What Does The U.S. Government¡¦s Understanding And Use Of Science Have To
do with women¡¦s rights, and specifically, with development?
A look at recent statements by the U.S. Administration on issues of science,
technology, and development with particular focused paid to the current
debate on genetically modified agricultural crops.
By Ann Elisabeth S. Samson
On August 7, a U.S. House of Representatives committee issued a report on
President George W. Bush¡¦s use and manipulation of scientific knowledge.
The report examined several different areas including the environment and
health issues, including sex education and the availability of stem cells
for research purposes. The report found that the US administration ¡§has
manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific
findings,¡¨ and this consistent interference of science has led
to ¡§misleading statements by the president, inaccurate responses to
Congress, altered Web sites, suppressed agency reports, erroneous
international communications and the gagging of scientists.¡¨
But what does the U.S. government¡¦s understanding and use of science have to
do with women¡¦s rights, and specifically, with development?
The answer, unfortunately, is MORE THAN YOU THINK.
Rhetoric surrounding science and technology is often imbued with the notion
that science is truthful and unbiased. Yet this report signifies a change
in the previously assumed objective nature of science and instead, leads to
one that questions the quality and provenance of scientific knowledge and
considers the political contexts in which this knowledge is considered.
The most recent and potentially consequential arena for
invoking ¡§scientific¡¨ rhetoric is the introduction of genetically modified
(GM) agricultural crops in Africa and the U.S. trade disagreement with the
European Union over the labelling of GM foods.
On July 2, the European Parliament approved legislation that will require
strict labelling of food and feed made with genetically modified
ingredients. But, the Bush administration criticized the move calling it a
nontariff ¡§barrier to free trade.¡¨ Before that, many European countries had
an unofficial ban on the import of genetically modified foods. Many
Europeans passionately oppose these products for a number of reasons: health
concerns, taste, environmental risks, the cultural link with food, a more
detached idea of science, and recent food scandal experiences like mad cow
disease in 1996.
However, the U.S. Administration claims the European apprehension about GM
foods is based on a ¡§Luddite¡¨ and ¡§immoral¡¨ stance and that they are ¡§acting
on unfounded, unscientific fears.¡¨ Given the report on President Bush¡¦
use, manipulation, and misuse of scientific knowledge, this statement is
particularly ironic. The U.S. President, who picks and chooses the
scientific data he applies to making policy decisions turns to Europe and
accuses them of being anti-science, which for Bush, means anti-truth.
The dispute over GM foods between Europe and the United States is a trade
issue. The new labelling measures will hurt U.S. exports to Europe because
many of their food products contain GM crops. In May, the Bush
administration filed a lawsuit with the World Trade Organization (WTO) on
This summer, the U.S. administration took the trade dispute, couched in
rhetoric on who is pro-technology and who is anti-technology. At a speech
on May 22 in New London, Connecticut, President Bush claimed that ¡§high-
yield bio-crops¡¨ would greatly increase the agricultural yields and
productivity in the developing world, particularly in Africa. He contended
that GM crops could ¡§dramatically¡¨ boost agricultural productivity in Africa
and that ¡§we should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to
win the fight against global hunger.¡¨
Some U.S. officials blame Europe for earlier decisions by African nations to
reject food aid because it contained GM grain, claiming this happened
because of ¡§fabricated fears stoked by irresponsible rhetoric about food
safety.¡¨ And, the U.S. administration believes that if the E.U. more
readily accepted GM foods, poor African countries would be able to farm
higher yields and export them to Europe, thus providing food and revenue for
these African nations.
According to President Bush, it is ¡§because of these artificial obstacles
(like labelling requirements and unofficial bans), many African nations
avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut
out of important European markets.¡¨ Next, the President took this logic one
step further, implying that European governments were hindering ¡§the great
cause of ending hunger in Africa.¡¨
Whether or not GM foods actually increase yields is debatable. Some
scientists and researchers claim it does, and others do not. And large
agricultural/GM seed companies like Monsanto generally claim that it does
(increase yields) while environmentalists and farmers concerned about the
effects of the introduction of the technologies do not.
But, the U.S. view of GM foods, and certainly other scientific knowledge
like sex education, is already influencing development policies. In the
recently passed ¡§Humanitarian Assistance to Combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan
Africa and the Caribbean and National Security Act of 2003,¡¨ there are a few
references to the GM issue. The Congress found that food aid is an
important aspect of assisting these regions fight HIV/AIDS but
noted ¡§although the United States is willing to provide food assistance to
these countries in need, a few of the countries object to part or all of the
assistance because of fears of benign genetic modifications.¡¨ This text
appears in the Act itself and leads one to wonder whether or not governments
that deny food aid based on these ¡§fears¡¨ will miss out on part of the $15
billion U.S. promised in the HIV/AIDS initiative.
The GM food trade dispute and debate provide an excellent example of how
language surrounding technology and scientific knowledge are politicized and
used to further political agendas. And this kind of language is further
embedded in laws and policies that will affect developing countries, and
women specifically. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is worth
taking time to unpack the kind of language and rhetoric used in the debate.
President Bush uses Africa as a means in a trade dispute with the European
Union, calling on the Europeans¡¦ sense of humanity or morality to win his
case. At the same time, he attributes the full promise of a ¡§magic bullet¡¨
that will cure all the shortages of Africa with the modern miracle of
This may or may not be true. Technology certainly holds many promises.
However, those working in development, for instance, know that it will take
more than a magic seed to end hunger in Africa.
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