GMOs A Go-Go

07 Jun 2004

The GM debate is grinding on relentlessly, but I strongly feel that we must keep talking about the issue. We are witnessing rapidly changing events which will eventually decide the fate of agriculture and which are currently generating an incredibly wide range of attitudes.

Greenpeace, with its sensational, confrontational approach, obstructs ships and manufacturing plants. In response we see the strenuous defenders of “science”, accusing right and left of preconceived ideologically-motivated positions which attack those who are taking a very cautious approach to GMOs. But then they prove to be equally closed-minded, firing off unconstructive accusations about people wanting to “return to the Middle Ages”. These rebukes are accompanied by the usual refrain about solving the developing world’s agricultural and food problems and confusing genetically modified and transgenic organisms (it is one thing to use modern technology to improve existing varieties, it is another to mix worlds which are separate in nature, such as vegetables with animals). And this in turn provokes a range of responses: anguished cries such as from the FAI (Italian Foundation for the Environment) that “GMOs are almost like nuclear risks”; or attempts to bring the debate to a more rational level based on accurate information; or various events and activities which are often the best reply to the flood of words.

While I feel it is unhelpful to make comments like those of the FAI — which are just like the charge of “going back to the Middle Ages” — because they don’t make any contribution to rational and informed debate, I would nonetheless like to stress the need for the utmost care to be taken in legislative and commercial acceptance of GMOs. We should reflect on the news item: “Monsanto is abandoning GM wheat because there is no market demand”. Those claiming that the opposition to GMOs is assuming a religious nature where facts are no longer relevant, should take note of this news item, which is a fact. A fact which says a lot. First of all that multinationals are not the saviors of the hungry — scientific research is focused on market opportunities and when there is no financial incentive, their sacred “research” is abandoned. Secondly, ordinary consumers can influence producers’ decisions by showing their disapproval — fortunately we still live in a world where if we don’t like something we don’t have to just accept it. Thirdly, and it may seem trivial but isn’t, this shows that we can easily do without GMOs: in this case bread, pasta, pizza and biscuits will continue to keep their characteristics without being GM modified. Although they use the famous Creso wheat variety, which is produced as a result of genetic modifications caused by radiation, there is nothing transgenic or radioactive about it at all.

It is claimed that there are no proven ill-effects for human health from a GM diet. We should remember that these are only short-term studies, but let us accept this claim. The issue is a different one and the news from Monsanto highlights the basic problem, which underlies all the doubts we should have about GMOs. GMOs form an integral and fundamental part of an agricultural model focused on productivity which is no longer acceptable. This is simply because the land cannot support it, it is unsustainable and it has already caused massive damage. It has resulted in loss of biodiversity and in environmental pollution; it has made it impossible to choose different models of agriculture which do not harm our health; it has been accompanied by diminished quality and the loss of traditional products; the poorest countries have suffered by being forced to focus on productivity and abandon their traditional approaches, finishing up in a blind alley. The problem is not whether GMOs allow us to produce more or more efficiently, the problem involves delicate global economic balances, the global environment we live in and the standardization of consumption — which reduces the cultural and food resources of us all and has disastrous consequences for the lives of the very poor.

In the final analysis, perhaps it really is a question of ideology. The conflict between a liberalist, individualist ideology of those only producing to earn money and that of people wanting to produce in order to create well-being in society and, why not, taste. The market “doesn’t like” GMOs: great!

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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