A Brief Illness: On GM Foods

“When your case is weak, shout louder!” – Unknown American Lawyer

I spent a large chunk of my afternoon yesterday debating with Mr Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour on GM foods and their entry (or not) into Nigeria. Mr Rhodes-Vivour has been mounting a vigorous campaign against the introduction of GM seeds into Nigeria with Monsanto in particular bearing the brunt of his withering criticisms. Even more interestingly, he has managed to assemble a coalition of people to publicly protest GM foods in Nigeria. I didn’t think it was possible to assemble 200 Nigerians for such a cause in public but we learn everyday.

I have no problems with GM foods and I believe they play a crucial role in the arsenal we humans can deploy to fight hunger and disease.

But Mr Rhodes-Vivour’s piece in The Guardian yesterday got me thinking about something – in my decade and some living in the UK, I have never heard of someone dying of a ‘brief illness’.

The article itself carries the headline ‘GMO/Hybrid seeds: Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians’. He then goes on to make this claim in the body of the article, in case you were still in doubt:

For example, bio-tech-improved tomatoes are engineered so they do not rot quickly.
   Advantages include a higher income for the farmer. What is not considered is that the perishability of that tomato is linked to the human body’s ability to digest it. When the human body cannot get rid of it, it becomes toxic to the body and this is how cancers and other diseases come about. 
   That in itself makes this hybrid unsustainable. Genetic variety is important, which is why nature frowns on inbreeding. Our health suffers when our only consideration is profit. Illnesses, such as organ failure, sterility and cancer have all been linked to GMOs. 

This is a very clever device to use – who wants cancer? Leave aside that he doesnt supply any evidence for such a claim, he’s playing into the common belief that ‘cancer is an oyinbo disease’. As such, it is something that can come into our country through these foods if we are not careful. Afterall, don’t we regularly hear about one oyinbo person or the other dying of cancer?

Back to my point about brief illnesses – even when someone lives till say 110 years of age and then dies, you still get to hear the actual thing that killed them, not just old age. Or when someone has been publicly battling cancer and then finally dies, if you look, you will find the thing that finally killed them (often pneumonia).

A very good example is the British soldier, Lee Rigby who was killed in broad daylight in Woolwich last year by Michaels Abdebolajo and Adebowale. Everyone saw that he was first run over by a car and then the killers tried to decapitate him with a meat cleaver. Yet, there was a post-mortem to determine the cause of death:

Detectives investigating the murder of Lee Rigby have reiterated an appeal for witnesses to come forward a week after his death, as a post-mortem concluded the soldier had died from ‘multiple incised wounds’

Even when someone is shot and dies from the bullet wounds, you still get an inquest to determine the cause of death. Another example from Mark Duggan, who was shot by London Police in August 2011:

My conclusion is that the first shot was to the arm, the non-fatal shot, and the second was to the chest, the fatal shot,” said Pounder.

Explaining why he believes Duggan was shot first in the arm, Pounder said: “The shot to the arm is a shot which occurred when he was more or less upright. He may be leaning forward slightly but he wasn’t. The other shot occurred when he was significantly bent forward.”

He later told jurors it would have been impossible for the bullet to follow a 46-degree trajectory inside Duggan’s body if he had been standing “more or less upright”, as V53 told the inquest last month.

Asked why he believed his evidence contradicted that of the marksman, Pounder said: “I take the view he simply got it wrong

In this case the matter could have ended with the policeman’s account, afterall the guy is dead, what use will it to be know? Nevertheless, we know which bullet killed him as a matter of public record.

It is this difference in painstakingly investigating deaths and documenting them that makes it possible for people like Mr Rhodes-Vivour to successfully scare people into believing that cancer is not something we currently have and can only be imported into ‘our land’. Nobody knows for sure what is killing Nigerians. My late Uncle, Gani Fawehinmi, spent 6 months in Nigeria being treated for pneumonia in an expensive private hospital. It wasnt until he came here that it was discovered he actually had lung cancer. Those crucial 6 months are probably the reason he’s not alive today. Mind you, he never drank or smoked and used to jog and swim every week.

This anyhow approach to investigating issues and properly responding to them has plenty of implications, not least for public policy. Where ignorance is elevated to a virtue, anything can turn up to derail even the best laid plans of any government. A mere rumour can damage the implementation of a policy even when a government only means well with it (this is not a defence of this government by the way, but a general point). We have invented the wonderful catch-all of ‘a brief illness’ that covers a multitude of sins from HIV to cancer.

Out here, at worst, you will get the cause of death listed as ‘unknown’ which allows the authorities to leave the case open until perhaps new information is available which sheds new light on the death. But no one uses ‘brief illness’ the way we do as a way of ending the matter and avoiding any serious investigation.

There are many more wild claims in Mr Rhodes-Vivour’s article such as this bit:

Are the 250,000 bt cotton farmer suicides in India sustainable?
   Official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture confirm more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves in India each month. This epidemic branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners was highlighted by His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales who said: “The issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and the time had come to end its unstoppable march.”

Raj Patel, and academic and writer, who has spent time looking over the data and travelling across India and the world concluded in his book, Stuffed and Starved’, that around 17,000 Indian farmers killed themselves every year between 2002 and 2006. How Mr Rhodes-Vivour arrived at 250,000 farmers remains a mystery. Still, even one farmer committing suicide is a tragedy. So what is causing those suicides?

According to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, it is hard to determine what exactly is the cause of the deaths:

1. The NCRB merely lists suicides in a particular employment category, but that does not mean farming or crop-failure is the cause of the suicide. There is thus an outside chance that both Gujarat and Kejriwal are right, and both are off the mark. It all depends on what was the real cause of the suicide – crop failure or some other reason.

2. High or low suicide rates are a function of a state’s overall suicide levels. Thus the data to compare is the suicide rate among farmers against the overall suicide rate in a state. Here, Gujarat is not an outlier. Farmer suicides as a percentage of total suicides in the state ranged from 8-9 percent. Andhra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra fared worse.

3. There is no mention of landless labourers, landed agricultural labourers, no indication if this includes small and marginal farmers (It probably does). So even the current data may be an underestimate when talking about suicides relating to farming conditions gone bad.

Are failed harvests part of the reasons for the suicides? Very likely. But in 2010, there were also reports linking farmer suicides to Microfinance loans in the same India:

More than 200 poor, debt-ridden residents of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves in late 2010, according to media reports compiled by the government of the south Indian state. The state blamed microfinance companies — which give small loans intended to lift up the very poor — for fueling a frenzy of overindebtedness and then pressuring borrowers so relentlessly that some took their own lives.


In other words, the reasons for the suicides are most likely varied and complex. How Mr Rhodes-Vivour makes a leap from this very tenuous link to conclude that Bt corn is the cause of the suicides of 250,000 farmers is a remarkable exercise in truth economy.

So what’s the story on GM foods? There is plenty of scientific research on them and it will be hard to find any serious research that concludes that they are harmful to the body. While some of the benefits might be overstated (especially regarding yields of some varieties), that is not the same as saying they kill people. For a good primer on GM foods with plenty of links, see this Vox article (click through the 16 cards).

For something that has been the subject of much research and debate, there really isn’t any need to use hyperbole and exaggeration to make your case. It is perfectly ok to read the evidence and come down on the side of skepticism about GM foods.

But if your case is strong, why shout so loud?



3 thoughts on “A Brief Illness: On GM Foods

  1. Pingback: A Brief Illness: On GM Foods – Y! Opinion

  2. Pingback: MUCH ADO ABOUT GMO | African Health Magazine

  3. Pingback: Much Ado About GMO | the hopeful nigerian

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