Saturday, March 26, 2005

If I had a hammer

Updated Science writer Chet Raymo posts a weekly column about some aspect of science at his own website, Science Musings. Last October, he wrote about genetically-modified, or GM, foods - also known as Frankenfoods. He mentioned some of the promises and pitfalls, ending up by saying that
[w]hat's required is something between America's uncritical compliance with the vested interests of the big agribusiness corporations - which so far have done little for the developing world or the environment - and Europe's knee-jerk rejection of anything and everything that bears the GM label.

Human population will continue to grow for at least another fifty years. It would be nice if all of those extra people had enough nourishing food to eat, produced with minimal disruption of the environment. If rigorously-tested GM foods can help achieve that end, I say give them a chance.
But "if" is a very big word despite its minimal length. The environmental safety of Frankenfoods has been at issue from the beginning - or, rather, it was. From The Independent (UK) for last Tuesday:
Yet another nail was hammered into the coffin of the GM food industry in Britain yesterday when the final trial of a four-year series of experiments found, once more, that genetically modified crops can be harmful to wildlife.

The study was the fourth in a series that has, in effect, sealed the fate of GM in the UK - at least in the foreseeable future. They showed the ultra-powerful weedkillers that the crops are engineered to tolerate would bring about further damage to a countryside already devastated by intensive farming.

Only one of the four farm-scale trials, which have gone on for nearly five years, showed that growing GM crops might be less harmful to birds, flowers and insects than the non-GM equivalent - and even that was attacked as flawed, because the weedkiller the particular conventional crop required was so destructive it was about to be banned by the EU. ...

The fourth and final mass experiment involving GM crops has found that they caused significant harm to wild flowers, butterflies, bees and probably songbirds. Results of the farm-scale trial of winter-sown oilseed rape raised further doubts about whether GM crops can ever be grown in Britain without causing further damage to the nation's wildlife. ...

The three previous farm-scale trials into crops investigated spring-sown oilseed rape, maize and beet. These showed that growing GM rape and GM beet did more harm to wildlife than their conventional counterparts.
Even at that, critics noted, the tests only compared conventional intensive farming to GM-food intensive farming.
"The FSEs [Farm-Scale Evaluations] specifically didn't examine the impact of organic agriculture," said FOE [Friends of the Earth] GM campaigner Emily Diamand.

"They only looked at 'bad' and 'worse'. There are more sustainable ways of farming than intensive agriculture that could benefit the environment,"
such as, for example, integrated pest management, or IPM.

The fourth test, beyond the two on rape and one on beets, was on a variety of maize (corn to us across the pond). That's the one that involved the soon-to-be-banned herbicide. Even so, a license was granted for Bayer, holder of the patent on the GM maize (a "patented" plant still sounds strange to me) in the test, to grow it in the UK - but Bayer pulled out three weeks later. Even chemical giant and legal bully Monsanto has given up the fight to bring its patented foods to Europe, preferring to attack US and Canadian farmers and dairies.

The arguments in favor of GM foods continue to fall. No, consumers do not want them, not even in the US.
Genetically modified food is viewed as unsafe by most [Americans], and the public wants warning labels on food, a new on June 20, 2001 poll finds:

- 52% believe such foods are unsafe, and an additional 13% are unsure about them
- 93% say the federal government should require labels on food saying whether it's been genetically modified
- 57% also say they'd be less likely to buy foods labeled as genetically modified
No, the developing world is not falling all over itself trying to get GM foods; they know the risks.
In meetings with Canadian government officials in Ottawa today [March 9], farmers, scientists, and policy specialists from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East will call on the government to review its use of genetically modified (GM) crops as a tool for sustainable development. ...

"The Canadian government is under the false impression that GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] play a positive role in its sustainable development initiatives in the developing world," says Anna Paskal of Inter Pares, "It is clear from the experiences of members of this delegation that GM crops are not the solution to poverty and hunger; in fact, they can make the problem worse." ...

Small farmers develop and use their own seeds, and GM contamination and the resulting loss of biodiversity are key concerns. "By relying on traditional crops, we have coped with years of drought and never faced hunger. We have adapted our crops to local conditions and grow our food on marginal soils with no irrigated water," says Indian farmer Sammamma Bidakanne, "Our ability to save and re-use traditional seeds is the basis of our biodiversity and food security - all this is threatened by GM crops."
In fact, in 2002 Zambia refused a shipment of American corn intended as food aid because it was genetically modified - both because of health concerns and because of fears of what cross-pollination could mean to the future of its own corn crop, including the ability to market it to places like Europe.

Consumer safety remains in doubt, claims of increased yields are for the most part unproven, and now even assertions of environmental harmlessness have been shown to be hollow.

When will we learn that where corporate profit is concerned, "guilty until proven innocent," otherwise known as the precautionary principle, should be our guiding star?

Footnote: The discussion of the precautionary principle at the link is rather garbled but it was the best I found on short notice.

Updated with the link to the profile of Bayer and with the link to the description of oilseed rape, having realized some people don't know what it is.

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