26 June 2003 Edition

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Threatening life as we know it

From 23 to 25 June, in Sacramento, California, 180 representatives from countries around the world met to decide what are we going to eat and how are we going to eat it. It is the fight between Genetically Modified agriculture and farming as we know it. This is the context in which the Biotech Conference for Agriculture Ministers, hosted by the US Secretary for Agriculture Ann Vanneman - who used to head Agracetus, a subsidiary of Genetically Modified food corporation Monsanto - took place.

Sunday, 22 June, was a hot day in Sacramento, California, where Ministers of Trade, Agriculture, and Health from 180 nations attended a Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology. Delegates from around the world were invited to hear why they need biotechnology, food irradiation and other industrial agricultural technologies that harm people and the environment. These discussions directly impact on farmers and consumers, yet the Conference or the Expo is not open to the general public. Farmer movements across the world have said that they do not want biotechnology, yet the US is pushing biotech on the rest of the world with the help of the World Trade Organisation.

Sustainability and science are being sacrificed for a reckless experiment with biodiversity and food systems, which is pushing species and peasants to extinction. As Vandana Shiva, one of the most admired environmentalists, says: "The choice before us is bio-imperialism or bio-democracy. Will a few corporations have a dictatorship over our governments, our knowledge and information, our lives and all life on the planet or will we, as members of the Earth family, liberate ourselves and all species from the prison of patents and genetic engineering? We need to reclaim our food freedom and food sovereignty."

NGOs and environmental activists have denounced the conference as a meeting to pave the way for 'free trade,' privatisation of water, genetic engineering and factory farming. The ministerial conference is one of the key stepping stones for the Bush administration and the corporations that financed the US Republican Party to push through their agenda. This is why millions of small farmers around the world called for protests in Sacramento to denounce the corporate takeover of the global food supply. Though not a WTO sanctioned conference, Sacramento is a vital step for government and industry to reach agreements prior to the WTO Cancun conference in September.

Shiva has accused Monsanto of using the US government to create markets for its genetically engineered crops through coercion and corruption.

The EU, Brazil and India are all under attack, overtly and covertly, for not rushing into adopting genetically engineered crops without caution and ensuring biosafety - as the EU has not yet cleared GM crops for commercial planting or GM food for imports; Brazil has had a ban on GM crops; and India has stopped the spread of genetically engineered cotton to Northern India after its dismal performance in Southern India in the first season of commercial planting in 2002.

Commercial crops produced through genetic engineering are not producing more food, nor are they reducing the use of chemicals. While hunger is the most frequently used argument to promote and push genetic engineering, GM has more to do with corporate hunger for profits than poor people's hunger for food.

The technology of genetic engineering is not about overcoming food scarcity but about creating monopolies over food and seed. Patents also criminalise and make illegal the human work of life's reproduction. When seeds are patented, farmers exercising their freedom and performing their duty of saving and exchanging seeds are treated as "intellectual property thieves". This can reach absurd limits as in the case of Percy Schmieser, whose canola field was polluted by Monsanto's Roundup Resistant Canola. Instead of Monsanto compensating Percy for pollution on the "polluter pays principle", Monsanto sued him for $200,000 for theft of their genes. Monsanto uses detective agencies and police to track farmers and their crops.

As Shiva says: "Genetic engineering is not merely causing genetic pollution of biodiversity and creating bio-imperialism monopolies over life itself. It is also causing knowledge pollution - by undermining independent science and promoting pseudo-science. It is leading to monopolies over knowledge and information."

Friends of the Earth International has denounced a global agreement on foreign investment to be negotiated under the World Trade Organisation - which is claimed to be good for sustainable development in poor countries. Friends of the Earth says it will facilitate the corporate agenda, displacing small farmers and finishing off agriculture as we know it.

"Corporate lobbyists and our government want to spin proposals for a WTO investment agreement into a pot of honey for the developing world, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Liana Stupples of the British section of Friends of the Earth (FoE).

"Without binding rules for multinational corporations under the UN, the developing world will have everything to lose and big companies will have everything to gain. This WTO agreement must not be allowed to go through."

