Davos essay: GM foods Caroline Lambert Senior Writer eCountries January 31, 2001 The genetically modified food debate continued at Davos in such panels as “21st Century Food Fights” and “Should We Be Frightened By Food? ” – but it won’t end there, not by a long shot. The GM food debate is increasingly dividing public opinion – and countries. The potential of the new technology seems promising, but it’s hard to know at what, if any, risk.
The debate over genetically modified (GM) organisms could look like an excuse for yet another trade battle between the US and Europe, joining the ranks of bananas and beef.
The debate, however, spills far beyond bureaucrats’ obscure negotiations into the realm of public opinion, food safety and environmental activism. In Europe, concerns over GM food, together with the persistence of mad cow disease, are fueling increasing suspicion over what makes it onto dinner plates.
Europe is familiar with scenes of activists trashing fields of GM crops, or trying to block ships suspected of containing GM corn or soybeans.
Major food companies and supermarkets based in Europe, including Nestle and Marks and Spencer, have declared their intention to phase out the use of GM ingredients, while an increasing number of countries, from the EU area to Japan, have made labeling of GM food mandatory. That may yet convince the US – the world’s leading GM food producer – to bring the issue to the WTO. Why the fuss?
Artificially inserting genes from the DNA of one organism into another is meant to produce crops which are naturally pest resistant or able to withstand herbicides. Genetic modification is also being used to enhance the nutritional qualities of rice by increasing levels of vitamin A and protein. Future applications could result in crops that are more drought tolerant. According to GM supporters, this is great stuff. About 840m people – 13% of the global population – are facing empty plates, and malnutrition is estimated to kill 40,000 victims every day.
GM food could be the answer. According to Monsanto, a major GM technology supplier, “biotechnology can improve how foods are grown to provide a more abundant food supply and to reduce the use of chemicals such as pesticides, thus making modern agriculture more environmentally friendly. ” As far as US authorities are concerned, there is nothing to worry about, as GM organisms are not substantially different from natural ones. But for many environmental activists – and an increasing number of consumers – GM food promises to bring more problems than solutions.
Microbiologist Isabelle Meister, who works on the Greenpeace international campaign against GM food, maintains that GM technology is imprecise and has unknown effects, which explains why the environmental group opposes the release of any type of GM organism in the environment. Future possible mutations are unpredictable, she says, and consumers are being used as guinea pigs. The British Medical Association seems to agree, pointing out there is no way to know at this stage what the health and environmental risks of GM food truly are.
Concerns range from the disruption of ecosystems to the potential for allergic reactions and resistance to antibiotics. Besides health and environmental question marks, GM food also raises concerns over food control. GM technology is patented and therefore subject to intellectual property rules and royalties. This means that the right to use GM seeds is strictly controlled by patent holders, and farmers are not allowed to use seeds from existing GM crops. This could be an expensive exercise for poorer countries, where saving seeds is common practice.
This is why organizations such as the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) works with GM seed producers to supply developing countries with GM technology at cheaper prices. Price, however, is not the only issue. GM technology is controlled by a handful of multinational companies, which raises concerns over the power they may enjoy over the food chain. According to Christian Aid, a worldwide charity, “ownership and control concentrated in too few hands and a food supply based on too few varieties of crops planted widely are the worst option for food security. Yet, transgenic crops are increasingly popular, now covering 44. 2m hectares worldwide. According to ISAAA, transgenic crops increased by 51% in developing countries last year, and 36% of world soybean crops are already transgenic. Unfortunately, control mechanisms have not developed at the same pace. In September 2000, environmental NGO Friends of the Earth (FoE) revealed that StarLink GM corn, authorized in the US for animal feed but not for human consumption, had made its way into widely distributed taco shells.
This triggered a recall, and a number of class actions are looming. FoE’s Bill Freese says this was an accident waiting to happen. “Contamination of conventional corn with StarLink was an inevitable outcome of planting it. The [Environmental Protection Agency]’s belief that limiting the StarLink license to corn for animal feed and industrial use would be sufficient to keep the corn out of the food chain reveals a surprising ignorance of real world conditions on the farm,” he says.
The US authorities’ nonchalance is having consequences beyond the US market. The discovery of Starlink traces in corn shipments to Japan, where Starlink has not been approved even for animal feed, created a public outrage and resulted in a complete halt in shipments. In November 2000, FoE also identified the presence of non-approved GM corn in European food products. Facing increasing pressure, national governments have been trying to find an appropriate regulatory framework.
In January 2000, 150 governments adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose objective is to establish a transparent system for international GM food trade. Under the Protocol, governments will be able to choose whether or not to accept imports of GM organisms, and exporters will have to provide detailed information of their shipment and obtain authorization before releasing it. The EU has also reinforced its legislation related to labeling and tracing of GM food. These efforts are just the first steps of GM regulation – they probably won’t be the last.
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