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Are GMOs really necessary?

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Two views on GMOs

last modified Jul 04, 2011 01:56 PM
Do GMOs help us solve the problems related to agriculture and food? Can small-farmers benefit from this technology?

The use of GMOs is one of the most controversial topics in discussions concerning the future of farming. For some people, generic engineering seems to represent a sort of "silver bullet" for most of the problems related to agriculture, such as the climate crisis and food security. At the same time, others see GMOs as a menace, a technology that does not maintain its promises, and that even represents a threat to humans and the natural environment.

We present here an article originally written for the Italian press by Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement. Next to it, with the purpose of offering an opposite view, we publish what Dario Bressanini, Research Professor in Theoretical Chemistry and popularizer of science, wrote as a criticism to Petrini's position.

Even though Messrs Petrini and Bressanini did not face each other in a public debate, we thought that it would be interesting to put the two texts side by side. Let us know what you think about this topic by joining our debate.

Carlo PetriniTen Reasons to Say No GMOs

Summarizing complex issues, such as all those concerning food and agriculture, is not easy, nor is it necessarily a good thing.

However I believe that it could be helpful to list the reasons why we and others say “no” to GMOs. Not because of ideological positions or prejudices, as those who think they are the only repositories of knowledge love to claim, but for serious and justifiable reasons, shared by many researchers and scientists.

1) CONTAMINATION: Here in Italy, and in many countries, safely cultivating GMOs is impossible because of our small farms and lack of adequate natural barriers to protect organic and conventional crops. Additionally, agriculture is part of a living system which includes wild fauna, the water cycle, the wind and the reactions of microorganisms in the soil; GM crops cannot be confined to the surface of the field in which they are being cultivated.

2) FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: How could organic, biodynamic and conventional farmers be sure that their products are not contaminated? Even the limited spread of GM crops in open fields would change forever the quality and the current state of our agriculture, destroying our freedom to choose what we eat.

3) HEALTH: It has been shown that animals fed with GMOs can develop health problems.

4) FREEDOM: GM crops denature the role of farmers, who have always improved and selected their own seeds. GM seeds are owned by multinationals to whom the farmer must turn every new season, because, like all commercial hybrids, second-generation GMOs do not give good results. It is also forbidden for farmers to try to improve the variety without paying expensive royalties.

5) ECONOMY AND CULTURE: GM products do not have historical or cultural links to a local area. In Italy for example, a significant part of its agricultural and food economy is based upon identity and the variety of local products. Introducing anonymous products with no history would weaken a system that also has close links to the tourism industry.

6) BIODIVERSITY: GM crops impoverish biodiversity because they require large surface areas and an intensive monoculture system. Growing only one kind of corn for human consumption will mean a reduction in flavors and knowledge.

7) ECO-COMPATIBILITY: Research on GMOs has so far focused on two kinds of “advantages”: resistance to a corn parasite (the corn borer) and resistance to a herbicide (glyphosate). Supporters of GMOs say that they allow the reduced use of synthetic chemicals. But crop rotation is the only real way to fight the corn borer, and herbicide resistance will only lead to freer use of the chemical in the fields, given that it harms only undesirable weeds, not the actual crops.

8) CAUTION: Around 30 years since GMOs began to be studied, results in the agricultural sector concern only three crops (corn, rapeseed and soy). In fact the plants do not support the genetic modifications very well and this science is still rudimentary and partially entrusted to chance. We would like to see a more cautious and careful approach, as in Germany and France, where some GM crops have been banned.

9) PROGRESS: GMOs are the result of a myopic and superficial way of seeing progress. The role of small-scale agriculture in the protection of local areas, the defense of the landscape and the struggle against global warming is increasingly clear to consumers, governments and scientists. Instead of following the siren call of the market, modern research should support sustainable agriculture and its needs.

10) HUNGER: When it comes to hunger, the United Nations says that family agriculture will protect the sectors of the population at risk of malnutrition. Multinationals instead promise that GMOs will feed the world, but since they began to be marketed around 15 years ago, the number of starving people in the world has only grown, just like the profits of the companies that produce the seeds. In countries like Argentina and Brazil, GM soy has swept away energy-providing crops like potatoes, corn, wheat and millet on which the daily diet is based.

(This article has been originally published on an Italian magazine called “L’Espresso” the 10th of February 2010. Source of the translation presented here is the Slow Food Ireland website)

Carlo Petrini

Carlo Petrini is an Italian writer and journalist funder of the Slow Food Movement.


