Our Obligations to the Poor

The relationship between the rich and the poor countries of the world has been questioned in a number of ways today. Oxfam have released a report, Investing for Life, which suggests that pharmaceutical companies are missing an important opportunity by not focussing their attention on the large health problems of the poorest countries. At the same time, in the US, apparently significant developments have been made in the production of drought–resistant crops and, in the UK, the government’s chief scientific adviser will call for a rethink on GM crops.

These two issues pull in interestingly different ways. In the first case, the challenging question is how best to balance the value of a market-based research industry with the need to provide assistance to the poorest countries. In the second, the challenge is the price we are prepared to pay for our worries about genetically modified crops. In both cases our obligations to the poor sheds important light on the values of our society.

Oxfam and the Pharmaceutical Industry

The tension between the responsibility that we have to the poorest countries and the preservation of the market method of research funding is highlighted by the Oxfam report. We clearly value the freedoms and benefits of the market system. Its value is exemplified in the pharmaceutical case: without the pharmaceutical industry we would not have made the progress on health that we have in the last 30 years. However it runs on profit not on beneficence. On the face of it, the obligations of the rich to the poor are antithetical to the market.

Part of the Oxfam report attempts to meet the market on its own terms: at points it suggests that there are economic benefits to be had by investing in R&D on the health problems of the third world and shifting the focus of current pricing and intellectual property strategies. If this were straightforwardly correct then it would be madness for this route not to be pursued. I suspect however that, rightly or wrongly, the pharmaceutical companies will be sceptical of the economics of these suggestions.

Instead, partly to appease social pressure and partly as a result of genuine recognition, the pharmaceutical industry appears to be moving in the right direction. The Oxfam report discusses these moves and points out that they are not enough.

It is important to notice though is that these moves are not necessarily (and should not be) economically driven. The ethical limits of the market – that is, the extent to which market considerations should be overridden by other obligations – are grounded by non-market concerns. We should continue to encourage companies to recognise, articulate and accept their responsibilities. These responsibilities drive the Oxfam report and they drive our ability as a society to reach the right balance between the protection of the market and the welfare of the poor.

GM Crops and Poverty

At the same time, Nature reports that researchers in the US have made what appears to be a significant breakthrough in engineering drought-resistant crops. Working with the easily manipulated tobacco plant, scientists at the University of California have grown transgenic plants that suffer only a 12% loss in yield when given 70% less water. This development again raises the question of the appropriateness of the use of GM crops.

Sir David King will address this issue in his farewell speech at the Foundation for Science and Technology. In the face of sustained European hostility to GM crops, he will suggest that these techniques should be researched and used to help in the fight against poverty – provided, that is, they are shown to be safe. The question, of course, is the degree of proof of safety that is required. There are certain levels of confidence that may take many years to achieve. The trade-off between an acceptable level of confidence about the safety of the crops in question and the good that these crops can do is crucial to consider. It may be that being very sure about the consequences of these crops is a luxury that we cannot afford.

Given the pressing nature of the plight of the poorest countries it looks unreasonable to rule out GM crops altogether. Such crops may not represent the whole of the story. Indeed the issues raised by the Oxfam report represent a different element of the same obligation. It is unlikely that any one tactic will solve these problems but each should be carefully and openly considered, with inconsistencies and biases put aside.

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