To hear him talk, you'd be forgiven for thinking that George Bush is the new Bob Geldof. His dedication to using the agricultural abundance and technical know-how of the United States and its corporations to feed the starving seems unbounded. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he announced: "Across the earth, America is feeding the hungry. More than 60 per cent of international food aid comes as a gift from the people of the United States." Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the president joins Phil Collins and Midge Ure on stage for a rerun of Live Aid.
Recently Bush launched a furious attack at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys in Europe holding him back from waging the war closest to his heart - the war against hunger. And we're not talking about every US citizen's right to a bellyful of freedom fries. In a speech on 21 May, he accused Europe of undercutting efforts to feed starving Africans by blocking genetically modified crops because of "unfounded, unscientific fears". He called on European governments to "join - not hinder - the great cause of ending hunger in Africa".
The following day, the Bush administration announced plans to sue the European Union at the World Trade Organisation unless it opened up its markets to American genetically modified products. If the WTO decides that the EU moratorium on approving new GM crops is illegal, Europe will have to open its markets to American GM products or pay compensation in the hundreds of millions.
The feeding-the-poor argument is the best way for Bush and his biotech buddies to get these products accepted by an unwilling world. And if that doesn't convince selfish European consumers to stop all their fussing and start eating GM food from the US, then Gene Grabowski, a pro-GM lobbyist, adds the clinching argument: "Europe should be down on its knees to the US thanking God we were there for them [during the Second World War]." Sixty-six per cent of the world's GM crop area is in the US. If it can force open the European market, no country on earth will stand a chance of keeping the stuff out.
A lot rides on Bush's charitable gestures. The US farming sector is receiving $248.6bn in subsidies over a six-year period, much of that flowing to major agricultural corporations. To keep the system going it has to export staple foods at below the cost of production, wiping out the farming sectors of developing countries. Much of this subsidised overproduction, particularly GM crops that have a limited market, ends up as food aid, often controversially. Last year, the US insisted on giving GM food aid to Africa; other countries give cash to purchase grain in order to boost farming regionally.
Earlier this month, the influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics in London gave Bush a boost when it reported that GM crops were needed to feed the poor in developing countries, and that the European ban on approval of new GM products was a de facto block on those benefits reaching them. This is a follow-up to its 1999 report, Genetically Modified Crops: ethical and social issues, which made headlines when it declared a "moral imperative" to develop GM crops to feed the poor (see box on page 24). The biotech corporations are finding that pictures of starving black babies do wonders for brand management.
During the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002, a Canadian journalist, James MacKinnon, described witnessing a protest by small-scale African farmers wearing T-shirts reading "Biotechnology for Africa". On approaching them to discuss their pro-GM position, he found that they could only smile. None could read or speak English.
In rich countries, criticism of GM has been portrayed as centring around human health and the environment, keeping hidden the most fundamental and widespread objection to GM - an objection now inciting a veritable peasants' revolt. For the GM debate, at heart, is all about control. Control that will ensure, for those corporations which can benefit from and enforce it, virtually guaranteed markets. The feed-the-starving rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. And an increasing number of supposed beneficiaries of GM crops are more than aware of this.
Take Tewolde Berhan Gebre-Egziabher, general manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, a country in which 11 million people currently face food shortages. He calls the use of the south's rural poverty to justify the monopoly control and global use of GM food production by transnational corporations "not only an obstructive lie, but a way of derailing the solutions of southern rural poverty. It is the height of cynical abuse . . ." He echoes the major British aid agencies' recent representation to Tony Blair when he says: "It is not shortage of food that is the problem, but distribution. More GM food is not the point: [the point] is improving access and local food security. But corporations do not profit from such solutions."
Whatever the biotech lobby might like us to think, there is enough food in the world to feed the hungry. Indeed, many of the countries where people are starving have enough food, but not enough money to buy it nor the means to distribute it.
There are other uncomfortable facts for the GM lobby. Most GM crops are not developed to feed people at all; they are used as animal feed to produce meat for consumers in wealthy countries. The promise of increased yields has not been borne out. And only 1 per cent of GM research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers in poor countries. In Africa, GM research focuses largely on export crops for northern markets grown on commercial plantations.
The largest single group of people opposed to GM foods is not the worried middle class of the rich world. It is Via Campesina, the international peasant farmers' union with a global membership of millions in poor countries such as India, Mozambique, Brazil, Indonesia, Ecuador and elsewhere. Their concern is that they are losing control of their agriculture. Four multinational corporations now control almost all of the GM market. In some cases, the corporation controls the entire food-processing chain, from the genes in the crop to the final product on the supermarket shelf.
For agribusiness to make a profit from seed, it needs to enforce ownership rights through patents so that farmers have to buy rather than save seed year on year: 1.4 billion farmers worldwide currently rely on saved seed. Despite Monsanto and AstraZeneca's promises in 1999 that "terminator" seeds (engineered to be sterile so they have to be bought each year) would never come to market, a new terminator patent has since been approved. Other GM crops are being created that will germinate only if the company's own-brand chemicals are applied.
The small farmers of Via Campesina believe that corporate agribusiness is turning them into serfs rather than stewards of their own land. In India, they've set fields of GM cotton on fire. In Brazil and the Philippines, they've ripped them up when they've been planted. In Indonesia, GM seed has to be delivered under armed guard. In Bangladesh, local farmers almost rioted when they heard of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto, accused of replanting their patented seed without paying. Ka Memong Patayan, an octogenarian Filipino peasant and an experienced farmer-breeder who lived through colonialism, knows what serfdom looks like. "A patent on seeds is a patent on freedom," he says. "If you have to pay for patented seeds, it's like being forced to buy your own freedom."
Until Patayan and the millions like him around the world are part of the GM debate, their future will be decided for them by the powerful. And Bush will continue to pose as Bob Geldof.
Katharine Ainger is co-editor of New Internationalist magazine: www.newint.org