In 1978, the governments of the world gathered under the aegis of the World Health Organisation to sign the Alma Ata Declaration promising "Health for All by 2000". But this promise was never taken seriously, and was sidelined in subsequent health policy discussions.
In December 2000, 1453 delegates from 75 countries, representing people's movements and other non-government organization across the globe, came together in Savar, Bangladesh for the world's first People's Health Assembly, to reiterate the pledge of "Health for All", declaring health as a basic human right, including the environmental, social and economic conditions that guarantee health. The Assembly documented the adverse impacts of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) on people's health, and roundly condemned the international financial institutions - the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation - for pushing SAPs, the governments for imposing the policies on their people, and the big transnational corporations for putting profit before people.
SAPs are supposed to help poor indebted nations restore their balance of payments, reduce inflation and create the conditions for "sustainable growth". Typical measures include devaluation of local currencies, spending cuts in the public sector, privatisation of public services, elimination of subsidies and trade liberalization (removal of all barriers to trade, finance and procurement). In practice, SAPs deprive poor people of basic healthcare, education and other essential services, and leave poor countries wide open to economic exploitation, especially through transnational corporations - based in rich countries in the North operating in the South - that have scant regard for human health or the environment. As a result, peoples' health worsens while the environment is destroyed at an ever-accelerating rate, and the poor countries sink deeper into poverty and indebtedness.
The People's Health Assembly met for the second time this July in Cuenca, Ecuador, when "Health for All" seems even more remote than in 2000. Nevertheless, thirteen hundred delegates from 80 countries came to reaffirm the Alma Ata vision amid deteriorating conditions of health for most of the world's people, which are blamed unequivocally on "neo-liberal policies that transfer wealth from the South to the North, from the poor to the rich, and from the public to private sector."
The delegates were unanimous in opposing the signing of the Free Trade Agreements imposed by the United States government and the international financial institutions that can only further worsen people's health prospects.
Invited to speak on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), I explained to the Assembly why GM food and feed are proving unsafe, because genetic modification goes against the grain of the new science of genetics. I also exposed all the lies and half-truths told by certain scientists that genetic modification is perfectly safe and very precise; and makes environmentally friendly GM crops that improve yield, reduce pesticide use, improve nutrition and so on.
Among the most important conditions for health is people's right to food and adequate nutrition. The People's Charter for Health calls on governments to implement agricultural policies attuned to people's needs, and not to the demands of the market, in order to guarantee food security and equitable access to food. GM crops guarantee neither food security nor equitable access to food, quite the opposite.
In fact, GM crops usurp people's right to food by imposing licence fees on patented seeds and by preventing farmers from saving and exchanging seeds, a practice going back for thousands of years. GM crops are industrial monocultures, only worse. They are more genetically uniform than conventional monocultures, and hence more prone to disease. They are more dependent on external inputs, particularly pesticides; and according to the latest reports by farmers across the world, GM crops require more water and are less tolerant of drought.
Delegates were right to fear that the Free Trade Agreements will mean forced imports of GM seeds and GM food and feed into Latin America, especially as "food aid". The US' agricultural exports are worth more than US$ 50 billion each year, and rejection of GM food and feed across the world is hurting exports.
War on world food rights fought over GM crops
A war on food rights is being fought over GM crops with big agribusiness - supported by the US and US-friendly governments (including the Blair administration) - against the rest of the world; and it is taking place at all levels from the international arena to local communities.
The US government has sued the European Union (EU) at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for restricting import of GMOs, and wants the WTO to override the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety - which gives countries the right to regulate and reject GMOs - in order to force GMOs on the world in the name of free trade. The European Commission responded to the WTO complaint by urging European countries to lift their national bans on GMOs. But EU member states stood firm with a clear majority vote in June in favour of keeping the existing national bans.
The US administration is pushing GMOs both officially and through unofficial channels. In July, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a "second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture". This, after Monsanto's Bt cotton has proven to fail, as reported by both independent and Indian government scientists. Monsanto's Indian subsidiary, Monsanto-Mahyco has shamelessly hyped the GM-cotton seeds, even enlisting a Bollywood star and dancing girls to go on promotional tours in Punjabi villages.
GM crops are also aggressively promoted in Africa. Earlier in July, a team of "international food scientists" was reported complaining that, "regulatory hurdles are preventing African farmers from reaping the benefits of genetically modified foods", but nonetheless the African farmers "have been adopting this technology rapidly". The team's spokesperson, Joel Cohen of the International Food Policy Research Institute, was formerly with USAID, and worked with Monsanto to fund Florence Wambugu to head Monsanto's GM sweet potato project in Kenya, generating fantastic PR for GM crops, although the project turned out to be a total flop at a cost of millions. Florence Wambugu is regularly featured and quoted in top scientific journals including Nature as a scientist speaking on behalf of Africa and in favour of GM crops, despite having been exposed by fellow African scientists on many occasions.
Meanwhile, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded US$ 3.3 million to the Monsanto-backed Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre in Ohio, USA, to genetically engineer cassava; and $16.9 million to Wambugu's African consortium to genetic engineer sorghum for African farmers, also at a US company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont based in Des Moines, Iowa.
Within the US, repressive bills have been passed in at least 10 states to block local communities and regions declaring themselves GM-Free, and are clearly targeted at the grassroots uprising against GM crops that has been gaining momentum over the past year.
A Sustainable World is possible
Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Minister for the Environment, Ethiopia, supported the first public action against commercial GMOs in Germany with the following statement: "Badly informed governments and corrupt members of governments everywhere in the world are the main obstacle to an objective discussion of the true problems of world food supplies. The merciless forces of the free market, which in the wake of globalisation is taking on a cynical, inhuman character, deprive the poorest of the poor of any basis for making a living."
Alan Simpson, Member of UK Parliament, similarly declared at our Sustainable World International Conference in London that, "irreverence, heresy, and the breaking of rules were necessary to raise awareness in the face of deepening water, energy and food insecurity."
Adopting GM crops when oil and water are both rapidly depleting under global warming, and when industrial monoculture is showing all the signs of collapse is a crime against humanity and our planet; especially when we have all the knowledge at our disposal to build a truly sustainable and equitable world.
Article first published 19/08/05
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