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Debate: Genetically modified food and the WTO ruling

Why should we be worried about genetically modified food?

Last year an Australian project to engineer a GM pea was abandoned because rats developed allergic reactions when fed the experimental peas. Not the biggest food scare in the past few years, admittedly – the problem was picked up and the project abandoned. So where’s the danger?

Well, the tests needed to pick up this effect are not part of the European or US food safety regimes. Furthermore, the peas were “substantially equivalent” to normal peas – “substantial equivalence” means containing the same chemicals in the same quantities – and could have been approved on those grounds.

The problem was picked up through luck, and the pea could have been allowed through Europe’s allegedly over-protective, precautionary regime with no-one knowing about the health risk. They had already been deliberately released into the environment in field trials. Do we know that the GM crops already on their way to market could not cause similar problems?

The studies have not been done.

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The vast majority of European consumers do not want to eat GM food. Unfortunately, as US trade representative Rob Portman recently noted, “public opinion isn’t the standard. The standard is a rules-based system in the World Trade Organisation. That’s why we’re in the WTO.”

This statement is truer than you might imagine, as if the WTO has its way, not only will we consumers not be allowed to keep GM out of our countries, regardless of how loudly and clearly we ask, but the consequences of what amounts to the enforced importation and growing of GM crops is that we won’t have the option of keeping them off our plates either. Widespread contamination will make non-GM food a thing of the past. The EU is even proposing a threshold of 0.9% GM for organic food. As things stand, zero contamination just won’t be possible. So much for consumer choice, and so much for protecting the environment.

Grand vision

But these concerns are trivial compared with the grand vision the GM lobbyists are selling. According to the sales pitch, it is vital for Europe to overcome its dangerously protectionist and unjustifiable precautionary stance on GM in order to allow the GM industry to do what it has allegedly been chafing at the bit to do for decades – eradicate world hunger.

The industry’s crops, however, aren’t quite up to the job. Florence Wambugu’s sweet potato, described by New Scientist magazine as “Monsanto’s showcase project in Africa”, has been comprehensively thrashed by a crop created at a fraction of the cost using traditional breeding methods, which has all of the positive attributes erroneously claimed by the GM variety and none of the worrying health and environmental risks.

Normally the GM industry can get its crops into the fields regardless of their merits, but as Wambugu told New Scientist, “[the GM sweet potato] has no commercial value to Monsanto, except as PR”.

Despite early promises of feeding Africa on the cheap, it turns out that this crop has an entirely negative impact on any farmers foolish enough to believe Monsanto’s PR. The sweet potato was claimed to double yields and increase resistance to viral attack. When the results of the field trials were quietly released, they showed that it halved yields and reduced resistance to viral attack. A Ugandan conventionally bred variety, on the other hand, does exactly what the GM variety was supposed to do but couldn’t. Monsanto continued to claim that its crop would feed Africa even as the field trial results showed its performance to be worse than average.

The current GM wonder crop, Syngenta’s “Golden Rice”, promises not only cheap and plentiful food but a cure for the millions of people suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Companies like Syngenta will tell you that the common sense solution to vitamin A deficiency, a balanced diet, is a luxury beyond the reach of the people they are trying to help, conveniently missing out the fact that these people had a balanced diet until companies like Syngenta introduced new agricultural technologies that wiped out everything in their fields except rice. Admittedly, as long as GM can keep the spotlight, the chances of more practical solutions being adopted are slim.

Golden Rice and the drawing board

“Golden Rice” has had to go back to the drawing board numerous times as it was discovered that to get any benefit one would have to eat many times more rice than was healthy, or even possible. Now that the scientists have managed to raise the beta carotene (the vitamin A precursor) content to a more practical level, they are wrestling with the problem that vitamin A is only created in the body through an interaction of beta carotene with zinc and fat, substances that are likely to be lacking in a poor diet.

This ailing research project into an entirely inappropriate techno-fix has been presented for years as a ready-to-go solution. In fact, “Golden Rice” as described in the PR remains a distant hope. To compensate for the failure of the technology, the front groups and think tanks that the GM industry pays to be its cheerleaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric to the point of blaming the anti-GM lobby for world hunger, blindness and infant mortality.

Only the front groups, mind.

The industry itself says things such as “If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them that it is not” (Steve Smith of Novartis Seeds) or “Nobody has ever claimed that GM is the answer to world hunger” (Monsanto UK’s director of corporate affairs, Tony Combes).
When the sales pitch is so overblown that even the biotech firms are careful to maintain plausible deniability, you need a real sucker for a customer. Europe isn’t that sucker. We don’t want to be guinea pigs for untested technology, we don’t want to hand control of what we eat to Bush or the WTO, and we’re fully aware that GM’s mission to feed the world is an immoral fraud.

Graham Thompson is a GM campaigner for Greenpeace UK.