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  • Dr. Robin Goins

Think About It – What Would You Do?

The Rub


Bill Gates and his foundation have been under a great deal of scrutiny due to their policies on numerous humanitarian problems. The two most current controversies are in regards to global vaccines and food security. Most specifically, Bill Gates and his foundation have received a great deal of backlash on their decision to support GMO foods being used to combat the global food crisis, and most specifically, that they are safe for human consumption. This position has been the fuel to numerous conspiracy groups and alarmists, who while they mean well, may actually be driving the very thing they fear.


At first glance this may appear to be a concerning stance, and Bill Gates is often demonized for his choices to support, and even invest in GMO’s. To understand the controversies and adequately address them, one must first understand the logic behind these decisions and its connection to solving the global hunger crisis. What are the motives behind the Gates initiatives? Is Bill Gates an opportunist and the devil in disguise? This paper is in no way meant to be an argument for or against GMOs. This paper will discuss the facts around the Gate’s Foundation’s position on GMO’s, the decision to support the science and the need for personal insight and logic on the issue.


The Challenge


The Gates Foundation Mission is, “Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life”. The foundation has done a remarkable job working around the globe to help put a dent in the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. The problem lies in the concern that motives of the world’s powerful must be questioned, and therefore why would one of the richest men on earth care about it? Is that even possible? Why do we find it so hard to believe the some one as powerful as Bill Gates, and his Board that includes Warren Buffett, would actually want to do more?


To answer that question, we must first look into ourselves for the answer. The initial answer is to why the wealthy cannot be trusted comes down to the unconscious idea that someone is a friend or an enemy. People often think that people who are wealthy are somehow on the take and do not have their best interest at heart. This perception is rooted in our own egotistical view of ourselves, although buried in our Freudian id, that subconsciously and automatically drive our perceptions. In other words, we see others through our lens, which is generally clouded with our own values, ideas – and as Freud would say – our animalistic desires. Could it be that there are actually people out there who have the majority of power yet can be good at heart? Imagine that! What a concept!


Yes, it is possible if you understand the theories of personality, and specifically the personality of a philanthropist. A study by Claxton-Oldfield and Banzen (2010) of charitable volunteers found that, when tested using the Big Five Model of Psychology, they were lower on the neuroticism scale, much higher on extroversion scale as well as high on the scales of openness and agreeableness. What this means is that philanthropic people are very focused on and willing to engage with others, they are not rigid and open to new experiences, and they are more likely to work towards positive relationships with those around them. Personality traits do not differ among levels of society, and it is constant in all groups, therefore anyone, even Bill Gates can possess it. This is evidenced in the charitable giving that the Gates Foundation has done since its conception.


What Would You Do?


According to a United Nations report on world food security and nutrition released in September 2017, after steadily declining for over a decade, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 per cent of the global population. This has created an even greater sense of urgency on how to combat the trend. Of course, the general attitude is “what are they going to do about it”, which means those with power. We expect them to step up, yet criticize them for what they do. This is the dual edged sword many philanthropists face, and one that drives their decisions. It is not for the faint at heart in any way.


Pointing fingers is easy, so the real question really lies in what would you do? How much skin in the game are you really willing to give to better the life of another? If faced with the challenge and immense responsibility of feeding the world, would you consider alternative ideas? Your answer would inevitably come from your moral principles rather than on mere perceived expediency and the assumption public policy should be fair:


Each agent must educate himself as much as he is able about the peoples of the world—their access to the basic goods of agency, their essential commonly held cultural values, and their governmental and institutional structures—in order that he might individually and collectively accept the duties that ensue from those peoples’ legitimate rights claims, and to act accordingly within what is aspirationally possible. (Boylan 2011)


So, is all public policy fair? Of course, not – it cannot be as long as humans are making them. There are no Pollyanna ideas here when it comes to the ability of humans to harm. That said, the question is are GMO’s, and Bill’s support of it, bad even if it can help with a global crisis? Many would argue no while some would argue yes. What if we could feed the world and help the greater good with the smallest amount of backlash? Put yourself in Bill’s shoes – a man who looks to science to solve problems. The Borgen Project, a group dedicated to solving world hunger, states that:


With the success of many GMO projects, research is being done to determine how this technology can be used to address the issue of world hunger. Modified crops that can benefit developing countries include C4 Rice, which is being funded by the Gates Foundation. Rice naturally photosynthesizes through the C3 pathway, which is less efficient than the C4 pathway utilized primarily by grass crops such as maize and sugarcane. Converting the cellular structure of rice from C3 to C4 will allow the crop to support more people than is currently possible. While a single hectare of land in Asia produces enough rice to feed 27 people, the International Rice Research Institute has estimated that by 2050, that same hectare will need to produce enough rice to feed 43 people, a problem that genetically modified C4 rice may be able to address.


GMO’s Keeping it In Perspective


Bill Gates stated that although GMO’s are not perfectly healthy, but safe, he sees them as a promising tool in a wider array of resources in the fight to reduce world hunger. The FDA (2020) says GMO’s are safe and that foods marketed from genetically engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally bred plants. Foods from genetically engineered plants intended to be sold in the United States that have been evaluated by the FDA through a voluntary consultation process have not gone on the market until the FDA’s questions about the safety of such products have been resolved. Who should Bill listen to? Is he really poisoning the world or the devil? He, and those his foundation has helped, would undoubtedly say no.


