By Dr

Globalization and Ethiopia (Part 5)

Risk Involved In All Endeavors

By Dr. Andargachew Tiruneh

(Addis Tribune 04/01/00)

 

 

The traditional risks or dangers faced by man came from such natural phenomena as floods, pestilence, drought and sickness.

These phenomena and their adverse consequences persist particularly in the Third World. In traditional societies, the tendency

has been to attribute these risks to divine will or evil power, a notion which does not encourage society to try and find rational

solutions for them. On the other hand, with its emergence in the last 300 years or so, capitalism learnt to manage these risks by

calculating them and by making provisions for them by way of private insurance complemented by state social security systems.

 

The risks of the era of globalization do not originate from nature but from the activities of man, from his science and technology, his tampering with nature. One casualty of these activities is the environment.

 

Many scientists now accept that the emission of CS gas has pierced the ozone layer and exposed our skin to cancer from the

sun's ultra rays. They also have accepted that the burning of fossil fuels (petroleum and coal) has been causing acid rain and

global warming. As a result, we are losing land everywhere to the rising seas which takes place as the ice from the poles melts.

Global warming is an even greater threat to the tropical and semitropical eco-systmes which are being claimed by

desertification.

 

Then there are the risks that come from intense farming methods. These include the use of herbicides and pesticides to spray

crops. In the process, the chemicals pollute the soil and water systems such as rivers, lakes and seas. The resulting damage

caused to the environment in turn threatens the life of insects, birds and fish.

 

Another casualty has been the safety of food. First, the risk came from eating and drinking residues of pesticides and herbicides on food items. Then there was the danger of consuming all sorts of chemicals added to food items in order to make them taste or look better. Also, intense farming relies on giving to farm animals quantities of foods concocted from animal remains, hormones and antibiotics all intended to speed up the growth of the animals and make quick profits. This has resulted in contaminated meat and antibiotic resistant diseases such as Salmonella, and mad cow disease (MSC)

 

Yet another concern is the risk that is feared to come from the latest method of intense farming, namely, genetic engineering

(GM). GM crops are already grown on a large scale in the US and being imposed elsewhere in the world. The crops include

soya, maze, cotton and potatoes.

 

The idea of genetic engineering is the extraction of a gene from a plant or an animal and introducing it into a crop in order to

enhance one quality or another in the recipient crop. Examples of such qualities widely spoke of are resistance to pests or

extremes of weather.

 

The danger is, however, that such genes may find their way to other plants and transform them into becoming resistant to pests

and climatic extremities. For example, they could find their way to weeds and change them into uncontrollable super-weeds that could play havoc on bio-diversity. They could also be a hazard to health in that genetic engineering is, at least from the skeptics' point of view, something different from cross-breeding and may produce ecologically dangerous plants.

 

No less worrying from a geo-political perspective is what are called terminator seeds. These are seeds that are engineered in

such a way that they grow only once; the next generation of seeds from them are planned to be sterile so that they may not be

grown again. This means that the farmers of the world who need to sow seeds every year will have to buy them from the

companies that have patented the terminator seeds and play to their tune.

 

The adverse effects of some of these risks are certain. For example, there is no doubt that the Chernobil nuclear accident

contaminated a large part of northern Asia and Europe. Some of the other negative effects are speculative. For example,

whether GM food introduced in the food chain will give rise to super weeds is uncertain.

 

The fact that we can no longer tell whether science will produce something positive or negative has made science itself uncertain . Science is no longer a substitute for tradition; it has become a matter of opinion. Medical opinion about what is good for us to eat or drink is controversial and is revised from one year to the next. Scientist themselves do not agree on any of the issues particularly concerned with the new risks we are facing today.

 

In addition to making science uncertain, the new risks have given rise to a political culture of accusations of scare mongering

and cover ups. When a new risk transpires and the government had not warned the population about it, it is accused of cover

up or collusion with corporations. When it publicizes a risk but the risk does not materialize, it is accused of scare mongering.

The central dilemma of globalization here is when to opt for caution and restrict innovation or when to abandon caution and

promote innovation.

 

The new risks have also given rise to the green movement at least in the west. The green movement came into being precisely to protect farm as well as wild animals, to counter the adverse effects of the new risks and to expose possible collusion between governments and corporations. The movement organizes political parties, lobbies politicians, writes and exposes the

perpetrators of risk, organizes demonstrations, vandalizes GM crops and engages in the destruction of cities where animals are

kept in cruel and unhealthy conditions.

 

What does all this mean to countries like Ethiopia? Much like the rest of the Third World, Ethiopia too still suffers from natural

risks, probably more so in the last 20 years than before. Thus, diseases like malaria and TB, which once seemed completely

eradicated, have made a -ferocious come-back. The impact of these is reinforced by AIDS and they are together the biggest

killers in the country today.

 

Globalization is not altogether irrelevant to the spread of these diseases in the last few decades. The withdrawal of DDT from

the market because of its hostility to the environment has contributed to the resurgence of malaria; the TB virus is becoming

resistant to the other multinational products (antibiotics); and the spread of AIDS is in part attributable to the close integration

of the world's populations.

 

The other major killer is Ethiopia's cyclical drought and famine the frequency of which has been increasing in the last 30 years

or so. In part, the increase in its frequency is attributable to population pressure which has been devastating forests for fuel and

for the construction of houses. In turn, the destruction of forests had led to the loss of moisture from the atmosphere and to

shortage of rain fall. To this is added global warming and desertification which are caused by the world's consumption of fossil

fuel and release of CS gas.

 

The environment is further degraded by the intensive agricultural methods increasingly adopted by Ethiopia's farmers. It is

common knowledge that they have been using fertilizer quite extensively for some time. This is bound to have adverse

consequences for the ecosystem and particularly for the flora and fauna and to the water systems of the country.

 

For the moment, the food consumed particularly by great majority of the Ethiopian population is grown organically and, hence,

healthy. However, given the increased use of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and growth-promoting chemicals, it will not be

long before contamination sets in. It will also not be too long before this is made worse with the increased use of hybrid and

genetically manipulated seeds.

 

What is more, these chemicals and seeds are made by big corporations in the west. There is, therefore, the likelihood that a few corporations will control the global production of goods as the world's farmers forget their traditional methods of farming and become dependent on chemical s and imported seeds to grow their corps.

 

Finally, it must be noted that science and technology, though full of risks, are not without their merits. For example, intensive

agricultural methods can bring about an increased production of food and the importance of that to countries like Ethiopia

cannot be exaggerated. However, the problem appears to be that the advantages of science and technology are monopolized

by the North while the risks are shared by the North and South in equal measure.