LONDON — Genetic biologists — especially those working for big U.S. companies such as Monsanto — and U.S. trade negotiators are furious with Europeans because they are not prepared to accept that hormone-injected beef and gene-modified soybeans, rape-seed oil and other genetically modified crops are safe just because some, or even a majority, of scientists say they are.
These products may be safe, but it cannot be asserted categorically that they will not harm the natural environment, including us humans; so far, there has been no scientifically acceptable evidence that harm will never result from the use of GM seeds and hormones. There is also growing concern that the use of antibiotics as a means of boosting growth in cattle may lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. All this has fueled the skepticism of many Europeans about the way their food is being treated. They want much more proof than they have so far been offered about the long-term safety of food products.
The agricultural industry has only itself to blame for the public’s skepticism. In Britain, scientists were persuaded by the beef industry and the Ministry of Agriculture to declare beef safe even when there was growing evidence that feed containing the remains of contaminated sheep was causing symptoms of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, in cattle. The coverup is still being investigated, although British beef has now been declared safe and the European export ban has been lifted.
A recent scare about feed used in Belgium for pigs and other animals led to bans on Belgian products that might have been contaminated. It also led to the fall of the Belgian government.
Now come reports about Monsanto’s methods of promoting GM crops that many people find highly unpalatable; certainly, if true, many observers believe that they show the company to be arrogant and insensitive. It is reported that farmers who buy GM seeds from Monsanto have to sign contracts that give the company sweeping powers, including the right to “inspect, take samples (from) and test” all a farmer’s fields. The farmer must agree to use only Monsanto’s own brand of herbicide, and if genetic pollution, or self-seeding, occurs, Monsanto apparently retains the right to destroy all crops and seeds and to demand “compensation.”
Any farmer who signs such an agreement is arguably enslaving himself to the company. Monsanto and other companies selling GM products should be forced to publicly justify their contractual arrangements, explaining fully how they are conducting their experiments and what risks these involve.
If I were a Monsanto shareholder, I would also demand that the management show more sensitivity to genuine popular concerns. Companies trading globally in such products as oil and timber have had to realize that to survive they must pay increasing attention to environmental concerns.
While it is understandable that companies need some profit incentive to carry out biological research involving genes, it is surely debatable whether gene mutation should be patentable at all. The results of the human-genome project will hopefully be made available to all scientists and not just fatten the pockets of major biological-research companies.
It is clearly not possible to stop work on GM products entirely, nor would this be desirable. At the very least, however, we need carefully controlled and monitored experiments over a number of years to find out whether, for instance, other plants and animals can be affected in the long term as a result of gene modification.
I am by conviction a free trader and am generally willing to leave it to the consumer to decide what to buy and eat. But consumers need to have all the facts. This means compulsory labeling of all products. Food producers object to this on the grounds that such labeling is unnecessary and costly, but how much more can it cost to list GM ingredients in addition to the additives that most governments already require to be listed?
One argument put forward by GM food producers is that the world needs GM food if the growing world population is to be fed. This assertion needs to be debated unemotionally on the basis of all the facts available. In fact, the world has been producing enough to feed the world’s current population without GM foods by using improved fertilizers and plants produced by cross-breeding. Do the Monsantos of this world think that they can and should be allowed to establish “factory” farming with GM crops in all developing countries? Have they and the governments who support them considered all the implications, including employment for farmers in poor countries like India?
In Britain and in other parts of Europe, and increasingly in Japan, there is a vogue in favor of organic farming. This is a reaction to the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides and the consequent destruction of hedgerows and pollution of rivers. There is also a strong movement against the factory production of animals for human consumption.
I am not an animal-rights activist and I deplore the violence and illegality resorted to by some people in pushing their views. Nor can I support the members of Greenpeace who have illegally destroyed experimental GM crops. Such behavior is antisocial and tends to undermine their case. Nor am I a crusader for organic farming like Prince Charles. If I am buying vegetables and fruit I don’t just look for organic produce. I take into account taste, appearance and freshness. However, in my own vegetable garden in Sussex, I use only natural fertilizers, such as horse manure and compost, and this year have not used any chemical sprays. In the greenhouse where I grow my tomatoes, I also plant basil, which is reputed to be a natural inhibitor of white fly, a pest that attacks tomatoes. Yet I have to confess that in wet weather I am prepared to put down slug pellets around my lettuce seedlings.
The need now is for a more informed debate about the risks and benefits of GM products. Most of us simply do not have access to impartial information setting out and balancing the risks and benefits involved in the development and production of GM foods. Companies and governments should make such information freely available and be ready to argue their respective cases unemotionally.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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