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Genetically modified food concerns

Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A few weeks ago I was featured in The Fiji Times, shopping guide. For whatever reason I may have been asked to take part (it still confounds me),

I was asked to share some things about shopping.

I got some responses to my statement on Genetically Modified products such as cooking oil. If you for some reason read this column more than once or twice, you may be aware that I am very concerned about Genetically Modified products winding up unannounced on shelves of our shops. (Fiji Times October 27, 2010).

I recently received news that Genetically Modified wheat (flour) may be coming to a supermarket near you.

According to the the Truefood Network ( Genetically Modified wheat trials have just been planted in New South Wales, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territories.

The report states that Australian government science body, the CSIRO, has announced plans to have Genetically Modified bread on supermarket shelves by 2015.

A Greenpeace investigation has revealed that global GM companies including Monsanto, Limagrain and BASF are the money behind the trials and are partnered with our so-called public research bodies to push Genetically Modified wheat approval in Australia.

That means Australians can look forward to Monsanto patents on their daily bread and our farmers are facing a massive fight to protect their wheat crop from GM contamination. It also means the possibility of Genetically Modified wheat being imported into Fiji.

The Network of Concerned Farmers is an Australia wide network of conventional and organic farmers who are concerned about the economic, environmental and social impacts of Genetically Modified crops.

The network aims to protect the rights of farmers to continue to grow and market uncontaminated crops by ensuring the genetically modification industry is responsible for containment of their product and all associated costs and liabilities (not the non-GM grower as proposed). Until legislation adequately protects existing farmers and sustainability, we will not accept the introduction of GM crops. The NCF is nationally recognised as a credible voice on GM issues.

They put out 10 reasons why we as consumers and especially as a country that is trying to revitalise our agricultural sector need to be aware of the dangers of introducing Genetically Modified crops into the farming communities. A number of these reasons are listed below.

Health risks

Genetic modification may lead to the production of additional proteins in the plant cells. This may affect the wholesomeness of food and cause new allergies. Until now, new allergenic substances in genetically modified food have been avoided because of tests during the authorisation procedures. However, present testing methods are not foolproof.

Additional genes inserted into the plant genome could lead to "position effects" by interacting with the plants' own genes in unpredictable ways by disturbing or changing the effectiveness of plant genes.

Ecological risks

The growing of plants which are made insensitive to a herbicide (herbicide resistant plants), or plants containing a toxin against insects (insect resistant plants) will necessarily mean that ecological risks of unknown scope and consequences are ignored. An adequate risk assessment is possible only over a long term.

There are already indications that resistant weeds and insects occur, and that soil microorganisms are adversely affected.

Biodiversity in danger

The growing of herbicide and insect resistant plants interferes with the food chains and the biodiversity of the field ecosystem in a way which makes it difficult to assess the consequences for agriculture. Natural ecological balances between beneficial and pest organisms are disturbed. Genetic erosion due to homogeneous seeds and large size field management will also prove dangerous.

Genetic engineering advances the concentration process in agriculture

The present concept of genetically modified plants to be used in agriculture has not been developed to meet the needs of small-scale farming.

The global spread of these techniques fuels worldwide competition between farmers and endangers the existence and the marketability of locally adapted, site-specific land use systems.

Hazards for GM-free agriculture

If genetically modified plants spread in an uncontrollable way, any co-existence between farmers using genetic engineering and farmers refraining from genetic engineering becomes difficult. The draft EU seed directive is part of the problem. It fixes a threshold of up to 0.7 per cent contamination with genetically modified seeds in conventional seeds without labelling.

The existence of ecological farming, seeking to guarantee GM-free products, is especially at risk.

No compensation of financial losses due to contamination of its products is foreseen. No regulatory liability framework for damage caused by genetic engineering in agriculture and environment is provided for. On the contrary: ecological and conventional farmers will have to bear the costs of measures to keep their products GM-free and of the corresponding tests.

Economic misjudgements

The biotechnology industry points to the economic advantages of GM varieties, as these are based on higher yields and lower production costs. Such advantages are, however, not obvious if we consider the examples of genetically modified maize and soybeans in the USA.

Occasional higher yields are, in most cases, more than outweighed by higher input costs and the breakdown of markets. Whereas the prices for genetically modified food and feed drop worldwide, costs for additional management measures rise considerably.

Monopolisation of food production

The spread of genetic engineering coincides with widening legal possibilities to patent plants

and their genes. Patents on food bear the intrinsic danger that a few transnational corporations obtain exclusive control over the whole chain of food production, from the gene to the dish. Initial conflicts over patent rights in Northern America show how, in the future, farmers may lose some of the rights concerning their crops. Patents on life are not compatible with the concept of intellectual property rights. They confer rights which go far beyond what the "inventor" has really accomplished.

The myth of fighting world hunger

The promise to overcome worldwide hunger with the help of genetic engineering is not credible. Research and development of genetically modified plants are organised privately and lie in the hands of only a few big corporations in the North, which protect their products through patents. This development is addressed to the needs of intensive industrialised farming in the earth's temperate zone.

The genetically modified plants don't yet contribute to the solution of agricultural problems in the tropics. Patents and technology fees prevent the transfer of technology from North to South. Deficient nutrition is not a problem of food quantity, but of power and distribution.

There is noscarcity of food in the world, but grave deficiencies in access to food and distribution.

I am all in favour of supporting our local agricultural sector and I understand that economically many of us are compelled to choose products based on price. However is it risking the health of our children and future generations by allowing Genetically Modified products to replace the organically grown fruits, vegetables, even meat and fish as well as cooking ingredients that we are used to eating.

It is not just a matter of individual principles. It is a matter of food security for our country.

May the rest of your week be blessed with light, love peace and the courage to make the right choices in every decision your face.

* This is the opinion of James Bhagwan and does not necessarily reflect those of organisations he is associated with nor are they of this newspaper.

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