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To GMO or not to GMO?

Last Tuesday (6th November) I attended the conference on how to increase agricultural exports from Serbia. One of the talking points was the subject of GMO, or genetically modified organisms. Currently, these are banned by Serbian law. However, one of the requirements for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is to allow imports of GMO onto the Serbian market. Serbia is in the final stages of WTO negotiations but the most difficult topics are saved for last, and GMO is one of them.

GMO are a point of contention. The minister of Trade Rasim Ljajic who was present discussed that this matter is worked on and would require changes to the law. Serbia would be able to disallow own production of GMOs, but trade –read import- of GMO under the WTO requirement should be made possible. He added that Serbia “would have at its disposal measures for curbing and controlling the trade of these products” (source: B92) but what is exactly meant by this? Prior to any changes to the law there would be a debate with experts, he stated. That debate shall take place next week in Serbian parliament. He made a small joke about how people fear that GMO would create animals with two tails and would cause all kinds of diseases. A joke perhaps but citizens, farmers and scientists have legitimate concerns regarding GMO. We need to realize that genetic engineering and research are in advanced stages. Good developments are around the corner that can cure genetic disorders. But we should be careful not to open a Pandora’s Box with genetic engineering and especially with GMO. Before you know it, you find yourself living in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Producers of GMOs and scientists claim that GMOs are harmless and thoroughly tested, but is that really the case? Aren’t we jumping the gun and experimenting with things we do not know the long term consequences of?

I would like to state that I am not an expert of genetic engineering or genetic manipulation but an environmentalist and a concerned citizen. I would also like to state that what I write here is my own opinion and not necessarily the official stance of SEEDEV as a company.

The rise of GMO is based on a little known US Supreme Court decision that biological life can be legally patented. Patents make it possible to earn a lot of money. Biotech companies moved quickly to research, develop and patent all sort of genetic ‘innovations’. Some companies moved quickly to buy and put out of business seed companies, thereby controlling the seed markets. The motive for GMO is a profit motive. Genetic manipulation is nothing new. People have been doing that for ages with crop perfection, albeit in a different form. It usually involved strings of DNA of different varieties of the same crop mixed together in order to produce a stronger variety better equipped to withstand certain conditions or pests. People have been doing this before they even heard of DNA or genes.

However, modern day genetic manipulation involves altering individual genes or string or genes, or introducing genes of completely different species. One development is where tomato seed genes are mixed with fish genes. Perhaps that is nice for Spaghetti a la Mare, I don’t know. Another example is genetically introducing animal proteins into rice so that people would have access to animal proteins in their daily diet. This, biotech reasons, would help to reduce sizes of livestock and the environmental problems they cause. I think that people should just reduce the amount of meat they eat. Yet another example is ‘perfecting’ crops so that they can withstand herbicides applied while surrounding weeds are killed. However, weeds are becoming ‘Superweeds’ and more resistant to herbicides so more of it needs to be applied. One development even involves incorporating pesticides into the very genetic makeup of crops so that the manual application of pesticides is no longer necessary. Question is: should we want this? Or are GMO, as opponents call it, Frankenfoods? Should we mix genes or strings of genes of species that have no relation whatsoever? Once a GMO is released in the wild, there is a risk that one is stuck with it forever and that cross contamination or cross breeding occurs. Apart from health concerns it is also an ethical question to some.

Proponents of GMO state that there are no negative health effects and that GMO are tested thoroughly. Opponents state that there are negative health effects, at least noted in animals, and that GMO are not thoroughly tested, at least for long term effects. They also state that studies are cherry-picked: only favorable studies regarding GMO are selected and highlighted while the studies that paint a negative picture are ignored. And favorable studies, they claim, are often financed by the vary producers of GMO. Opponents also point to the more-than-cozy relationship between producers of GMO and the government institutions that should monitor them and that devise legislation and regulation concerning GMO. The more-then-cozy relationship between Monsanto and the FDA in the US where people on the board of directors of Monsanto continue to become members of the board of the FDA and vice versa has been examined quite well.

The claims that GMO have health concerns are not only ventilated by health freaks or hippies; many respectable and reputable scientists have conducted studies into the effects of GMO. One only has to google to find these studies. I would like to refer to a recently published study conducted by a team of genetic engineers. Their study “GMO Myths and Truths” (pdf of 4.2MB) is an evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops. The report contains over 600 citations, many of them from peer-reviewed scientific literature and from reports by scientists, physicians, government bodies, industry, and the media. The key conclusions can be found here (scroll down).

Some conclusions are that GMO:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops
  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts
  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety
  • Do not increase yield potential
  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops
  • Have mixed economic effects
  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity
  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change
  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops
  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Let’s by all means have an open and real public debate about GMO.
(With my apologies for the long post but I think this is a matter that deserves attention)

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