Many scientists, including Anika Wiese-Klinkenberg of the Jülich Research Institute, believe that modifying plants makes them more robust, healthier overall and allows the plants to grow back quicker and more plentifully. Wiese-Klinkenberg stated that, "Dryness and drought reduce harvests dramatically already," and "climate change is only going to make that worse." Indian scientists are researching ways to use genes from an extremely resilient Himalayan plant to create similarly resilient food crops. This is exactly why Gates wrote (Cunnane, 2018), "GMO foods are perfectly healthy and the technique has the possibility to reduce starvation and malnutrition when it is reviewed in the right way," and "I don't stay away from non-GMO foods but it is disappointing that people view it as better." Cunnane (2018) ascertained that Bill Gates was not intending to start controversy, but rather The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continually addresses some of the most impossible challenges facing developing countries, specifically in regards to poverty and malnutrition. To date, the foundation has “allocated funds to innovative companies and organizations that can help provide solutions to these problems. This includes supporting new techniques and crops, such as Green Super Rice, to help farmers in developing countries successfully grow more food and earn more money.” (Cunnane, 2018).

https://www.gatesfoundation.org/Who-We-Are/General-Information/Foundation-Factsheet

National Geographic (2020) published an article about GMO’s and the fight for food security. The National Geographic Society stated that:


While there are these controversies and complexities that pose challenges for the use of GM foods, these are secondary to a larger issue. We already live in a world that produces enough food to feed everyone. Thus, hunger results from inequity, not food shortage. Unequal distribution of quality food among communities suffering from poverty is the primary culprit in today’s world hunger, not abundance or quantity of food stocks. For those suffering from malnutrition, access to quality food depends on a variety of political, environmental, and socioeconomic factors—most notably, armed conflict and natural disasters.


The Gates Foundation understands these global challenges and that GMOs undergo rigorous testing (a period ranging from five to eight years) conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to make sure the genetically modified food is safe for human consumption. Currently, there is no legislation requiring food packagers to label the genetically modified food that sits on supermarket shelves. In addition, the poorer you are the more you spend on food, which repeats the vicious cycle. The foundation can use its power to fight and improve political barriers to solving the world’s problems.

Think About It


It is easy to villainize what we do not understand, this is a common human psychological characteristic. The problem is just that – we do not understand, and therefore only make linkages from current information to the knowledge, or lack thereof, that we currently have. Not too many starving people will turn away food, and few will be worried about the label. Whether you agree with the science of GMOs or not, the fact is that GM crops may be modified to improve yield, enhance nutrition, or better adapt to environmental conditions. As stated by Mc Comb (2016), “GMOs have the potential to help solve food production issues in the future, making a dent in the fight against global poverty” in a world where nearly a million children die every year because they lack Vitamin A and another 350,000 go blind.


The reality is, when facing the problem of world hunger, GMO’s equate to reduced costs, increased crop yield, rising profits, and more business opportunities are driving the growth of GM foods. For scientists and philanthropists like Bill Gates, the next logical step would be to use GM food to solve food insecurities worldwide. Although the question still remains as to whether GMO farming can actually reduce world hunger, it would be irresponsible not to consider the possibilities as the science improves (Diehl, 2019). This is especially true for the Gates Foundation.


All of that said, one must ask - what is the bigger question? Should only some survive or should the focus be the survival for all – and if so, who decides? This is the unfortunate sociological ethical dilemma. One must first consider the human element of behavior, including their own, and educate themselves as to the nature of their own perceptions and motivations before drawing any conclusion. Social media has made it possible for anyone to claim anything, so one must test what they read against logic and science. Scholarly research is the only way to reduce bias, and is at the heart of scientific research. So, before you share that article on FB – think about the bigger picture and ask yourself what your real motivations are. That is the only way we can do this together.


References:


  1. Boylan, Michael (2004b) “The Moral Imperative to Maintain Public Health,” in Public Health Policy and Ethics (ed. Michael Boylan), Dordrecht: Kluwer/Springer; pp. xvii–xxxiv.

  2. Boylan, Michael (2008) “Medical Pharmaceuticals and Distributive Justice,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 17 (1): 32–46.

  3. Boylan, Michael (2009) Basic Ethics, 2nd edn, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  4. Boylan, Michael (2011) Morality and Global Justice: Justifications and Applications, Boulder, CO: Westview.

  5. Brodwin, E. “Bill Gates calls GMOs 'perfectly healthy' — and scientists say he's right”. Business Insider. 27 February 2018

  6. Carrington D. “World population to hit 11bn in 2100 – with 70% chance of continuous rise”. The Guardian. 18 September 2014.

  7. Claxton-Oldfield, S., Banzen, Y (2010). Personality Characteristics of Hospice Palliative Care Volunteers: The “Big Five” and Empathy. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Volume: 27 issue: 6, page(s): 407-412.

  8. Cunnane, C.B. “In the News: Bill Gates gives GMOs a vote of confidence”. Sustainable Agriculture – Food Production & Technology. 22, March, 2018.

  9. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2017. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Building resilience for peace and food security. Rome, FAO.

  10. Gerry, C. “Feeding the World One Genetically Modified Tomato at a Time: A Scientific Perspective”. Harvard University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences – SITN. 9, August, 2015.

  11. Hartl, J. (nd). “Genetically modified food to fight hunger?” The Hungry World. DW.com.

  12. Hunger Statistics. World Food Programme. Accessed 29 June 2015. http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

  13. Klumper W and Qaim M. “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops”. PLoS ONE (2014), 9.

  14. McComb, B. “GMOs Can Help Combat World Hunger”. The Borgen Project (nd).

  15. National Geographic. “Are Genetically Modified Crops the Answer to World Hunger?” 28, January, 2020.



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