Article for the Cape Times
by Tracy Bailey
19 May 2005

Science and technology are the driving forces behind industrialised economies. Millions of dollars, euros and yen are poured into the development of information and communication technologies, and technological advances in health care, agriculture and industrial development. But while the countries of the North concern themselves with ensuring that there are computers in every classroom and home, many developing countries are struggling to find the basic resources they so desperately need - notably food security, and access to sustainable energy sources, potable water, health care and education.

Science and technology are touted as the vehicles through which sustainable development can be achieved in the developing world. But, the inequalities between North and South in terms of infrastructure, human resources and capacity for technological development are vast, and few people in the South experience the benefits offered by scientific and technological advances.

The technological divide further marginalises developing countries in the global economy, making it harder for them to meet their basic needs and manage the environment in a sustainable way. Developing countries are on the back foot when it comes to choosing what technologies they need. More than this, much technology is produced without the needs of developing countries in mind, and untangling the risks and benefits of any particular technology choice is a very difficult task.

One such 'technological choice' is whether to follow the route of nuclear power, such as the United States has done. Another is genetically-modified (GM) crops and foods. In many respects, biotechnology is a modern miracle with an ever-increasing range of applications - from new treatments for medical conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS and heart disease, to processed foods and the industrial production of detergents, amongst others. Biotechnology has been hailed by many international agencies and governments as having a significant role to play in bringing about sustainable development, and raising the quality of life of people in the developing world.

In agriculture, the genetic modification of seeds has a number of positive aims in mind: improving crop yields; developing strains that are drought, insect and virus resistant; producing agricultural products that are enriched with vitamins and minerals; and, reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment.

So why is there so much conflict and debate around the use of GM organisms in agricultural production? In the first instance, there are scientific debates about, for example, whether GMOs really do improve crop yields and whether or not they pose a risk to the health of humans, animals and the environment.

But the debate goes beyond matters of science, and raises questions that have political, economic and cultural dimensions. For instance, science and technology is big business, and this is no less the case with biotechnology, which has grown into a multimillion dollar industry, controlled by a few corporate giants. Genetically-modified seeds are developed and patented by these companies which, some argue, is having a devastating effect on small-scale farmers in the developing world.

One issue here is that small-scale farmers become dependent on corporations for their seed and other agricultural products (herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers etc). Because the seed is patented, it cannot be swapped. Neither can farmers gather and save seed for planting in the next season in those instances where the seed is developed to be sterile. In short, farmers' options are narrowed which ensures ongoing business for biotechnology companies.

The anti-GM lobby therefore argues that rather than being able to fulfil its promise of improving food security and quality of life, genetic modification will actually disempower small-scale farmers, exacerbate poverty and unemployment, and threaten sustainable farming systems in the poorest countries.

These issues are just the tip of the iceberg of complex debates - debates which have important implications for the possibility of sustainable development in the developing world. It is critical that we, as civil society, continue to read, discuss and debate the socio-economic and cultural effects of different technological choices - whether they be in relation to energy, agriculture, medicine or industrial development - because once we choose a particular path, it will be difficult to turn back the clock.

At the next Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust public forum meeting, Dr David Fig will tackle these issues, with a specific focus on GM crops and nuclear power. David is an independent environmental policy analyst, who works on issues related to biodiversity, climate change, energy, trade, and corporate responsibility. David is also the chairperson of Biowatch South Africa. The meeting will be held on Tuesday, 24 May 2005 at the TH Barry Lecture Room, Iziko Museum, Queen Victoria Street, at 6pm for 6.30pm. RSVP 021 424 7543 or [email protected]