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A Critique of Christian Aid and its Attitude to GM crops

Scientists for Labor
January, 2003


A further twist has been added to the GM controversy in the UK by the recent development of "golden rice". This rice has been modified by inserting genes from other plant species such that the rice now produces vitamin A. This very considerable scientific achievement was made by Ingo Potrykus and his colleagues in a Swiss laboratory and they were supported in this task for over 5 years by public and charitable funds. Their specific objective was to provide a solution to the ravages of vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. However there have been virulent attacks on the whole concept of vitamin A-rice by a range of anti-GM organisations. What is surprising is that Christian Aid, as expounded in a policy paper by Kevan Bundel, has become wedded to the same doctrine. They believe that far simpler solutions to the problems already exist and are being applied and that the advent of GM rice may remove the political will to tackle the underlying question of poverty.

Christian Aid are aware of the extent of the problem of vitamin A deficiency as presented by the WHO but claim that this can be tackled by greater emphasis on education, on diet and by addressing the root causes of poverty.

There are a great number of misconceptions in the Christian Aid paper and some of these are addressed here. We also suggest that Christian Aid and other NGOs have the opportunity to exploit current scientific advances for the benefit of the poor and should take the initiative in harnessing the goodwill which is undoubtedly present within the scientific community to do so.

One shot: magic bullet?

It is clear that weaned babies are the ones most at risk from vitamin A deficiency leading to blindness or death. It is important to note that they are fed on rice gruel from processed rice i.e. the husks have to be removed (see addendum). There is an enormous number of children at risk here and the advocacy of education for dietary changes such as retaining the husk (which does contain a small amount of Vitamin A) or growing green vegetables seems to be very unrealistic. Getting dietary facts over by education is difficult and slow and is uncertain as regards success. Furthermore the educational input has to be continuous since there is no guarantee that it will be passed on to others and is much like the other solution used at present which is simply to hand out vitamin A tablets to those children who can be reached.

Educational campaigns on diet in the UK are relatively unsuccessful even with all resources available for advertising. As for food, the government here simply insists that manufacturers add back vitamins removed by processing (many manufacturers making a virtue of it). Vitamin A rice is an ideal way to provide food supplements in parts of the world where processed food and a food industry is weak. It is also argued that education will enable green crops to be grown on wasteland. Is this realistic in the middle of cities? With burgeoning populations and available waste land diminishing every year (and in Bangladesh with the prospect of land disappearing under the sea due to global warming ) this policy has clearly not been thought through. The Christian Aid policy castigates the vitamin A rice as a "one-shot, magic bullet" approach whilst not accepting that advocating diet education as the way forward is itself as one shot and magic bullet! Surely both approaches should go hand in hand together with other measures.

Multinationals are the bad guys!

There is no doubt of the antagonism to the large global seed companies among the general public and there are great suspicions about their motives in promoting gene technologies. Christian Aid and other NGO's have made this antagonism a major weapon in their anti-GM campaigns. However it must be remembered that these companies moved into the development of GM some 15 years ago because they realised that the continued direct applications of agrochemicals would eventually become unacceptable. They believed that the new advances in gene technology offered an alternative route to more efficient farming with less use of chemicals and hence less cost to the environment. In particular only such companies harness the huge intellectual and management resources that are needed to develop and test their products to the very high standards now demanded by the public.

Christian Aid seeks to link the activities of the multinationals to the concept of GM crops and refuses to separate them. Thus "a handful of corporations remain the major force in trying to push GM technology in the field - including into developing countries - ahead of public debate, regulation and even adequate research" (Dr Daleep Mukarji - Director of Christian Aid). In their policy papers they appear to have overlooked alternative ways of developing GM such as with public and charitable funds. Public funds through the universities and research institutes provided (and continue to do so) the fundamental basis for the development of plant gene technology. It was the Rockefeller Foundation (along with the European Commission) that funded Potrykus in Switzerland to produce vitamin A rice. This Foundation is a primary US charity whose function is to help solve world food problems. They funded the production of the green revolution rice and wheat in the early 60's which have had profound effects for example in India, Indonesia, China and Mexico reducing the price of food and accommodating substantial population growth without massive starvation.

