February 25, 2010
Regarding ‘EU weighs proposals to break GMO deadlock‘:
The process of GMO invasion in Europe can be clearly observed in articles and statements of public figures. More and more we are told that we have to deal with GMOs, that we have to submit to progress in science, that we have to do it for the whole planet. Informed people know this is wrong. I can’t but wonder, in this case, why high political representatives get so involved in an issue that requires deep knowledge of biotechnology, environmental science and of course economics.
As a scientist, I do trust science. I don’t fear technology and I don’t think that GMOs are monstrous foods. They are not. However, as a scientist, I’m also aware of the corruption spread among scientists. Clear evidence of this is the so-called ‘Climategate’ affair, in which hacked emails exposed the weaknesses of peer-reviewing as a measure of scientific value.
It’s easy to extrapolate this to other fields, especially those related to biotechnology and pharmacy – fields where companies invest billions in products, products that MUST be sold to someone for profit. Such problems were recently exposed in the USA, where a number of psychiatrists turned out to have received money from pharmaceutical companies for drugs whose safety they researched. This is a clear conflict of interest, and it’s not a single case. This is more or less the rule.
What is the connection? According to some sources, Monsanto, the main GMO producer, invested billions of dollars in lobbying in 2009 alone. How much money they invested in scientists is unknown. The main problem with biotechnology science is that it’s very closely related to the industry, because of the expense and the application of the production.
In this case, it’s very hard to trust the scientists who research its safety. We see a number of researchers claiming that GMOs are safe and a number of researchers claiming they are toxic and cancerous. How can a non-specialist decide who to believe? How can the European Commission or Parliament side with the producers if the scientific evaluation cannot be trusted? This is true for Europe as much as for the USA – checks on specialists consulting safety agencies is obviously flawed at present.
One thing is certain: there is one clear sign that GMOs are safe in the short term, and it is the fact that people eat it for more than a decade. GMO soy can be found in almost every food product on the market in the form of E322 (soy leticin) and also as corn derivatives. As people admit, more than 90% of the soy currently produced is genetically modified. Thus we consume it and we do so in quite large quantities.
It’s clear that in the short-term at least modified soy is safe. The long-term effect, however, is questionable and largely not studied (due to the age of the technology). For example, there is a boom of severe allergies and obesity in developed countries, mainly the USA. Why? What’s different in our food now from our food a decade or two ago? The answer is clear – we eat GMO products (and meat produced with their help). This is of course speculation, but if I, as a normal citizen, can make such an observation and wonder, then politicians are obliged to investigate it and to consider if the risk really is so low and the benefits so big.
After the health issue, which obviously very few people can seriously address, we have the environment issue. GM organisms have already escaped into nature in Mexico. This is not speculation: it is documented. If it can happen there, it can happen everywhere and probably has. The danger for the environment is clear and it is actually the biggest reason not to develop GMOs except in strictly controlled places.
Such control cannot be expected from average small farmers in an average European member state. The environmental danger is clear. I don’t see how the Commission is addressing this problem in its attempts to spread GMOs in Europe. The key to survival in nature is diversity. If the GMO organisms replace naturally-occurring species, reducing their diversity, that increases significantly the risk of extermination of the species in question. And since nature is a connected system, it is not known how many species we’re endangering.
Ultimately, there is the economical issue. We have two statements here – first GMOs improve yields and increase profits, and second, they are crucial for feeding the planet.
On the yield statistics, there are studies in India proving that yields might increase, but the profits do not. Even if this is wrong, the USA has been growing GMOs for a long time now and we don’t see US farmers getting filthy rich. In addition to that, there is the ultimate risk that a field with organic products can be infected by naturally spreading GMOs from a near farm and thus those “organic” seeds will have to be paid. In mixed regions with weak control, this is a very serious risk. And since such regions are likely to occur in poorer member states, the financial burden for such farmers will be a serious issue. Again, such problems are not accounted for in any EC or EP initiative. Who is going to help (financially) organic farmers to remain organic is also unknown.
The second promise of GMOs – to feed the world is obviously a beautiful lie. GMOs are grown for a decade, but Africa hasn’t been fed. Nobody has been fed freely, because every GMO product must be paid to the producing company. Obviously, a poor region cannot afford to grow such products.
Of course, there is a third side of the economical problem, and this is GMO products for animal food. Since this also has health and economical sides, I won’t discuss it since it leads to my final point.
The main problem in the politics about GMOs is the lack of control. We already eat GMO products without knowing it. The meat we eat has been produced using GMOs food and growth hormones and again we do not know it. If European Commission and the European Parliament want to promote GMOs, they have to seriously consider this problem.
Society can be convinced to try GMOs, as long as people have a choice. In the current situation, we, European consumers, do not have that choice. There isn’t real control of food containing GMOs (just as there is no real control on cosmetics containing nanoparticles). The only real control we have over our food is that our governments do not allow GMOs to be grown in our countries. As long as this remains true, people will do everything they can to keep that control. That is to say, until every food/drink is properly labelled as a GMO/free of GMOs and we can trust those labels, we won’t give up our fight against GMOs.
Thus, for me, the only way that GMOs can be accepted by European consumers without force and deceit is to label the products. And after this labelling, every citizen will have the right to sue companies in European courts if the label is wrong and receive very significant compensation. In this case, I’m sure people will happily give GMO food a go. After all, we eat it right now anyway. And with time, there may come even better varieties.
Last but not least, I also agree that the EU has to finally clarify its position on the GMO question. However, this must be done in a way that will protect consumer rights. We have the right to choose our food. Currently, that right isn’t protected, since labelling and ingredients are not controlled at EU level (and in some countries, not even at member-state level).
Also, farmers have the right to grow what they like. If the use of GMOs is not strictly regulated to protect the interests of organic farmers, this right won’t be protected either, since GMOs are invasive and expensive.
Just as in the case of smokers, that right should go to the person whose personal rights are violated.
As a European citizen I want my rights to be protected by both my government and the European Union authorities. And these rights require strict control over GMOs and their use in my food and my environment.
Denitsa StaicovaAuthor : Letters to the EurActiv editor