28 March 2006

Food ethics in Africa

Chris MacDonald writes a blog on business ethics, which is refreshingly thoughtful. Chris generally has a pretty good nose for finding news items related to hot-button issues in ethics related to corporate business. (I recommend taking a look.)

In yesterday's post (Monday 27 March 2006), Chris blogs about DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l. Pioneer aims to develop a nutritionally enhanced strain of sorghum (an important food crop in Africa), and then more or less to give it away. They need to give it away because many African nations have proved reluctant (at best) to use genetically modified (GM) crops. Pioneer hopes that Africans can be persuaded to accept this "gift," because Pioneer believes that the performance of the new and improved sorghum will lift African confidence is GM crops generally. Pioneer freely admits that they intend the GM sorghum to serve as a loss leader for the company, assuring nervous Africans that GM crops can be trusted.

Chris interprets the ethical situation thusly:

The claim is often made that biotechnology will bring huge benefits to the world's developing nations. In particular, it's often--too often, I would venture--claimed that genetically modified (GM) foods will do wonderful things for the starving millions in Africa. It seems to me that the question is not whether biotechnology could help the developing world, but rather whether it will.
The distinction between could and will is ultimately a consequential distinction, which means that you paradoxically can't decide until the outcome of the decision is known. Current information is always both incomplete and imperfect, which means that some level of risk will always persist. Granting that there's no sure way to predict the future, I assume that Chris must intend a slightly weaker position: Africans just need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis with some kind of risk constant factored in. But what if our analysis is flawed? It seems that we're back in the realm of could. The could/will distinction isn't much use ethically speaking since almost all present decisions of any importance involve non-trivial levels of uncertainty.
Quizzical Dog
For if it could you will must understand the meaning of ethics.

Despite this, Chris wields his distinction with vigor, valorizing the will over the could. He confidently posits two possible techniques for squeezing uncertainty out of the equation:
For biotech actually to help developing nations, it seems that one of two things has to happen. Either governments and NGO's need to spend a lot of money to donate biotech products or know-how, or companies need to find business models that let them a) do good, while b) making a profit.
I don't see how either of these options (spending money or alternative business models) will mitigate the fallout, from the Africans' point of view, should GM crops turn out to be a hindrance rather than a help.

From the African side, the fundamental ethical question is whether embracing this particular GM crop can serve as good foundation for subsequent good decisions about similar and/or related issues. As I've pointed out in an earlier post, ethics concerns the cumulative power of habits. The questions that Africans should be (and apparently are) asking concern the long view. What happens if these GM crops don't behave as advertised? (The controlled conditions in experiments, after all, are quite unlike the relatively uncontrolled conditions of widespread agriculture.) What happens if GM crops cause problems with other key species in our ecosystems? Why are they just giving us this stuff for free?
Trojan Horse
No, no, no. We couldn’t possibly accept any payment. Let it be our gift to you.

As to this last question, Chris notes that "the company involved in this story (Pioneer Hi-Bred) is frank about its business model." He goes on to suggest that "the company's candour about its business model is pretty disarming." The company explains it's strategy thusly:
Pioneer will have no rights to revenues from the biotech sorghum once it is developed and commercialized, said Anderson. But the company, already locked into tight competition in the commercial seeds market, hopes that success with biotech sorghum might help open doors for other biotech crops in countries currently skeptical of genetically altered crops.
Pioneer admits (1) that the GM sorghum is a loss-leader, (2) that the stimulus for this behavior is "tight competition," and (3) that the overall goal is to "open other doors for other biotech crops." Candid? Yes. Mercenary? Also, yes. I would certainly question whether or not one ought to get into the habit of thinking that mercenaries make good company, no matter how candid they are. Far from finding this disarming, I find it disappointing that Pioneer does not (because it believes that it cannot?) speak sincerely about reasons other than competitive advantage for their actions.
Sleazy Salesman
Trust me! I sell GMOs for a living. I wouldn’t lie to you about food, would I?

On Pioneer's side, the principal ethical issue is whether or not this whole project is conducive to a fruitful, long-term business relationship. I would question whether or not Pioneer is really looking at this whole issue from its customers' point of view. Wanting to make a profit is only sensible. Wanting nothing else from an action or a relationship except to make a profit is so shallow, stupid, and autistic as to be criminal. Deliberately inculcating and reinforcing such a desire is the very definition of poor ethics.


Anonymous said...

As I've pointed out in an earlier post, ethics concerns the cumulative power of habits.

This is getting at the essence here. What Africans, or anyone, ought to be asking about a proposition like this is: what are the habits of the people making the offer?

Anonymous said...

The real ethics behind the "benevolence" of companies like Pioneer Foods was never to aid the poor or assist the hungry in Africa or revolutionise nutrition - rather it was to create the marketing propaganda that they were helping everyone and providing a nutritional product. The reality behind this company is that they conspired with other large food manufacturers to monopolise food prices on basic food stuffs. Sure they were fined a percentage of revenue, but they have never reduced their pricing, nor have they apologised for their actions toward the public.

As such ... I support ONLY naturally small produce manufacturers who use organic goods - of which they tend to not only be more affordable but also more healthy than these so called "ethical" companies.

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