Dario BressaniniTen responses to Carlo Petrini on GMOs

I would like to offer a point-by-point reply to Petrini’s 10 reasons to refuse GMOs.

1) CONTAMINATION: Several studies show that organic and conventional plantations can coexists without any worry risk of contamination. Buffer zones can vary from a few meters (for plants such as rice) up to dozens of meters (as in the case of maize) or can even be completely unnecessary, like in all those cases where plants self-fertilize and do not spread pollen. In other circumstances (for example in grapevines), only the rootstock is transgenic in order to protect against insects, whereas blooms and fruits are totally ‘GM free’.

2) FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: Buffer zones are meant to prevent that GMOs can contaminate and mix with ‘GM free’ cultivars. Legally speaking, a plant can be certificated as ‘organic’ if the level of mixture with GMOs is below 0.9%. This threshold is already applied in Italy, where GMOs are nevertheless not allowed. Indeed, the seeds that organic farmers buy can contain traces of GMOs. That is to say, it is a fact that part of the organic production commercialized contains traces of GMOs.

3) HEALTH: All serious researches deny that GMOs are causing health problems to animals. We can discuss whether maize is the most suitable forage for bovines, but this has nothing to do with the fact that it is GM or not. Next to this, most people ignore that Bt maize, if compared to its conventional or organic equivalent, is healthier because it contains less toxins (fumonisins).

4) FREEDOM: Not all GMOs are hybrids and not all of them are produced by multinationals. Most farmers buy seeds every year. With some exceptions in small-scale agriculture, saving seeds for the next year could cause a great loss of harvest quality. Hybrids exist since almost a century and farmers buy them because they benefit from it. Let’s offer the farmers freedom of choice. GMOs developed by public research could be available like any other cultivar developed until now by means of conventional technologies. There can be the case of farmers that would like to have the freedom to breed GMOs. Again, isn’t it up to them to decide?

5) ECONOMY AND CULTURE: In Italy, the presence of such a valuable historical and cultural heritage of agricultural production is due to the ability of the country to adapt its territory to the arrival of new products from abroad. Without this extraordinary capacity, and following the logic that stays behind Petrini’s reasoning, we would not have had the possibility to appreciate the renewed quality of Italian tomatoes, potatoes, maize, courgettes, aubergines, and kiwis: all products that originally came from another country.

6) BIODIVERSITY: The statement that GMOs reduce biodiversity is simply false. On the contrary, they could even increase it. For example, safeguarding, thanks to specific genetic modifications, species otherwise menaced by viruses or insects. Moreover, the development of a GM variety of a plant does not exclude the presence of the other ones.

7) ECO-COMPATIBILITY: Herbicides are already largely used in conventional practices. Those associated with GMOs are usually less toxic than their conventional equivalents. As far as viruses are concerned, for some cultivars (like potatoes, papayas, and courgettes) conventional agriculture does not have any efficient remedy. In those places where Bt plants have been introduced, a reduction of pesticides employment has already been shown. Moreover, rotation cannot always be considered an economically feasible solution against parasites.

8) CAUTION: To affirm that “plants do not support the genetic modification very well”, as any student of biology can confirm, is simply nonsense. A gene is a gene! The simple fact that hundreds of GMOs have already been developed is a sufficient counterproof of what Petrini states, namely that just few GM crops have been successfully modified. Behind the ban on GMOs in countries like France and Germany there are political and ideological reasons rather than the results of scientific research.

9) PROGRESS: Small-scale farming cannot nourish the planet. I love “Lardo di Colonnata”, I like “Tropea onions”, and I eat “Castelluccio lentils”. But when I cook pasta I know that this has been made by using wheat that has been mostly imported from abroad and that comes from large-scale farming. When I eat “Parmigiano” I know that the milk necessary for its production comes from cows bred on a large-scale and mostly fed with GM soy. Small-farming is perfectly good for some niche of production, which we all can appreciate, but cannot be generalized.

10) HUNGER: International organization such as FAO, ONU and the World Bank recognize biotechnologies as a useful solution to world poverty. Especially Bt cotton has already shown its positive results. Even though it is not edible, it is good, clean and Fair.

