BONN, May 23 (IPS) - The food crisis has prompted some looks towards genetically modified food production as a solution. That in turn has led to stronger warnings over the consequences of such food for health and the environment.
These concerns have been raised in Bonn again as more than 3,000 delegates from 147 countries met for the UN conference on biosafety. The conference has sought to ensure safe use of modern biotechnology.
Feeding the debate, scientists, farmers and environmental activists in many countries continue to warn that genetically modified agriculture presents a risk, and not a contribution, to food production.
In France, organic farmers are complaining that genetically modified (GM) plants are poisoning their plantations. Julien and Christian Veillat, two farmers who grow organic maize in the Breton locality of Villiers-en-Plaine some 400 kilometres west of Paris, say their fields have been contaminated with GM maize, even though the nearest GM crops field is 35 kilometres away.
The contamination was established during a routine analysis late in April by an organic agriculture cooperative near the Veillats' village. Following the detection, the organic maize was diverted for use as cattle fodder.
The Veillats have now filed a legal complaint against the central government in Paris. "The contamination could only have come from the GM maize," spokesperson for the local association against GM agriculture Georges Castiel told IPS. "At the organic cooperative, they control the seeds very carefully."
Jean-Pierre Margan, producer of organic wine in the Provence in the south told IPS that contamination of organic farms is a constant problem. "Particles of GMOs are transported by wind and water, and can be carried very far away, and contaminate your plantation even if you have worked hard to protect it from every risk," he said.
Serge Morin, deputy president of the local government in the province of Poitou Charentes said it is necessary that "the French state revises all procedures concerning GMOs, including the immediate stop of all open air GM plantations. In addition, all organic farmers whose plantations are contaminated should be paid indemnities."
Such instances have led renowned chefs and wine producers in France to launch a public campaign to prevent the spread of GMOs in food and beverages.
"We don't have the scientific competence to intervene in the debate on the health consequences of GMOs," they wrote in a public letter addressed to the French parliament. "But we consider that, in accordance with the precautionary principle in questions of food and health, GMOs must simply remain banned from our tables." Similar campaigns are under way in other European countries.
Several scientists and environmental activists say that apart from the health concerns, GMOs are not a solution for food scarcity either.
"Most of the genetic modifications introduced in crops aim at making them resistant to pests or weed killing, but not to increase yields," says Hans-Joerg Jacobsen, biologist at the University of Hanover in Germany.
Jacobsen told IPS that "modern cultures, free of any genetic modification, have higher yields than genetically modified seeds."
"The idea that GM agriculture could help feed the world is part of the propaganda that the biochemical industry has used for years, but it is false," Arnaud Apoteker, who heads the campaign against GMOs for the French branch of the environmental organisation Greenpeace, said in an interview.
Some representatives of the biochemical industry acknowledge this. "Genetically modified agriculture will not solve the world's hunger problem," Hans Kast, managing director of the plant science branch of the chemical giant BASF told the German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Take Africa, the only continent that does not produce enough food to feed its own population, even though some 70 percent of African people work in agriculture.
"By applying conventional agricultural methods, free of any genetic modification, you can substantially increase agricultural productivity in Africa," Hans Joachim Preuss, managing director of the German non-governmental food organisation Welthungerhilfe told IPS. "What African agriculture mostly needs is better, more efficient irrigation systems, and not genetically modified seeds."
According to figures released in Bonn by CropLife International, a global federation representing the biochemical corporations, last year "biotech crops were grown on 114.3 million hectares in 23 countries by over 12 million farmers."