The Rockefeller Foundation has now turned almost all its attention to Africa where the green revolution has dramatically failed. In many respects they are a model for organisations wishing to get to grips with food problems in the developing world. They, in contrast to Christian Aid and other NGOs, believe in harnessing commercial and scientific expertise to solve the problems of food production and nutrition. Thus, for example, it has recently purchased a gene from Monsanto which confers resistance to a potato virus. In Mexican hill farms a particularly virulent virus is trashing the potato crop and Rockefeller has had its own grantees insert the gene into the local potato and after testing given the product free to Mexican hill farmers. Rockefeller's attitude is that eventually such farmers will become self-sufficient and contribute to the local economy. It will most certainly be doing the same for the banana crop in Eastern Africa where the banana streak virus is playing havoc with this important staple crop.

The apparent lack of research before the introduction of these crops is often pointed out by those opposed to GM. Closer enquiry will reveal that the lead up period to the commercial introduction is normally at least three to four years and follows procedures which are much more rigorous than that required for conventionally modified crops(which normally have substantially more genetic rearrangements).

Choice for the poor?

We note with approval that the Director of Christian Aid has stated that "the developing countries should have choice both about GM and how they are to meet their food needs". This is in stark contrast to their policy paper which roundly condemns the vitamin A rice and nowhere even suggests that peasants of Northern India and Bangladesh should be given the opportunity to make choices. It is claimed that local people are telling them that they do not want GM crops. Perhaps Christian Aid has been listening to the wealthy Indian, Vandana Shiva, whose ideological opposition to GM has reached the ludicrous situation that they are campaigning against the emergency food aid given to the victims of the Orissa super cyclone on the basis that it contains evidence of GM soya - even although this soya is widely consumed in its country of origin, the USA. Our own experience from scientists and field workers in the developing world tells us that they are completely puzzled by the attitudes of many of the development agencies on this topic. It is interesting to note that not all charities approach this problem in the same way. Thus the youth charity WORLDwrite believes that the negative attitudes to science and technology displayed by many in the affluent west play a major role in holding back progress in the developing world.

The political will to tackle poverty

Vitamin A rice will not completely solve the problems of malnutrition or poverty; no technology can. The Christian Aid paper assumes that there are many in the scientific community who think that GM technology on its own should be able to do this. We know of no scientists holding this view. Everyone who has some awareness of the situation in poor countries will know that such problems are complex and require many different approaches for their solution. The advent of the green revolution bringing with it vastly improved crop yields has not diminished the political will of organisations like Christian Aid and their supporters to fight to change the injustices that permeate the economic system that keeps the developing world in poverty. The introduction of appropriate gene-improved crops offers another way of supplementing the attack on poverty but does not diminish the responsibilities of all of us to continue to lobby for change.

What should Christian Aid do about GM crops?

There is no doubt that there is an anti-GM hysteria in Europe encouraged by a sensation -seeking media. We suggest that Christian Aid should seek to address these anxieties and ask if there are any advantages to the developing world in exploiting GM technology. We make the apparently outrageous suggestion that this can be done by co-operating with GM companies! In part, because of these concerns in the public mind, we would expect that many of the maligned GM companies would be very willing to co-operate in the development and testing of specific GM crops in close collaboration with organisations like Christian Aid. There are many crops which could potentially be beneficial to poor communities which are of no commercial interest and might otherwise not be developed at all. There is plenty of evidence that many of the pharmaceutical multinationals are now becoming very aware of their poor record in developing and providing products for poorer communities and are actively seeking to show that they do have wider concerns. Why not use this opportunity to get the GM companies on board now by asking them (in much the same way as the Rockefeller Foundation) to provide their expertise and resources (even free) for this proposal? The solution adapted by Potrykus by co-operating with Astra Zenaca in the development of the vitamin A rice while ensuring that poorer farmers have ready access to the improved crops is one route. There will be many candidates for such an initiative particularly where there are staple crops in danger of attrition by virus and other diseases. However, the decisions on the specific projects must be left to those who have the expertise in the field and in the laboratory. We have no doubt that there is immense goodwill in the relevant scientific and other disciplines to help in this task . We believe that by conducting such an operation in an open manner (e.g. using the web) and addressing not only the agronomic performance but any effects on human health as well as environmental impacts and social and economic and cultural criteria that the exercise will draw attention to the problems that exist in the developing world. At a more political level we suggest that Christian Aid should lobby the government (as we have) to allocate more resources into research on the development of GM crops for supporting farmers in the developing world.

To leave this issue entirely in the hands of those who are ideologically opposed to GM technology would, in our opinion, be indicative of a paternalistic attitude and would not provide the freedom of choice which all of us apparently advocate. We would also ask Christian Aid to consider that they may be wrong - and at the expense of the poor. At least by taking up this proposal they can put everyone to the test.

