By Darina Allen
THE CONTROVERSY over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) was re-ignited recently in Ireland.
BASF, the world’s largest chemical and biotechnology company, have submitted an application to the EPA for permission to conduct open-air experimental field trials of genetically modified potatoes in Co Meath.
BASF says the potatoes may provide greater resistance to late potato blight.
The memory of the Great Famine of the 1840s still resonates in the nation’s consciousness and potato blight is an emotive issue, so it is no surprise that the biotech industry chose a potentially blight-resistant potato as a strategic spearhead to introduce Genetically-Modified-Organisms crops into Ireland.
Most Genetically-Modified-Organisms crops are intended to be immune to weedkillers or to produce their own pesticides. But many do not perform as expected, end up requiring more chemicals and produce ‘superweeds’. Farmers in the USA and Canada have filed lawsuits against Genetically-Modified companies in relation to Genetically-Modified crop failures.
Unless the EPA denies permission, the BASF experiment will commence this April on a farm at Arodstown, Summerhill, Co Meath for the next five years.
But the Genetically-Modified-Organisms potatoes would have to carry a Genetically-Modified label, and there is no market for GM foods in Europe. The 30 largest food brands and 30 largest retailers have a GM-free policy. Moreover, the majority of EU governments, and many local authorities prohibit the cultivation of GM crops.
The most extraordinary thing about GMO crops is that they are patented. Under the WTO’s trade-related intellectual property rights agreement, farmers whose crops have been contaminated - often by wind-borne pollen or seed dispersal from a neighbour’s farm - no longer own their crops. Monsanto is currently pursuing 9,000 farmers for patent infringement in the USA and Canada.
Most settle out of court, but Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, who I met last year at Slow Food’s wonderful Terra Madre conference in Turin, fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court in Canada. Monsanto demanded patent royalties for every acre of his contaminated crops, plus a million dollars in court costs. The court admitted that Schmeiser had no intention of stealing the patented genes, but ruled that his crops now belong to Monsanto.
In this context, why has the Irish Government never voted against GM food and crops in a dozen votes in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers? Why do the Irish Farmers Association, Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association and Macra na Feirme, appear to have no policy on GM?
The Irish Cattle and Sheepfarmers Association is one of 80 farm and food organisations that are opposed to the proposed trials on the basis they would destroy this country’s economically valuable clean green marketing image as Ireland - The Food Island.
Thousands of contamination incidents around the world show that GMO crops cannot possibly ‘co-exist’ with conventional and organic farming. We’ve come to a fork in the road, and the time has come to choose what kind of farming future is best for Ireland.
More blight-resistant potatoes are a desirable trait. But natural blight-resistant varieties are already available to Irish farmers, and non-GMO breeding techniques provide the only safe way to increase resistance.
With so many independent scientists invoking the precautionary principle, and the insurance industry’s refusal to provide cover for GMO crops, the EPA should not allow this experiment to go ahead.
Michael Antoniou, clinical geneticist and senior lecturer in pathology at Guys Teaching Hospital in London, says: “Once released into the environment, unlike a BSE epidemic or chemical spill, genetic mistakes cannot be contained, recalled or cleaned up, but will be passed on to all future generations.”
Once the genie is out of the bottle there is no putting it back in again.
Most Irish meat, poultry and dairy produce already comes from animals whose diet includes GM ingredients, but is not labelled as such because of a loophole in EU law.
Whatever one’s opinion on GMOs, the reality is that if we get an allergy or an inflammation or an impaired immune system, our doctors have no way of knowing if such genetically modified food was the cause, because food containing GMO’s was released onto our shelves completely unlabelled.
We are all guinea pigs in this corporate experiment. This is the single most important food and health threat in our lifetime.