Pondering Genetically Modified Foods, again

So last week, I sat through a lengthy discussion on Belizian TV about the merits and harm of genetically modified seeds in agriculture. There is a strong lobby here for genetically produced seeds to be given the green light and some are calling on the Belizian government to get off the fence and make a decision. After all, they say, Belizians have been eating genetically modified grains in their food for many years.

Packaged Foods

Products said to contain GMOs

I am amused that close to two decades after they began, the arguments have not changed. Depending on whom you ask, genetically modified grains can either be the death or saviour of local agriculture. They see significantly higher production and reduced field losses. Indeed some argue that Belizian laws will protect farmers in case of cross-pollination. Those farmers who want to grow organic, however, are worried that cross-pollination will rob them of their livelihood.

Their concerns are real, there enough examples out there on the cost of ensuring that ones produce is GM free or purely organic- which ever you prefer. Some may remember the Sept 2011 EU Court ban on bee keepers for selling honey contaminated by a genetically modified (GM) crop.

The fact is, however, that while many shun outright genetically modified food products, genetic engineering can be a blessing to farmers struggling to find solutions to persistent disease and pests. So in my mind the biggest arguments should be against a firm or company not only owning but also patenting the seeds or owning the patent to those seeds. to my mind, this is blasphemous. But when I think of Jamaica’s work to propagate a transgenic variety of papaya which the scientists say resists the Ring Spot disease; or coming up with disease resistant banana or oranges; then I am all for GM or at least some of the times.

GMO supporters are among other things looking for pest resistant crops.

GMO supporters are among other things looking for pest resistant crops.

Anyway, with all the arguments, I thought to myself, why not re-published my 1998 article on a Monsantos Ad Blitz – first published by he Environmental News Agency (ENS). As I said, years have passed, but the arguments are are relevant today as they were in August 1998. Enjoy.

 

Monsanto Doses EU with Biotech Ad Blitz

By Zadie Neufville
LONDON, UK, August 3, 1998 (ENS) – All-out war over acceptance of genetically engineered foods has broken out across Europe. Some are calling it the new colonisation. For others it is a battle for the control, or the protection, of the world’s food supply. The threat is not bombs or guns – it is hunger.

At the heart of the war over the genetic engineering of plants are the rights of peoples worldwide to grow the foods they want to eat.

This week, United States based multinational company Monsanto begins a major media blitz in Europe aimed at winning the hearts of Europeans and overcoming the European public’s opposition to genetic engineering of foods. The company comes armed with the declarations of leading African personalities wooing consumer support.

Monsanto is the second largest agrochemical company in the world. One of the leading manufacturers of genetically-engineered seeds, the company has asked prominent Africans to endorse genetic engineering as an essential contributor to the world’s food supply in the next century.

Endorsements for the genetically-modified plants are expected to come from former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and Gracia Machel – wife of the late Samora Machel who just married President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

The Monsanto statements supported by the African signatures will be prominently placed in the European press in the coming week.

The Monsanto ads, entitled “Let the Harvest Begin,” include these statements. “We all share the same planet – and the same needs. In agriculture, many of our needs have an ally in biotechnology and the promising advances it offers for our future. Healthier, more abundant food. Less expensive crops. Reduced reliance on pesticides and fossil fuels. A cleaner environment. With these advances, we prosper; without them. we cannot thrive…Biotechnology is one of tomorrow’s tools in our hands today. Slowing its acceptance is a luxury our hungry world cannot afford.”

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A counter-attack has been mounted. A media alert distributed by the Panos Institute of London, a non-governmental organisation that works to stimulate debate on global environment and development issues, said Friday that senior African politicians, scientists and agriculturists have released counter-statements to the European press.

African delegates to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in a counter-attack on the planned Monsanto ads said in a joint statement. “We strongly object that the image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us.”

The delegates who included representatives from all African nations in the UN except South Africa, accused Monsanto of “threatening and jailing” U.S. farmers who save seeds for planting the next year’s crop.

The delegates denounced Monsanto’s interest in the environment. “Its major focus is not to protect the environment, but to develop crops that can resist higher doses of its best-selling chemical weed killer “Roundup.”

Maize, called corn in some parts of the world, is one focus of the battle over biotech crops.

Monsanto’s European advertising campaign reportedly cost $1.6 billion, Panos said, and is aimed at winning consumer support for genetically modified food. Millions more could be spent in a climate where consumer groups and environmentalists, speaking out against the use of genetically engineered seeds for human consumption, appear to be winning.

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Several European countries – Austria, Luxembourge and Italy – have attempted bans on the planting of genetically modified seeds. Consumers have picketed grocery stores protesting biotech foods. One major UK supermarket chain, Iceland, has refused to sell genetically modified food products.