We have supplemented the above by providing an addendum where some of the issues raised in the Christian Aid policy document are dealt with in greater detail.

Tony Trewavas FRS, FRSE
University of Edinburgh

Willie Russell FRSE
University of St Andrews

Sean Munro PhD

David Gosling PhD
University of Cambridge

Fred Mellon PhD

Robin Walters PhD
University of Sheffield

Note the authors are not connected with commercial agrichemical concerns in any way.

All are members of Scientists for Labour.


The headings below refer to those in the policy paper written by Kevan Bundelll

Limitations and problems of GM vitamin A rice

The point is made that the malnutrition is predominantly not the result of an absolute shortage of food but rather its maldistribution as a result of poverty. This is true at present but given the forecasts of huge population increases the absolute shortage of food will be an additional burden.

During the Green Revolution, between 1970 and 1985, rice production grew at a faster rate than the human population; an enormous achievement brought about by advances in agricultural science. However, since the mid-1980s, rice production has lagged behind population growth, and estimates are that rice harvests will have to increase by some 40 per cent over the next 20 years to meet the increased demand - the "yield gap". Given that there is limited rice production capacity outside Asia, and that many countries in South Asia do not have the resources to buy rice from exporting countries, it becomes clear that the only way to meet this goal is to raise yields by tackling the problems of plant diseases and by using the skills of the scientist to increase the yield per plant. It is also worth remembering that rice contributes as much as three quarters of the food intake in many parts of Asia and therefore is a key element in tackling the problems of nutritional deficiencies. GM technology is being developed now to meet the problems of yield and there are many promising avenues being explored.

The major thrust of Kevan Bundell's argument against vitamin A rice is that it is not appropriate because there are other important nutritional deficiencies and other factors such as poor hygiene, dirty water and intestinal infections which must also be addressed. He claims that priority must be given to operational fieldwork and to food and nutrition education and that there are other simpler solutions to the problems of vitamin A deficiency. The promotion of diet education is, of course, one of the routes that can be taken but there are many difficulties in the implementation as discussed before.

This catalogue of objections looks as if he is scraping about to belittle any merit in the vitamin A product and is a clear indication that he is fundamentally opposed to the use of the technology per-se. He mentioned iron and other vitamin deficiencies but there are also ongoing studies in rice to insert other vitamin pathways and to correct mineral shortcomings.

We also believe that this apparent hostility to GM, although well intended, risks hurting the very people that Christian Aid wish to protect. It may well be correct that large companies have little interest in developing GM crops to help developing farmers. This, in turn, means that such crops will need to be developed by scientists in both the rich and poorer nations who are funded by governments and charities. Indiscriminant attacks on GM technology will reduce the political will to spend money on such activities. This has already happened in the case of the GM vitamin-A rice where funding from the EU was slashed, along with many other GM projects in response to public concerns.

He also implies that scientists are not aware of the other complex problems that contribute to poverty and that they are promoting the improved rice as the answer to these. Such an assumption we find ridiculous. We would point out, for instance, that many scientists are actively involved in seeking to alleviate the ravages of infectious diseases . Indeed WHO has recently alerted world governments to the fact that many millions die of preventable diseases - much more than succumb in the well publicised famines.

Alternative Solutions

It is claimed that GM rice is unnecessary because there are other solutions such as encouraging small scale gardens on whatever land is available and using "sustainable agricultural techniques". The former proposal will obviously be a helpful one in a few limited situations but in no way will meet the needs of the millions of urban poor.

