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SPECIAL REPORT: ‘World Consumer Rights Day’ All Wrong On Biotech

When we first heard that “World Consumer Rights Day” was this Saturday, we dusted off the barbecue, bought a six-pack, some steaks and a few wholesome ears of genetically enhanced corn. We were ready to eat, drink, and celebrate our rights all day long. But then we found out that organizers had something else in mind.

Activist group Consumers International has declared the theme of this year’s World Consumer Rights Day to be “Corporate Control of the Food Chain — The GM Link.” To celebrate, the group is coordinating a “global wave of actions on genetically modified foods to assert the principle that consumer rights come before profits and corporate control in determining what food we eat.” Two comments from their press release caught our eye.

Campaign suggestions focus on ways of challenging current patent regimes that protect the interests of GM seed companies rather than consumers and farmers.

Actually, yesterday’s Washington Post reported that “four of the world’s largest agricultural companies have agreed to share their technology [for] free with African scientists in a broad new attempt to increase food production on that continent, where mass starvation is a recurring threat.” Say again about greedy multi-nationals abusing their patent privileges to the detriment of farmers and consumers? It looks like breakthroughs in biotech will support struggling farmers and hungry people — free of charge.

It is increasingly clear that GM crops currently being grown offer no benefits to consumers and nothing to most farmers.

While genetically enhanced crops in fact lower prices, improve quality and reduce pesticide use, biotech crops might in fact be more beneficial to farmers than to research companies. According to yesterday’s AgriNews, “Demand almost certainly will outstrip supply for Monsanto’s new biotech corn designed to fight rootworm.” Clearly, farmers think they’ll benefit from this new strain a great deal. And because there will only be so much of the rootworm-resistant corn to go around, “Monsanto’s initial release will focus on areas where rootworm problems are most severe.”

Other biotech firms are racing to introduce their own anti-rootworm corn. When they do, competition will drive down Monsanto’s margins — leaving the farmer as the primary beneficiary. And when it costs less to produce food, it also costs less to buy it. That’s how biotech helps consumers, whatever global activist groups like Consumers International has to say about their “rights.”

Unfortunately, Consumers International’s anti-biotech campaign isn’t just a little glib PR. It has real-world consequences. Zambia is starving. But the hungry African nation’s leadership rejected U.S. food aid, and labeled it “poison,” because it partly came in the form of genetically enhanced corn. For its part, Consumers International played cheerleader to Zambia’s paranoia, organizing a conference in Zambia’s capital to hype absurd fears about biotech food. You can read about the consequences for one region in last week’s government-controlled Times of Zambia.

Perhaps more disturbing, Consumers International’s anti-corporate rhetoric is motivated in part by self-interest. The group is funded by the European Union, which nurtures fears of biotech so it can maintain its trade barriers against U.S. food imports.

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