In March, Britain’s sugar barons refused to accept any genetically-engineered sugar beet through their factory gates. They did not want a repeat of what happened in Holland in 1997 when a tiny amount of sugar from genetic-engineering trials was accidentally introduced into bags of Dutch sugar. Once discovered, there was a public outcry, and all 12,000 tonnes of the mixed sugar had to be disposed of at great expense.

“PLAYING GOD”
The argument gained momentum a few weeks ago when Britain’s Prince Charles, spoke out in a newspaper article against genetic engineering, accusing the multinationals of “playing God.”

Monsanto and their supporters claim genetically engineered seeds will solve world food supply and many medical problems. But, large numbers of farmers, scientists and environmentalists see genetic engineering as “tampering with God’s creation “with little regard for possible side-effects,” a sentiment echoed by Prince Charles in his article.

The prince called for additional testing to ensure that bio-engineered food products are safe for human consumption, and refused to eat these foods.

Monsanto’s Technical Manager, Dr. Colin Merritt, responded to the prince’s comments by saying no one should be denied the choice of food modified by genetic engineering.

Irrigated Cornfields

Irrigated Cornfields

Dangers to the environment, some scientists warn, include the loss of biodiversity, potential dangers to human health, loss of income and opportunities for small farmers, and the control of the world food supplies by a small number of people.

According to recent reports from the biotechnology sector, over the next year chemical companies will release 75 million hectares of genetically altered grains onto the world market – more than three times the amounts from 1996 trials.

Tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers are some of the products now being produced on a vast scale. According to recent newspaper reports, 1.25 million hectares of carrots and the first potato crops will be reaped in 1998.

Estimates are that more than 150 million hectares of genetically engineered foods will be available on the world market by the year 2,000.

The dilemma of the world’s poor farmers was highlighted recently when an Australian company attempted to patent rice seeds developed through research of wild plant material. Indian farmers recently lost the right to grow one variety of “basmati” rice, a traditional crop on the sub-continent for over 2,000 years. In June a variety of the chick pea was patented.

In response to Monsanto’s Africa-endorsed European campaign, African delegates to the United Nations have expressed fear the company is working towards controlling the world’s crop production. The company which produces one of the world’s largest selling agro-chemicals, the herbicide Round-up, also produces seeds which can only be used with this brand of chemical.

Genetically modified seeds reportedly produce higher yields. They also enable plants to repel attacks from pests and weeds. But the seeds must be bought anew for each year’s crop. Poor farmers can no longer save seed from last year’s harvest to plant the following spring.

While they are expected to reduce the amount farmers must spend on pesticides, the seeds need intensive farming and will be too expensive for small and subsistence farmers. Many genetically engineered crops need more water than most small farmers can afford

DOMINATING THE WORLD’S FOOD SUPPLY
Six chemical companies: Monsanto, Enimont, Du Pont, Sandoz, Zeneca and Ciba Geigy , dominate research and development in plant genetics. The big six, together with Shell, WR Grace and Cargill, the world’s largest grain and oilseed trader, dominate the international seed market.

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Important crops for which genetically engineered seeds already exist include maize (corn), soya, sugar beet, and cotton. Biotechnology to modify other crucial food crops such as rice, wheat, potato and cassava is now being explored.

These crops are among the most important of the 20 crops that provide the world’s population with 90 percent of its food. Just four crops: rice, wheat, maize and potatoes, account for 50 percent of all food worldwide.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was a chief supporter of the 1960s Green Revolution which increased food production worldwide with improved seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, but also left degraded land and disrupted communities behind. Now the FAO emphasises that “intensified food production can be achieved by the sustainable use of a broader range of genetic material.”

The genetic modification of food is already a multi-million dollar global business. This year alone, 3.5 million hectares of genetically modified soya have been planted in the U.S. Monsanto expects another 1.4 million hectares to be reaped in Argentina.

In 1996, Monsanto earned $9.26 billion in revenue. The company is growing rapidly through a number of mergers. It is now involved in farming, food processing and distribution in addition to its seed and agro chemical production operations.

Monsanto sent ripples of fear through the agricultural sector in March when it merged with the Delta and Pine Lands Company, developer and patentee of the “terminator technology” which robs plants of their reproductive abilities.

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Monsanto further shocked the international community when it attempted a merger last month with the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh’s world-famous microcredit agency. The merger was aimed at “bringing technology to the poor” reports said. Grameen Bank President Muhammad Yunus has since announced that his organisation is abandoning the idea of a Grameen/Monsanto partnership.

On June 29, Monsanto Company and Cargill, Incorporated, announced that they have signed a definitive agreement for Monsanto to purchase Cargill’s international seed operations in Central and Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa for US$1.4 billion.

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