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Roundtable: A Case Against Genetic Engineering of Food

 [ poster ] On November 26th, the CEU student NGO invited Dan Swartz, a consultant, activist and trainer, and Vera Mora, of BioKultura and Environmental Partnership Foundation, to present their case against genetic modification of food.

The following is an event report in which arguments were summarized as they were presented. Please see the last paragraph if you would like to challenge facts as presented here.

Of the 15 students in attendance, three had studied genetics previously and challenged dismissing the technology on the basis of unknown consequences. "There are many aspects of life that are uncertain," says Vadim Yapiev. "We make decisions everyday based on uncertainty and I don't think that we can say no to genetic engineering based on this argument." Mora counters that, "It is less of a question of absolute certainty than it is [a question of] has anyone investigated this at all."

Argument #1: Modified-genes migrate. Once released into the environment they will be difficult, if not impossible to retrieve. No one has studied if the foods themselves have any health and environmental impacts, let alone having conducted studies on the consequences of such releases. "We just don't know how changing the DNA of a plant will effect its behavior once released into the environment," Vera Mora states. She continues, "Weeds growing among soya crops modified to be pesticide resistant adopted the pesticide-resistant gene and became resistant in one growing season.

Argument #2: Unnatural Escalation. Genetically modifying foods starts an unnatural and unnecessary escalation of pesticide use, pollution of ground water, degradation of top soil, and use of fertilizers. Mora challenges the logic of using a product which requires such high maintenance when the outcome is supposed to taste as good as naturally grown products.

"Really, there is no choice concerning
GMOs. The multinationals have
chosen for us, without consulting us--
without our permission,"
says Mora.

Argument #3: Economic Motivation. Mora states that eighty percent of the world's agricultural seed is produced by six multinational companies. And more than 80% of soya seed crops have been genetically modified. "Buying into GMOs means buying into the whole multinational ring of products, says Swartz. "They produce seeds which are resistant to the pesticides they produce, which degrades the soil only to fix the problem with their own fertilizers."

Its an artificially escalated consumption/dependence system that has become very delicate. The companies guaranteed farmers' increasing reliance on their products. For example, seeds are engineered sterile to prevent farmers from reserving seed for next year's planting and building reserves against bad harvests. In addition, the centuries' old practice of seed exchange with other farmers is now subject to lawsuits, unless farmers want to risk lawsuits for illegal possession.

Argument #4: Gene Swapping and Use of Antibiotics as "tags". Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not products of accelerated natural selection, where the best tomato genes are selected to grow a better tomato. Rather, scientists use genes from plants and animals to modify food crops. Although Mora warns that vegetarians and people with allergies could have problems with unexpected genes showing up in their food, according to her antibiotics are more of a concern.

Scientists use antibiotics to "tag" modified genes in the DNA strand for easy identification, she says. The human body develops resistance to antibiotics, making them an ineffective means of fighting infections. Mora is shocked that the multinationals are willing to broadcast these drugs so widely through the population without having to account for possible effects. Swartz is more openly skeptical, "Did you know that the multinationals producing GMOs are also among the world's largest pharmaceutical producers? In genetic engineering, they have opened another market for their drugs. By lowering the power of current antibiotics to fight bacteria, they will have to develop alternatives for consumption. They win again."

 [ poster ] Argument #5: Lack of Choice: No Labeling; No Product Information. Consumers are hardly ever told what they are eating. "Really, there is no choice. The multinationals have chosen for us, without consulting us, without permission," says Mora. Mora says that Greenpeace estimates that up to 60% of food on the market today contains some GMOs, mostly in the form of modified corn and soy syrup. While countries like Austria and Iceland have adopted laws to keep modified produce out of their markets, there are few national and international laws mandate labeling of food products that contain GMOs. Currently, there is no system to keep packaged products which contain modified soya and corn syrup out of stores, even in countries which have banned GMOs.

Argument #6: Basic Economics, Two Ways. Mora just does not see the value in producing highly polluting grains when the United States and European governments pay farmers not to produce. "Its not a question of feeding the hungry," she says, "there are already the resources to do that." With the development of successful organic and integrated farming and the higher prices consumers are willing to pay for them, GMOs do not make any sense, she states. In a very basic economic sense it is cheaper to grow crops naturally and sell them at slightly higher prices, when consumers are willing and able to do that. "Instead, multinationals are trying to tell us that they need to engineer one-generation seeds, fill them with antibiotics, ask farmers to carpet spray them with pesticides, kill the natural organics in the soil, pollute the water, and sell them to us without telling anyone what they're buying," says Swartz.

Preventing consumers from having complete product information, in terms of labeling and product production, defies the basics of market economy and demonstrates the companies' unwillingness to let the people choose, Mora concludes.

While the students didn't seem convinced that anything should be done to change labeling laws or restrict GMO production, Mora says that statistics on western European consumers' preferences suggest a different trend. "If given a choice, consumers are overwhelmingly skeptical of the value of modified foods."

For additional articles on GMOs, watch the space below.
If you would like to submit GMO-related documents for posting (labeling, legislation, research), contact Shannon Simrell. Please include complete bibliographic references.

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