For many in the developed world, especially Western Europe and the U.S., the answer may be no. But for citizens of developing nations, the outlook (and the answer) is very different. The creation of genetically modified foods like drought-resistant corn, for example, or super-nutritional rice holds enormous promise for developing nations. But even as scientists develop GM crops with ever-increasing precision and skill, there is growing concern that first world disquiet over food safety and genetic engineering may slow or even stop the dissemination of bountiful GM crops to the countries where they are most needed.
First world qualms versus third world hunger
That concern takes center stage in a new publication from the United Nations Development Program. The UN Human Development Report, scheduled for release Tuesday in Mexico City, examines the tension between environmental concerns over GM foods and human rights concerns over famine and malnutrition. The reportís findings are both complex and extremely straightforward: Consumed by privileged worry over the long-term safety of GM crops (and, in some cases, actively slowing the development of new technology) the West has shackled the autonomy of developing nations.
The UNDP believes those nations should be permitted to evaluate GM technology independently of Western political tensions. "There may well be food risks inherent in GM crops, but they are as yet unproven," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the UNDP. "But those speculative risks have to take second place to the fact that hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night. Weíre not advocating the suspension of responsible public policy; just the opposite, in fact. Weíre saying we cannot turn our back on prolonged malnutrition and hunger."
Kate Raworth, an economist with the United Nations Development Program and co-author of the Human Development Report, spoke with TIME.com Monday.
TIME.com: What are the main points you hope the public will glean from this report?
Kate Raworth: First, this is a complex issue. One of the problems with the debate so far is that it's been couched in very black and white terms. We're trying to bring out a more balanced approach and address the issues not just as they apply to the US and Western Europe but to developing countries as well.
A more balanced approach means looking not just at the risks of change but also at the potential benefits and the cost of inertia. For example, 40 countries are not on track to meet the UN Millennium Goal of halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Twenty-one of those countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.
We're definitely not saying GM food is The Solution to the problem of hunger itís going to take social and political change too but we are saying that technology is one of the ways to meet that goal.
Another major issue is that currently the private sector owns the key tools of this technology. And that means the agenda of how it is used is not being turned toward the needs of poor people. We're calling for greater public investment so that GM technology is not used just to pursue commercial interests but to meet human needs.
Would you say the UNDP report makes a value judgment about GM crops?
No, we're not trying to make value judgments. We're saying it's up to individual countries and communities to make those judgments themselves, provided they have the capacity to handle those risks. In Europe and the US, millions of people are dependent on their mobile phones without the certainty that there is no cost to their personal health. Thatís a risk that people have chosen to take themselves. Likewise, we're not pushing GM technology, nor are we saying it should be banned. But we are saying let's look at this debate from the perspective of people in developing countries, and let them weigh the risks and benefits themselves.
As Nigeria's minister of agricultural and rural development said, "We don't want to be denied this technology because of a misguided notion that we don't understand the dangers of the future consequences."
Are developing nations by and large accepting of GM technology?
Some developing countries have taken a lead with GM technology, such as Argentina, China and Egypt. But many other countries are reluctant and unsure. Whether or not GM technology is appropriate will vary from country to country. That's why we are not calling for a blanket decision either for or against GM technology. It depends on the characteristic of each crop, on the environment it is to be used in and the capacity of the country and community to handle it safely. But letís not forget the risks of common current practices: many farm workers are already suffering bad health from exposure to pesticides and fertilizers and these can pollute the soil too.
What can be done to allow developing countries to control their own development of GM food? Is there adequate infrastructure to support development?
More public investment in GM technology, both by national governments and by international research groups, would certainly help. That way each nation can can adapt and make use of global research if it chooses. Every country that wants to use GM technology also needs to establish a strong bio-safety system to ensure that any risks that these new crops might bring can be handled safely. And part of having an effective bio-safety system means setting up consultations with farmers and consumers so that informed and open debates can be held and communities can make their own choices of whether or not they want to grow, or buy, these crops. We support labeling of GM foods because of heightened public concerns. If people are concerned, they should be able to make informed decisions.
What are the benefits, other than food-related, for countries developing GM crops?
The benefits, of course, depend on how the technology is used. If GM techniques are dominated by private sector investment alone, they are most likely to be used to develop characteristics valuable to rich farmers and rich consumers such as tomatoes with a longer shelf life. It will take far greater public investment to turn the tools of GM to the needs of poor communities. The potential is to develop crops that have better drought tolerance, greater pest resistance, higher yields and greater nutritional content and all of those characteristics are important in improving the food security of poor rural communities.