A 27-page report, 'Investment and the WTO: Busting the Myths,' calls for developing countries and NGOs to resist efforts, pushed primarily by the EU, to promote such an agreement at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

Instead, say campaigners, NGOs and poor countries should push for the United Nations to adopt binding rules on the conduct of multinational corporations that invest in poor countries as the best way to ensure that their foreign direct investment (FDI) promotes indigenous strategies for sustainable development, particularly those that alleviate poverty and protect local communities and the environment.

One example of what may happen if corporations are given a free hand in developing countries has been Argentina. Only six years after the country decided to embrace GM technology, GM soy has destroyed the livelihoods and the environment of the Latin American country.

Some 60% of processed foodstuffs use soya - everything from salad oils to chocolate to crisps to even MacDonald's fries. GM giant Monsanto arrived in Argentina in 1996 with Round-Up Ready (RR) soybeans, making attractive promises to Argentinian farmers. The RR soybean has a special gene making it resistant to Monsanto's powerful Round-Up pesticide. The latter kills virtually everything else that grows. Monsanto said its GM technology would make soy farming cheaper and easier.

Farmers would only have to use the one pesticide, and they could apply it at any stage in the plant's development. Yields would be higher and costs lower. About 90 per cent of Argentinean farmers agreed to adopt the technology, which gave Monsanto an even higher take-up rate than in the US.

Argentina's soy crop doubled to 27 million tons, making the country the third largest producer of the commodity (after the US and Brazil) in the world. Exports have increased rapidly. But the growth in output is exclusively the result of an increase in the area of land under soybean cultivation.

Despite Monsanto's promises, RR soybeans have had five-six per cent lower yields than conventional soy. Nor has there been the much-heralded decline in pesticide application. Because of the evolution of vicious new weeds, farmers have had to use two or three times more pesticides than previously. Overall, total costs have risen by 14 per cent. Soya prices have dropped as a result of increased global production, and most farmers are actually worse off.

The only undisputed advantage to RR soy is that it saves time. Farmers do not have to carry out all the traditional tasks of ploughing and harrowing the land. Instead, through so-called 'direct tilling' they can sow soy seed directly on the land after applying pesticide. This means a single farmer can be responsible for a much larger area - something that has become necessary with the fall in world soy prices. No longer able to compete, small-scale Argentinian farmers are going bankrupt.

Even more alarming is the ecological damage. Native woods have disappeared as the soya front has advanced. Sales figures suggest that each year, farmers are deluging the 10 million hectares of land under GM cultivation with 80 million litres of herbicide, which is killing off all forms of life except RR soya and is interrupting the normal biological cycles of growth.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Round-Up. The British government in 1997 quietly raised the permitted levels of glyphosate in soya beans destined for human consumption by 20,000%. Research published in the Journal of the American Cancer Society reports that exposure to glyphosate leads to increased risk of contracting a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.


EU and US spar over GM foods


Everyone knows that it would be nice if cotton was softer and fluffier. Rabbits are soft and fluffy. So scientists took a little bit of DNA out of the rabbit genome, stuck it into the cotton seed, and cotton balls are now softer and fluffier.

That's genetic modification (GM) of plants - a marvel of science. And GM is only the first step down the road to nanobiotechnology - the living/non-living hybrids that science promises will be a trillion-dollar industry by 2015, which, we are told, will 'grow' everything from hamburgers to plastics to bicycles.

The problem is, who will control (and sell) the products that humans no longer need to work their days away to produce. Who will be God's rep on earth? Monsanto, the largest of the big GM five, is in the running through its substantial GM food concerns. Monsanto produces 90% of the GM crops currently being grown commercially, has spent $96 billion on biotech research, and made a profit last year of some $2.6 billion.

But the vast majority of Europeans don't want GM foods or GM crops. This is a question exercising the EU coming up to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in September, where the pressure is on from the US for the EU to allow imports of GM food and seeds.

Last month, the Bush Administration, gung ho for GM foods, filed a complaint with the WTO against the EU. The US, joined by Argentina, Canada and Egypt, challenged the EU moratorium on imports of GM foods since 1998. Robert Zoellick, US trade representative, claims it violates WTO rules and Monsanto is claiming multi-million dollar figures of income foregone from lost EU markets.

