Sunday, February 17, 2008


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When the French government announced a ban on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops last week, it reignited a heated clash between Europe and the United States, between environmentalists and technologists.

At stake is the future health of the planet. One path leads to poverty, famine, death. The other promises prosperity, abundance, life. But which is which, nobody knows.

Environmentalists tout studies which indicate GM crops may lead to serious health risks, force low-income farmers to abandon their fields, lead to rapid urbanization, massive corporate growth, and threaten the vital diversification of global crops required to feed a growing populace.

In Europe at least, these green fears are prevalent, leading several European Union (EU) nations to ban the production and cultivation of GM crops. France joins Germany, Austria, Greece, Hungary, and Poland in banning MON-810, a GM corn engineered by US-based Monsanto, and designed to kill a pest insect known as the corn borer.

MON-810 is the only GM crop authorized for production in the EU. Its troublesome adoption suggests that GM foods may never grow roots on the continent.

The story is far different in the U.S., where GM foods are abundant and there’s little opposition to their introduction. A lack of labeling renders consumers blind to choice, and the implementation of GM food meets with no resistance from a government eager to place these products on the dinner table whilst creating an America monopoly in the burgeoning biotechnology industry.

Unfortunately for Monsanto and the America agribusiness, engineered seeds are far easier to export than the homegrown apathy to so-called ‘Frankenfoods’. Polls have shown that seven in ten Europeans will not eat genetically modified organisms (GMOs), regardless of any EU ruling authorizing their use.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy echoed his countrymen’s sentiment when he declared a ban on MON-810. The High Authority on GMO, a watchdog authority, gave its study January 9, concluding the existence of “a certain number of new scientific facts relating to a negative impact on flora and fauna” from the modified corn. France banned trials of MON-810 after they discovered that rats exposed to the GM seeds suffered kidney and liver damage.

Monsanto disagrees, and now the U.S. is taking its complaint to the World Trade Organization, in hopes of reversing the French decision. With European markets dwindling, American avenues to profits are blockaded. To date, the GM market is valued at $6.9 billion, with Monsanto enjoying an astonishing 90% dominance of the global biotech acreage, which is thought to double by 2015.

So are GM crops safe or not?

The answer must be a tentative yes, for now. Environmental fears of conventional crop failure, herbicide tolerance, transgenic mutations in the wild, and the outbreak of new diseases have failed to occur. GM crops have resulted in significantly increased yields, which have hopeful consequences for the Third World and drought-riddled regions elsewhere.

But more studies need to be carried out before we may be certain. And should we discover a flaw in our technological food basket, what might that mean to the hundreds of millions of us that, often daily, consume these products? The recent discovery of hitherto unknown conditions such as Colony Collapse Disorder and White Nose Syndrome, within bees and bats respectively, and both key pollinators, suggests we don’t yet know enough about the environment and the consequences of introducing new organisms into the food chain.

The decision to introduce GMOs into the United States, without both further studies and the restraint of a skeptical public, is troubling. Europe is to be commended for its caution. There, the only countries eager to introduce GMOs are the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Yet the decision by France may not be a truly altruistic one. Rumors speculate that the government made a secret deal with the greens, banning GMOs while paving the go-ahead for the introduction of nuclear power stations.

The debate over whether or not to introduce GMOs is under discussion in Brazil and India. Brazil’s National Biosecurity Council has authorized the use of two GM corns, including MON-810. But Via Compasina, a rural watchdog, claims the council overstepped its boundaries and went against the recommendation of both the health and environment ministries.

India’s Supreme Court has requested top scientists frame guidelines for granting approval of GM trails. The Genetically Engineered Approval Committee warns that all aspects of bio-safety must be examined before introducing GMOs into the country.

Monsanto faces an uphill battle outside the U.S. On the continent, it is viewed as an icon of soulless American greed. Stories abound of farmers losing their land rights, of generational farmers forced to move to the city, unable to pay the heavy toll for the new, improved seeds (which must be purchased yearly; harvesting seeds from planted GM crops is illegal). Every news story about herbicide resistance and GM contamination of conventional fields spawns immediate backlash against the biotech giant.

Ironically, Monsanto may yet prove to be the hero. As food prices continue to soar, as populations grow, as dramatic weather changes bring drought to once fertile regions, the need for dramatically increased yields beckon technological innovation.

Europe has the luxury to say no to Monsanto and its promises of an abundant future. Africa cannot be so proud. There, GMOs may solve a problem borne of harsh climates and harsher governmental regimes, where starvation and ethnic friction have devastated entire generations.

Ethics are the reserve of the prosperous. Europe is right to demand stricter GMO policies. The Americans should cease their bully tactics, understanding that further studies may serve to strengthen their position and pave the way for a global embrace of its golden, super food.

More food can only be beneficial. Let’s hope Europe will shine an ethical light on the distribution of crops, GM or not, ensuring they reach those that truly need it: the poor. Politics and profits be damned; our modern age ought have no room for famine.

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