facing mankind is to feed the 9 billion-10 billion people who will be alive and (hopefully) richer in 2050. This will require doubling food production on roughly the same area of land, using less water and fewer chemicals. It will also mean making food crops more resistant to the droughts and floods that seem likely if climate change is a bad as scientists fear.”
Importantly, we have no good alternatives. In other words, it is either utilize GM technology or condemn many millions of people to a miserable life and an early death:
“Organic farming—the kind beloved of greens—cannot meet this challenge. It uses far too much land. If the Green revolution had never happened, and yields had stayed at 1960 levels, the world could not produce its current food output even if it ploughed up every last acre of cultivable land.”
GM foods, on the other hand, offer a real potential solution to this challenge, while also containing environmental benefits:
“GM crops boost yields, protecting wild habitat from the plough. They are more resistant to the vagaries of climate change, and to diseases and pests, reducing the need for agrochemicals.”
NGO groups opposed to GM foods, however, apparently cannot sacrifice the principle of opposition for the practicality of expanding access to food and nutrition:
“In August environmentalists in the Philippines vandalised a field of Golden Rice, an experimental grain whose genes had been modified to carry beta-carotene, a chemical precursor of vitamin A. Golden Rice is not produced by a corporate behemoth but by the public sector. Its seeds will be handed out free to farmers. The aim is to improve the health of children in poor countries by reducing vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and cases of blindness each year.”
The editorial states that this is no longer an argument of ideological purity, but a significant moral and ethical transgression:
“Vandalising GM field trials is a bit like the campaign of some religious leaders to prevent smallpox inoculations: it causes misery, even death, in the name of obscurantism and unscientific belief. … On moral, economic and environmental grounds, this must stop.”
The editorial is particularly insightful in noting the inconsistent use of scientific research:
“In the field of climate change, environmentalists insist that the scientific consensus should frame policy. They should follow that principle with GM crops, and abandon a campaign that impoverishes people and the rest of the planet.”
NGOs have a higher duty of transparency and accountability. These organizations often have a narrow funding base and face little oversight (other than via laws and regulations). As such, they have a duty to ensure their actions maximize value, broadly defined, rather than pushing the political agendas of a minority. In terms of GM foods, it is hard not to agree with The Economist that they need to reassess their priorities. After all, as the article in the second url below notes:
“About 93% of the soybeans and 85% of the corn grown in the US are genetically modified, according to the USDA.”
Take care
David Chandler & Bill Werther
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Fields of beaten gold
December 7, 2013
The Economist
By Marc Gunther
December 4, 2013
The Guardian