Brussels upped the ante in what has been a rumbling transatlantic row with an ultimatum to the US that it would begin imposing $4 billion in sanctions if the US Congress did not repeal a foreign sales provision that illegally benefits large American exporters.

Then, on 4 June, the EU ratified the UN Biosafety Protocol, which regulates trade in GM foods and obligates exporters to label foods as GM, a practice the US strongly opposes. It also allows a country to ban GM foods.

At the recent G8 meeting in Evian, George Bush took the opportunity to claim that the EU ban was discouraging developing countries from growing GM crops and this was resulting in increased hunger and poverty in the world's poorest nations. EU opposition to GM foods was tantamount, claimed Bush, to a death sentence on millions of starving people.

But 80% of the undernourished children in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses. Hunger in today's world has more to do with the distribution of food and income, not to mention land ownership.

GM seeds are more expensive than conventional seeds and farmers are not allowed to save seed for the following year's production, so they need to buy more. Worse, the seeds are sterile, genetically modified not to germinate. In some cases a chemical can be purchased to 'turn on' these 'terminator' seeds - but that is a further expense.

Much in the news recently has been so-called golden rice, a GM rice containing a gene that produces beta-carotene, which converts into vitamin A. Half a million children in the world suffer from Vitamin A deficiency and become blind, so 'golden rice', it is argued, will make a big difference.

Scientific journals, however, say otherwise. To convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, the body requires sufficient body protein and fat, which is exactly what undernourished children lack. The problem for the millions of undernourished children today is not that they eat rice that hasn't enough vitamin A in it. The problem is that poverty forces them into a diet of only rice.

Tony Blair, as usual, is the odd man out in this EU affair, along with Prime Minister Aznar in Spain. They are in favour of GM foods, and four years ago, Blair allocated £13 million "to improve the profile of the biotech industry". It didn't work, and the people of Britain remain opposed to GM foods.

After three years of dawdling, the British government has initiated a consultation process to decide the matter. But Margaret Beckett, Environment Secretary, decided off her own bat, even before the start of the debate, to agree to 18 licensing applications to grow and import crops such as GM maize, oil seed rape, sugar beet and cotton. An unnamed minister told the Financial Times that the GM debate is simply a PR offensive. "They are calling it a consultation," he said, "but don't be in any doubt, the decision is already taken."

Former environment minister Michael Meacher has this week been heaping embarrassment on Blair et al by accusing the government of downplaying evidence that GM crops could present a public health risk.

The debate is scheduled to end by September, which neatly sidelines the results of three-year farming trials of GM crops to evaluate their environmental effects, which were supposed to be released in June but will now appear only by the end of September, and so won't inform the debate.

One of the consultation meetings happened earlier this month in the King's Hall in Belfast. People were angry that the British government had already decided to license GM commercial production and the importation of GM foods.

The farmers expressed strong convictions, especially after the BSE crisis, that they did not want GM crops, or hormone treated animals, or to be part of Monsanto's expensive effort to corner the seed markets of the world.

The farmers in the King's Hall thought a better prospect by far was to let Ireland try its hand at cornering a small part of the §25 billion organic market in the EU. But there is the rub - how can GM crops co-exist with non-GM organic crops? The bees don't have fences to cross or no-fly zones to contend with, as they carry pollen from one flower to another. There is no question that once GM seeds are here, organic farming is off the agenda, perhaps for good.

Farmers are adamant about the need to retain Ireland's key competitive advantage of 'green' agriculture. They are anxious to exploit these advantages in the niche industry that commands premium prices for organic farm produce.

"It is our unique advantage, as an island, that no other European country can match, and we are allowing this advantage to be thrown away," says Gerry McHugh, Sinn Féin agricultural spokesperson. "If GM food and crops come into the Six Counties, then we have thrown away the image of Irish agriculture as clean, green, and non GM," he argues. "And what is Dublin Minister Joe Walsh's attitude to GM crops? Why isn't the minister defending the interests of Irish farmers, especially against the British minister, who cares little for Irish agriculture?"

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