In just a few years, GMO has become one of the most discussed, praised and condemned acronyms to appear in discussions about food, agriculture, environment, health, economics, politics and law: there are 10,100,000 Google hits for the term.
Considering that they have only been in commercial use for around 12 years, it is fair to say that transgenic crops and foods have forced themselves on public awareness like few other technological innovations, and they are certainly the most significant in the agrifood area. One might regard this as a tautological statement, given that GM crops covered 114 million hectares of land worldwide in 2007 according to the only available estimates published annually by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an organization promoting the benefits of agro-biotechnologies and supported by the major companies in the sector. There has been a steady and continuous increase in their use, without sudden rises or falls, which does not seem to reflect the campaigning and protests their introduction has provoked.
However, unlike the other big technological innovations making their mark at the turn of the millennium – such as digital technology, information and communications, or medical diagnostics – plant genetic engineering has not met the expectations and predictions surrounding it: the geographical distribution of GMOs is very lopsided and mainly limited to the American continent (90% of global transgenic crop coverage and more than 50% in the United States alone); it is restricted in agricultural and botanical terms to just four crops (soy, corn, cotton and rapeseed); it is technologically limited to only two properties targeted by agronomic objectives: principally tolerance to herbicides, and resistance to insects.
Given all the talk about innovation and the modernization of agricultural activity, one could in fact say there has been technological stagnation, if it is true that today the supply of transgenic seeds is the same as when they were commercially introduced in the mid-1990s.
There are two interrelated explanations for this. On the one hand, it is necessary to pay for the significant research and development costs associated with bringing a transgenic variety to the market (estimated in tens of millions of dollars), which forces companies to focus on genetic modifications likely to be accepted by a large enough number of farmers that can afford the cost. On the other hand, consumers have shown a largely hostile attitude towards transgenic food and this has limited the range of GMOs to a few commodities mainly intended for animal feed or textile use. So for this reason products mainly intended for direct human consumption, such as genetically-modified wheat, rice, tomatoes, potatoes or sugar, though prepared for the market, have had to be rapidly reconsidered due to a lack of commercial prospects. Similar optimistic predictions, though the products were never commercially available, were made for plants tolerating drought or salinity, those with increased resistance to pathogens or providing more nutrients.
Though gene transfer science has achieved significant technological advances, transgenic agriculture is an exact continuation of the high-productivity approach that preceded it and partly inspired its development. It is highly dependent on production factors external to the farm and agro-ecological system; it simplifies cultivation, requiring minimal inputs of labor and little human supervision of the cultivation system; it requires significant amounts of capital (and if there is insufficient liquidity, debts) to support technological investments; agricultural production is standardized and geared to the subsequent phase of industrial processing; the production chain is long – and very long in terms of geographical distances, added value generated, numbers and varieties of different parties involved. The basic criteria of transgenic agriculture are no different to those used by industrialized agriculture in recent decades and, it should be remembered, they have been seriously challenged for their ecological and health impacts, as well as various serious scandals.
Stateless and Anonymous
However, while maintaining many aspects of continuity with the previous approach, agro-biotechnology brings some new features which increase concerns about the prospects for food and the right to food. Contract farming (the mechanism which ties a farmer to the agribusiness company with regard to quantity, time and quality of supplies), has been established to meet the requirements of large retail chains. It is reinforced by transgenic agriculture as a result of contractual rules governing the use of seeds – a natural complement to the right to patent transgenic plants which has been introduced into the laws of many countries and which it is intended to control at international level through the World Trade Organization.
We find a paradoxical situation: transgenic seeds can be exclusively owned through the patent and contracts stipulating the terms of cultivation, they are fully described and identified; yet the food produced is stateless and without origin in the eyes of consumers. GMOs in fact are a maximum expression of anonymous food. They are anonymous in countries where the public is not allowed labeling showing the presence or use of transgenic ingredients: this is the case in the main countries growing GMOs such as the USA, Canada or Argentina. They are anonymous in Europe, where genetically modified crops are used for livestock without disclosure, also due to the fact that food obtained from animals fed with GMOs are not subject to labeling requirements. They are anonymous wherever possible because invisibility is crucial where the market does not accept them.
The inherent invisibility of GMOs has been decisively challenged by the protest action around the world, focusing attention on these new foods and making public opinion aware, critical and involved. GMOs have in fact had the merit of reviving interest in food – how and by whom it has been grown, processed and sold – as well as reopening debate on the role of science and research in 21st-century society, even within the world of science itself.
The fact that there is widespread attention within society on GMOs is undoubtedly one of the significant features of the transgenic crops issue and a participative food democracy, but protests were not the only obstacle to the expansion of transgenic agriculture. Another threat to its deployment is the way in which the technology was conceived and the commercial excitement surrounding it. The large-scale adoption of GM seeds in countries where the transgenic model is accepted is paradoxically also one of the main limitations on their continued expansion. Ever more frequently scientific literature reports the development of resistance by target organisms (butterfly larvae which develop resistance to the Bt toxin expressed by the modified plant are an example) and of toxic or lethal effects on non-target organisms (such as other harmless insects). Similar examples can be cited of wild herbs which have become tolerant to herbicides applied on GM crops: this is a serious worry for farmers and a problem for the agroecosystem. Attempts are then sometimes made to resolve these phenomena by inserting new transgenic variants into the genome of the modified plants, prompting renewed technological intervention reminiscent of the spiral of poisons used in chemical agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s.
But you can’t resolve a problem with the same head as the one that created it, as Einstein remarked. Somebody should tell those people who—for example in the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol negotiations—think that the problems of gene flow with transgenic crops and their ecological invasion can be resolved with technologies such as the Terminator gene (a technology restricting genetic use, which produces sterile plants in the second generation, obliging farmers to buy seeds each season). Somebody should also tell those people in the economy and the media taking advantage of the recent food crisis to promote GMOs, which are neither the cause nor the solution to the problem.
At stake is the future of food, the future of growers and the future of those who have to eat. In other words all of us.
Italy, researcher at the Genetic Rights Foundation, a biotechnology research and communication agency.
This article was published on Slow Food Almanac. Click here to read the whole issue.