Yesterday (12 September), delegates present at the Asia Pacific Economic Summit of the World Economic Forum (WEF) were challenged by Nestlé’s executive vice-president, Michael Garrett, who argued that while they sat well-fed and cosy debating the risks involved in GMOs, the reality is that their prolonged haggling means people are dying.

Garret addressed the assembly at the Crown Casino in Melbourne on the subject of “golden rice,” which he maintains could save the lives and sight of “millions and millions” of people in the third world who suffer from vitamin A deficiency. The rice has been genetically engineered to contain large amounts of beta-carotene and related compounds, which the body uses to produce the essential vitamin, but it remains a controversial issue amongst those who fear the environmental risks of GMOs.

Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Community Aid Abroad Oxfam, explained his own hesitation to condone the large-scale production of the rice: “Garrett’s message is ‘we know best’ and clearly that’s not a paradigm that works. Business has a responsibility to go beyond its commercial interest.” He fears that the governments in developing countries are ill-informed and so anxious to find solutions in the short term that they refuse to acknowledge the long-term risks that could actually make a terrible situation worse.

Hobbs was sceptical about the humanitarian motives of big business: “Inherently, businesses are competing for advantage, they’re not looking for regulations,” and this could precipitate countless disasters in the production of GM foods. “I think the responsibility is with business to try to understand what is happening out there,” he added, with reference to the anti-globalisation protestors so deftly sidestepped by WEF delegates.

Hobbs threw down the gauntlet for businesses, which, he said, need to involve the community at large during product development.

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By GlobalData

And Garrett threw it straight back.

I think this is for the government to set the rules when it comes to basic health in any community, in any part of the world,” he said, contradicting Hobbs with his faith in the ability of governments to regulate the biotechnology business and define labelling standards.

“Of course there’s risks,” he added, surveying his well-fed Western forum. “But you have to look at the risk and reward. How far do you have to analyse the risks of golden rice when you know you can starve tomorrow? If the 800 million people in the world who are starving today had the same set of choices, there will be a different issue altogether.” The standoff continues.