INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - No winners just millions of losers in GM crop failure

The biotech sector's failure to gain support for GM crops could cost millions of lives as famine-stricken countries continue to turn down food aid from the US, writes US commentator Paul Holmes.

A few years ago, Monsanto was touting its genetically modified crops as a solution to the world's famine crisis.

Its corporate comms chief Philip Angell said at the time that 'government regulators, scientists, farmers, non-governmental organisations, nutritionists, doctors, cancer researchers and even former presidents agree that biotechnology will be a critical component in solving many of the world's problems like hunger, poverty and pollution'.

Around 20 million people a year die of hunger. African nations, including Zambia - where 2.4 million people are expected to die from famine this year - continue to turn down food aid from the US, because it believes GM crops are unsafe for consumption.

It would be easy to blame NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for this state of affairs, as Andrew Natsios of the US Agency for International Development recently did when he accused environmentalists of 'endangering the lives of millions of famine-threatened Africans by encouraging their governments to reject GM US food aid'.

In normal circumstances, running an NGO requires few difficult decisions or trade-offs. Executives at NGOs don't have to worry about balancing the needs of shareholders with the needs of employees, customers, or neighbours.

They can espouse a solution without worrying about the potential cost of its implementation.

For NGOs, credibility also appears not to be contingent upon competence - Greenpeace experienced a surge of support after it successfully defeated Shell's plans to sink the Brent Spar oilrig in the North Sea - despite scientific consensus that sinking the platform was the most environmentally friendly solution.

But this case could be a watershed for the environmental movement, which leaves itself open to charges that it is putting dogma - the idea that GM foods are harmful is a matter of faith rather than scientific evidence - before human lives.

Having said that, Monsanto and other firms in the biotech sector must share some of the blame. For years, biotech firms ignored their responsibility to earn the public's trust. Rather than engaging its critics in honest and open debate, the industry sought to cut them out or bully them into submission. Even now, it continues to fuel public suspicion by refusing to label its products.

Monsanto could be revered as the world's most socially responsible corporation.

Instead, largely because of a PR failure, it is reviled. And millions continue to suffer as a consequence.

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