There is no doubt that some of the problems experienced by a number of poor farmers in using "green revolution" crops usually are the result of poor agricultural practice such as failure to rotate crops. Christian Aid and their partners should continue to ensure that the best practices are in place so that there is a proper return on green revolution crops with benefits to further employment, farmers' incomes and the price of food. Farmers can then make a better choice of diet and not simply be limited to what they themselves grow. In the solutions offered however there is a strong emphasis on the use of traditional varieties and so called natural fertilisers - presumably similar to the practices of organic farming now such a predominant feature of many of the European environmentalist campaigns. While the "sustainable agricultural techniques" may be acceptable to the affluent West it should be noted that the crops being used there are without exception those which have been derived by genetic techniques. Animal manure is fine as a soil conditioner but when it becomes the sole source of minerals for plant growth then it is found to be extremely variable in its basic essential constituents of N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium). Ultimately P and K are only derived from rain water in organic agriculture. Manure releases N continuously throughout the year and wastefully when crop growth has ceased and cannot be used. The excess N as nitrate then finds its way into waterways. Unless manure is put raw into the ground, animal manure also loses substantive amounts of N from ammonia. If green manure is used then land can be wasted in provision of the crop for manure. The major difficulty here again, as has been found in the UK, is ensuring that N is readily available when it is most needed at the beginning of crop growth and canopy development. Organic technologies are much beloved by environmentalists because they are thought to be more sustainable and of course more primitive; in fact they are wasteful of resources particularly arable land which is in short supply. They are really only suitable for rich western economies. As for sustainability it can be added that the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has maintained a field outside the Institute in which three crops of rice have been harvested every year for the last 30 years using mineral supplements without any loss of yield using a two to three year rotation with manure. A similar even longer term study at Rothamstead in the UK has shown that sustainable yields can be achieved with minimal appropriate input of inorganic fertilizer supplement. The obvious preference for promoting traditional varieties ignore the facts that many of them are very susceptible to disease and are very poor yielders. Here again GM technologies can be of tremendous benefit while retaining the main characteristics of the local varieties.

More Problems

Kevan Bundell in the latter part of his polemic then conjures up other inhibitors to the development of the rice viz its development will take time and resources which can be better used and will let governments "off the hook" in dealing with malnutrition and he points out the cultural problems of acceptance of a coloured rice.

These points bear some resemblance to those put forward in the last century by Lord Alfred Russell Wallace who campaigned against smallpox vaccination on the grounds that it would disguise the need for improvements in housing, hygiene and education!

Wider issues

In the final section of Kevan Bundell's tract the role of the multinationals and their acquisition of patents is presented as proof of their lust for control of the global food chain. Many of us can agree with this analysis but this is not specific to the agricompanies - the same is true for the mega media companies and the retailing trade etc and we can and do support campaigns to ensure that global capitalism is contained within an ethical dimension. We do join with Christian Aid in their concerns about patents particularly because they could be used to prevent farmers in the developing world having access to gene technology if it might be of benefit. This is especially true at present when over the next couple of years the genomes of many of the worlds crop plants will be sequenced, including those such as rice and cassava which are staples in developing world. But again painting GM crops in an unremittingly hostile and negative light will not achieve the laudable aim of widening access to gene technology. If the public is incorrectly convinced that GM technology is inherently bad for the developing farmers, they are not likely to exert pressure for the developing world to be given access to it.

What is disconcerting about this campaign against the multinationals is the linkage to the poor of the world with the statement that "it would be naive not to recognise the propaganda value of developments such as vitamin A rice to the GM industry". This is the nub of the whole argument-it seems as if Christian Aid are so wedded to an anti-GM philosophy that they are not willing to accept that there are other uses for GM crops which are not concerned with making profits for big business.

Coming through these final points is the uncritical and sweeping condemnation of GM crops because of the risk of "genetic pollution" and of their "threat to agricultural biodiversity". The risk of "genetic pollution" is a common statement by those opposed to GM technology. It normally comes under the more familiar slogan of "letting the genie out of the bottle". What is the biological basis for such assertions? Genes do not stalk through the countryside jumping from weed to weed like some invading army of soldier ants. There is the little matter of selective advantage necessary. Is the author suggesting that vitamin A rice when grown will find its way into and be maintained and proliferate in all sorts of wild rice? If he does then we would dearly like to know the mechanism. Perhaps he has been listening to some of the "pseudo-scientists" who encourage such views.

Threats to agricultural bio-diversity from the Green Revolution and now the GM industry is also another mantra of this school of campaigners and is manifested here.

