Thought for the Day, 28 May 2003
Abdal Hakim Murad
The quarrel over genetically modified crops has broken surface once
again. ÔFrankenstein food!Õ cry the eco-warriors, to which the
biotech industry replies: ÔCheap nourishment for all!Õ Yesterday the
Royal Society, no less, joined the argument by asking government to
ensure that if commercial planting of GM crops goes ahead in Britain,
proper, long-term monitoring is enforced.
Polls suggest that in the UK, only fourteen percent of the population
approves of these new crops. The European Union refuses to allow the
sale of most GM products. In the Third World, however, consumers and
even governments often get no choice in the matter. Many of the
worldÕs poorest countries are told by aid agencies, particularly
those based in America, that they must accept GM crops. This is why,
during the recent drought, Zambia announced that it would rather go
hungry than accept American food aid.
There are deep waters here. It's easy for religions to condemn the
manipulation of nature. The Koran uses some strong language about the
integrity of God's creation. For instance: "There is no beast upon
the earth, neither any bird that flies upon its wings, but that they
are nations like yourselves." The distinction we so comfortably make
between the genetic manipulation of humans, which we abhor, and its
equivalent on other orders of nature, may not be very Koranically
valid. However we look at it, the genetic modification of God's
creatures raises some deep and disturbing religious questions.
Yet forbidding GM foods on these grounds is not so easy. The Koran
also commands us to feed the poor. The Prophet Muhammad, like Jesus,
is remembered as having miraculously fed great multitudes. Why not
let scientists do the same?
Millions of tonnes of GM foods have already been eaten, with no very
obvious ill effects. Some will claim that GM foods are more
rigorously tested than non-GM equivalents.
This is how the debate has been framed; and I think that on this
basis the religious nervousness is going to subside. If GM foods do
turn out to be a new way of feeding the starving in an increasingly
overpopulated world, this cannot be indefinitely resisted by
There is, however, an issue where religion must ask awkward
questions. When a poor farmer buys GM seeds, he becomes dependent on
a corporation in a unique way. By patenting the genes, the
corporations acquire immense power over food itself. The very
building-blocks of life are commercialised, giving the rich yet
another source of power over the poor.
The Prophet (Salla-LLahu `aleihi wa sallam) said: "Whoever withholds cereals that they might become
scarce and dear, is a sinner." This principle surely refers to any
commercial monopoly over the food supply. While there are safety
concerns over biotechnology, the greater, more urgent issue seems to
be about power, and about inequality.