By Geoff Tansey

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

Andrew posed the question, “How should technology innovation contribute to life in the 21st century?”

For me, working on creating a well-fed world, the short answer is: in a way that supports a diverse, fair and sustainable food system in which everyone, everywhere can eat a healthy safe, culturally appropriate diet. For that to happen, we need a change of direction in which the key innovations needed are social, economic and political, not technological. And the question is:  what kind of technology, developed by whom, for whom, will help; who has what power to decide on what to do and to control it, who carries the risks and gets the benefits.

Take the debate on GM technology, for example. We in the Food Ethics Council, building on a recent magazine (volume 3 issue 3 of Food Ethics Magazine), and five previous reports (Getting personal 2005, Just knowledge 2004, Engineering nutrition 2003, Trips with everything 2002, Novel foods 1999), are actively involved in reframing the debate. We argue that instead of asking, ‘how can GM technology help secure global food supplies’, we need to ask ‘what can be done – by scientists but also by others – to help the world’s hungry?’

When I stared the journal Food Policy in the mid 1970s we were worried about how to prevent the recurrence of the food crisis of the early 1970s and feed a population expected to increase by 50% by 2000. Sound familiar? In fact today, although more people are fed now than then, there are more hungry people now, 1.02 billion and far more overweight and obese people, 1.3bn as well as up to 2 billion people with micronutrient deficiencies. What we have developed in the rich world is a dysfunctional food system.

Technological innovation will not solve the problems of hunger and malnutrition in the future – just as it has not in the past – because they are not technical problems. But the kind of technological innovation we have will affect our ability to maintain a healthy food system – and for that we need major change, as the recent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) pointed out – business as usual is not an option. In effect, we have made a massive mistake in taking the intensive fossil-fuel led approach to agricultural development and we need to take a more agro-ecological approach which needs just as smart, but different science and technology. A science that seeks to understand and work with complexity, and works with farmers to do so within an ecological framework, rather than a reductionist science that focuses narrowly on specific attributes and disciplines and is based on an economic framework totally inadequate for the task. Moreover, the direction of R&D (research and development) is being seriously distorted by the extension of rules on patents and other forms of monopoly or exclusionary privileges [misnamed intellectual property (IP) rights] into life forms and farming – which has been the quintessential disseminated open system of innovation, supported for most of the 20th century by public good R&D.

Moreover, those firms that stand to benefit from an innovation system that privileges them through the way the IP system has developed, do not face the countervailing labelling, liability and redress requirements, and anti-trust measures, that would temper the speed with which they wish to apply their inventions in the market, seek first mover opportunities for increasing profitability and to use IP as a means to achieve and maintain market dominance. Instead, we are being led toward a model of R&D in food and farming similar to that of the marketing-based pharmaceutical industry, which fails to deliver for the diseases of poor people or which only a few suffer from.

In reality, the extension of IP rules globally through the inclusion of global minimum IP standards into the World Trade Organisation through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement was a conservative and protectionist response by a set of industries to real technological revolutions* that means their business model is defunct and should be replaced, as discussed by Schumpeter (see for instance here).

Remember, too, that you do not have to have a correct scientific understanding of something to develop technologies that work, but sometimes we need a revolution in the history of science to conceive of new ways of engineering things – from Einstein’s insight that matter could be converted to energy, and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA and our understanding that life – and information – is digital and can be manipulated and re-engineered as such. That leads to new technological possibilities, as does nano-tech and synthetic biology – but all new technologies are generally over-hyped and invariably have unintended consequences. Indeed, global warming is the unintended consequence of a fossil- fuel driven industrial revolution.

One of the means we’ve developed in the FEC to help think about these issues is an ethical matrix. This draws on various philosophical traditions we tend to use when thinking about what to do in terms of how it affects different groups’ wellbeing, autonomy and the justice or fairness of what is planned. It provides a means of examining the ethical positions of all interest groups – ensuring equality of treatment (justice/fairness). A very simple example is below.

From: The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security

An example of an ethical framework for addressing issues around food


*See The Future Control of Food: A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security, Edited by Geoff Tansey and Tasmin Rajotte, available from Earthscan and also now freely available online in HTML and XML formats on IDRC’s website.

Geoff Tansey has worked on food, agriculture and development issues since the mid-1970s, after graduating with a BSc in Soil Science (1972) and MSc in History and Social Studies of Science (1975). In 1975, he helped found and edit the journal Food Policy, later worked on various agricultural development projects in Turkey, Mongolia, Albania and Kazakstan and was lead author of The Food System – a guide.

He has been a freelance writer, consultant, and occasional broadcaster, since the early 1980s. He has contributed features to many newspapers and magazines, various journals and books as well as written and edited a range of books.

Since the late 1990s, Geoff has worked on the impact of changing global rules on patents and other forms of intellectual property, on food, biodiversity, health and development. This has included consultancy with the UK Department for International Development, the Directorate-General for Trade of the European Commission and the Quaker International Affairs Programme (QIAP), Ottawa and Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva.

His voluntary work includes membership of the Food Ethics Council since 2000, chairing the Food Policy Committee of the Guild of Food Writers, April 2000-April 2002, and The Food Network (formerly the Northern Food Network) from 1995 – 2000. He was co-convenor of the Conflict and Security Study Group of the Development Studies Association, 1990 – 98 and Honorary Campaigns Consultant, World Development Movement, 1989 – 94.