Where is the evidence that locally produced varieties are/were more nutritious than other forms of wheat and rice? As for threats to bio-diversity no form of farming maintains bio-diversity. All of them require the basic ploughing up of wilderness containing thousands of species/hectare and replacing it with mono or bi cultures which is harvested every year. The only bio-diversity that occurs is in field margins and that is provided by all forms of agriculture. Any organic farmer intent on maximising yield will see his land is clear of weeds and insects by whatever means he can. It is also common for some environmentalists to decry the green revolution in India usually on the grounds that some problems developed - as they do with all new technology. Indeed most of these problems arose because of human errors in useage. However what critics of the green revolution ignore is the two to three fold increase in crop yield/hectare, the consequent saving in wilderness and forest, the reduction in the price of food and the feeding of an extra estimated 500 million people who would have starved had traditional agriculture continued. We have never heard from critics how they would have tackled the problems of increasing population or indeed how they intend to deal with the next 25 years in which world population will increase by 40% to 8.3 billion and how in Bangladesh food production is to be eventually maintained when a substantive part of the land may well disappear under the sea as the result of global warming. It is well documented that the yields of traditional agriculture are not on their own sufficient for the present or the future. Trying to impose what is badly-termed "sustainable" but is really organic agriculture on the developing world will perpetuate the problems. Ultimately organic yields are deliberately limited by the capacity of nitrogen fixing organisms. Traditional (or organic) agriculture, even with the improvements in land management, will merely ensure that farmers remain in the chains of poverty and probably eat all that they grow and who will then feed the urban poor? It seems to us that a much better solution is to use our scientific knowledge to increase crop yield without ploughing up the whole country so that farmers can supply the cities and contribute to the economic well being of the whole population.

There is no doubt that there are threats to biodiversity with all forms of agriculture and it is essential that this is dealt with effectively. To meet this challenge a number of international programmes have been successfully established to retain the genetic repertoire of our biological heritage.

The way forward

Here we learn that the need of poor farmers is for a "sustainable or organic technology" and not to be "in hoc" to the large GM corporations and the author dismisses technological solutions as entirely inappropriate. He is clearly a devotee of the cult of "environmentalism" which has emerged as a new form of western cultural domination and is espoused by those who are disaffected with present western societies and capitalism in particular. In such situations a romantic view of the past, a supposedly simpler past, is often held without due regard to the actualities of living centuries back. Much of this kind of environmentalism is based on misunderstandings about ecology and our human purpose on this planet. From the Judaeo-Christian tradition our human role can be deduced to be the good gardener; the responsible steward. We are not just another animal whose sole purpose is reproduction and thus integrated into the ecosystems of the planet; cultural development, the conveyance of knowledge and the presence of a superlative brain obviate many biological constraints. We are something new biologically and the identification of the soul, described with the complex language we are all familiar with, is the clearest indication of that situation. Like all good gardeners we seek harmony in the planetary garden but harmony can only be achieved when every individual on this planet can live a complete and fulfilling life allowing the flowering of the full potential present in all of us. We should therefore be very careful that we do not adapt primitivist solutions that are at odds with the needs of all our companions on the planet. Contrary to the views of Christian Aid we have found that there is much resentment in the developing world about such values (which are often quite different from their own cultural ethos) being forced on them. We all should have the humility to recognise this.

In summarising, we believe that GM technology can be a profoundly empowering technology for the world's poorer nations. Correctly applied it offers the possibility for the poor farmers to sustainably produce nutritious food at higher yields. The use of genetic modification to confer resistance to pests, drought and poor soil, provides the opportunity to increase food security, and to reduce dependence on expensive chemicals. Increases in crop yield would reduce pressure for forests and savannah to be cleared as populations rise, thereby protecting the environment. The technology can also be used to make vaccines (such as cholera vaccine in bananas) much cheaper and more readily available. Of course careful research is needed to ensure that the technology is safely and effectively applied to these humanitarian ends. We also agree with Christian Aid that each GM plant should be considered on a case by case basis. However all this research, development and testing will require funding from western governments to develop GM methods for sustainable food production - especially if we are to combat the more aggressive forms of global capitalism. It will require funding programmes to train more scientists from developing countries, and will require political pressure so that the technology is not with-held by the multinational agrochemical companies but is made available to those who could benefit from it. We believe the it would be more effective for Christian Aid to campaign for these goals, rather than pursuing a hostile campaign against GM.

Note: Education of the poor to retain rice husks has been promoted by some anti-GM groups as a means of tackling vitamin A deficiencies. There are a number of nutritional reservations which can be raised about this policy:

1) Rice husks contain hardly any retinoids or retinoid precursors (i.e. vitamin A) and the amounts are insufficient to have any real impact on the deficiency. The husks do contain thiamine (vitamin B1) and this is removed by polishing: thiamine deficiency is another problem in rice eating countries and should not be confused with that of vitamin A

2) Even if rice bran does contain vitamin A, it may not be a good idea to consume large quantities. Bran contains substances (e.g. phytates) that bind strongly to minerals and reduce their absorption significantly. This could compromise the iron, zinc etc., status of a population that may already be at risk from mineral deficiency.