Man and cow Bridging the inequality among species


New Zealand scientists are developing a genetically modified vaccine for curing tuberculosis in cows. That certainly is good news. Scientists at AgResearch’s Wallaceville research center say the vaccine might later be helpful in curing millions of the human victims of the disease. Sure, that too is a welcome development.

And now, a reality check. New Zealand’s AgResearch science manager Paul Atkinson clarifies: “A TB vaccine in cows might also be a vaccine in human beings in the Third World. What the developed world needs is a better drug.” He goes on to say that what the Third World needs is a vaccine for animals and humans because they can’t afford drugs, and their farming practices are such that a vaccine would break the transmission mechanism.

No wonder, the excitement over the applications of the breakthrough in biotechnology and genetic engineering is so great. Biotechnology companies in the western countries find it much economical to kill two birds with one stone: develop drugs and vaccine that can be applicable for both humans and animals in the developing world. Moreover, there is nothing unethical about it. After all, it is the market which will decided whether such a technological feat is unwanted or not.

We are surely headlong into the 21st century. We are fast heading towards a utopian era where it will be possible to club the human beings and animals of the Third World into one category.

Some years back, Dr Ismail Serageldin, former chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), had cited the example of pigs and cassava. Accordingly, cassava is the staple food for over 300 million people in Africa. But all these years, none of the multinational seed companies ventured to develop an improved variety of cassava knowing well that the Africans would not be able to buy the costly but improved seed. In other words it was not profitable for these companies to develop improved varieties of cassava.

And then, research showed that cassava could be a very useful ingredient for the pig feed. Four multinational companies immediately pumped in US $ 1 billion for research on cassava for feeding the pigs. For the seed industry, the ten billion dollar pig industry in the United States was more lucrative than the food security of over 300 million humans in Africa. When it came to the question of food security and/or profits, even the pigs take precedence over the human beings.

Equally more shocking and shameful is that while the world makes no effort to feed its estimated 800 million people, almost entirely in the developing countries, who go to bed hungry every night, no effort is spared to feed the cattle in the rich and industrialised western countries. In the recent years, the new system of direct payments to farmers (since 1992) in the European Union has stipulated increase in consumption of cereals from 134.8 million tonnes in 1993 to 178.2 million tonnes in 2000, largely through increased use of EU produced cereals for animal feed. Even though the feeding of cereals to animals and then their subsequent slaughter for human consumption requires six times more grains than what would be needed for the average dietary intake, there is no regret.

It is no longer commercial enterprises alone that are keen to extract their pound of flesh. Scientists too are joining the exploitative class of merchants and traders, and of course political masters. A few years back, at an international conference on animal husbandry, a distinguished scientist shocked the participants when he advocated slaughtering of cattle in the Third World. Blaming the cattle in the developing world for releasing methane at the time of feeding, that he thought was partly responsible for greenhouse effect that resulted in global warming, his view was that the west is over laden with beef and dairy products to such an extent that it can meet the global requirements for the next five years.

The ‘unproductive’ cattle in the developing world are therefore not required. The time has come therefore to start slaughtering the docile cows, was the recommendation.

At a time when the increasing unrest in the developing world from the unjust global economic policies is being very conveniently clubbed with terrorism, the world is fast moving towards the next logical step: equating the human population in the majority world with that of animals. Global financial institutions, aid agencies and the likes are already trying their best to blur the difference, if any. And if you are wondering as to how that gets translated into public policy, let me explain.

A few years back, Dan Glickman, then the agricultural secretary in United States, made an impromptu visit to New Delhi to impress upon India to accept sub-standard wheat from America. When told by his Indian counterpart that the American wheat was inferior in quality, Glickman is reported to have said: “If you could import cattle feed as foodgrain at the time of the food imports from America under PL-480 before green revolution, why are you so concerned now?” And only a few months back, the United States diverted contaminated food shipment (as part of food aid) that India refused to accept since it contained genetically modified Starlink, approved for cattle consumption in the United States, to Sri Lanka.

So what, if the Starlink food stuff had to be recalled from the supermarkets and groceries in the United States when it became known that the cattle feed had inadvertently got mixed up with human food products. For the people of Sri Lanka (and India for that matter), even cattle feed would serve a great humanitarian purpose. What is good for American cattle is equally good for the people in the Third World. That’s the way to address mankind’s shameful scourge — hunger and malnutrition.

Double standards of the Corporate world, that the Centre for Science and Environment ripped open through the shocking expose of pesticide content in the popular soft drink’s, is no longer something that would stir the conscious of the people living in the west. The Corporate world has succeeded, through its control over media and the academics, in convincing the rich and industrialized world that the Third World deserves the same generosity that is normally applicable for the cattle.

It is only a matter of time before the industry launches a media blitz for genetically modified drugs that can cure both human and animals in the developing world. While we are still worried at gender inequality, science and industry has moved to bridge the inequality among species.

George Orwell, if he were alive today, perhaps would have rephrased what he wrote in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than even human beings.”

(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based writer and commentator known for his sharp and incisive analysis of international policy)

Leave a comment