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8 July 2004 Edition

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Monsanto's Trojan Horse

As moviegoers are treated to Hollywood's take on Homer's classic about the destruction of Troy, nothing in the field of human conflict is new, except the weapons and the means of transportation.

The Wooden Horse of Troy was war by stratagem. When is an invasion not an invasion? When it is a gift.

We are, as the saying goes, what we eat. If that is so and the agribusiness multinationals get their way, then our children will be genetically modified versions of ourselves. Genetically Modified (GM) food is the next Big Step for the industrial production of food.

The advocates of this say that it will feed the world. The global population could top 10 billion by the end of the century. The advocates of this synthesised food state, with Malthusian certainty, that it is either GM food or famine.

The challenge for the ordinary person, especially if you are responsible for kids, is the huge question "is it safe"?

So, for the last wee while, with absolutely no training in food science, I tried, with the help of Google and an inquiring mind, to find out what GM food exactly is.

The first thing that didn't fill me with confidence about GM foods was the people advocating that we heartily endorse this new tampered-with grub. Monsanto had experimental plantations of GM modified beet in Carlow. Some eco chaps dug it up in a great strike for something or other. But did they have a point in sabotaging this stuff?

I have a starting point of "beware multinationals bearing gifts", although I can believe the motivation of Geldof wanting to feed the world. Global agribusiness has an entirely transparent agenda of profit and greed, despite their denials. It really is that simple.

Not all the opponents of GM food live in treehouses and are scared of soap.

Fairly reasonable people stated that there would be a Wooden Horse of Troy effect if GM crops were allowed into the farming environment. The GM crops would infect essentially organic crops and soon all crops would have a GM component.

Hence the consumer would be robbed of choice.

Despite the protestations of good intentions, consumers were not convinced.

Those most interesting of people - economists - spend their exciting lives deliberating on whether or not here is 'Producer sovereignty' or ' Consumer sovereignty' in an economy at any given time. This story so far has the consumers and some of the producers winning out over other producers.

Ok, let me explain.

Monsanto - the main player in this game - recently abandoned plans to introduce GM wheat onto the world market, despite spending seven years and millions of dollars on Research and Development.

It wasn't the tree people who were decisive in defeating the best-laid plans of Monsanto, however. Something we are familiar with on our own island came into play in North America - the farmers' lobby.

Wheat producers on the other side of the Atlantic feared that their billion-dollar markets in Europe and Japan would collapse.

The Monsanto gameplan could have been a plot in a badly thought out Bond movie - basically the world domination of the world market for bread.

The loaf on your table, although it might have been made in Ireland, almost certainly contains wheat from North America.

Peter Riley, for Friends of the Earth, called the Monsanto decision "a worldwide victory for consumers and farmers".

Sue Mayers from Genewatch, an anti-GM pressure group, was equally unambiguous that this was a defeat for Monsanto: "This is amazing - the company has been bullish. It is a huge stepdown."

But just like Blofeld, Monsanto haven't given up their plans for world domination just yet.

The World Trade Organisation has a case proceeding against the EU over GM crops. Monsanto is quietly hoping that the EU boycott of GM foods can be declared illegal.

Monsanto's long game approach is that "it could work with regulators" in the EU to open the doors of Europe to GM wheat.

This Trojan reckons that this is a gift for which we shouldn't open the gates of Europe.

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