Ethics of science requires that scientists do research on the truth by means of rigorous inquiring methods. Activists generally do not accept facts that do not match with their visions of the world, ideologies, and philosophies. Contrary to scientists, they just look for confirmations. There is a widespread tendency to refuse the answers of science when they go against our preconceived ideas. But scientists have the duty to research the truth even when this is not shared by the majority of people. All in all, it was not long ago that the majority was convinced that the earth is not flat.

(This text is a summary of an extensive reply to Petrini’s position against GMOs posted in Italian on my blog)

Dario Bressanini

Dario Bressanini is Research Professor at the Department of Chemical and Environmental Sciences of the University of Insurbia (Italy). He is the author of “Pane e Bugie” (Bread and Lies).

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Cesar says:
Jul 01, 2011 03:50 PM

Watch out:GMOs will kill our traditions!!!

Titahh says:
Sep 06, 2016 10:17 PM

- lol

Lucy says:
Jul 01, 2011 05:11 PM

Yes, they bring changes. But every new variety brings changes: higher yields, a different taste, lower prices... What is the difference? Does this mean that they have to be forbidden?

Anton says:
Jul 01, 2011 09:15 PM

On one side I agree with Lucy. Agriculture is all about technology. Whoever says otherwise is talking out his/her backside. The highest yields are not obtained with a hoe and spade.
But on the other side I truly believe that GM will not save or help us - the impact of GM on environment and especially on peoples' live is always ignored, largely also because the hungry are ignored. The poorest don't want a 'GMO revolution', they just want to have their lands back from those corporations that exploit them.

Piero Morandini
Piero Morandini says:
Jul 03, 2011 01:07 PM

Petrini is an ignorant on matters related to agriculture. For instance he feared thet green leaves of amflora would be fed to cows. But no farmer on earth would harvest green potato plants for two reasons: 1) if you harvest the green parts your potato harvest apporaches zero and 2) potato leaves are toxic.
Farmers should be aware of this before following ideologist like him.
Piero Morandini, Plant biotechnologist Univ. of Milan)
(original article of Petrini in Italian: )

Shirley Dominguez
Shirley Dominguez says:
Jul 06, 2011 04:11 PM

A few comments only. CONTAMINATION: If what Mr Bresaninin would be true, we wouldnt have had the big problems between Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto in Canada. Not even in a super developed country like Canada is the separation between GMOs and non-GMOS possible, so what chance do we have to do that in other countries? FOOD SOVERIGNTY: Bressanini argues that it is "a fact that part of the organic production commercialized contains traces of GMOs". So should we just accept it? Strange argument... FREEDOM: I agree, farmers should be given the choice. This should be paramount. BIODIVERSITY: OK, GMOs could increase biodiversity. Considering the enormous amounts of money invested in their developement, I would rather use it to find ways to preserve all those millions of varieties which already exist, and which -surely- already have all those wonderful genes in them. Biodiversity is there, we just need to open our eyes, and make better use of it. PROGRESS: that "Small-scale farming cannot nourish the planet" is false. Mr Bresanini should read how much of what all Brazilians eat, for example, is produced by small-scale farmers in Brazil. I am not against progress, but we should also consider how much is this progress costing, and if there are no better ways to achieve our aims. I argue that there are.

Tewnahy Zia
Tewnahy Zia says:
Jul 06, 2011 09:09 PM

Both panelists say very little when discussing GMOs and hunger. Family farming has failed to reduce hunger in many countries (one of the resons why the number of hungry people continues to rise), but the objective of GMOs is not to fight hunger. Should we therefore argue for family farmers farming with GMOs? But if the answer is yes, with which GMO crops? With Bt cotton?

Theresa says:
Jul 07, 2011 08:50 PM

Dario Bressanini is wrong. This can easily be researched on the internet. I am shocked at his naivety regarding the safety and ethical issues.
I hope he can watch the following video:

"A quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last 16 years—an average of one suicide every 30 minutes. The crisis has ballooned with economic liberalization that has removed agricultural subsidies and opened Indian agriculture to the global market."

organichai says:
Jul 08, 2011 05:56 AM

I think contamination is difficult to deal with. Buffer zones are good when you can control it. What will happen in earthquakes, landslides, flood, strong wind like tornado and other natural disasters? Can we prevent these from happening?

Will the GM plants cross freely?

Do we have enough food for the world? or is it a matter of distribution?

Njange says:
Jul 08, 2011 02:09 PM

Why do people so much worry about today and forget that there will be billions of poeple who will live after us. If GMOs they seeds or food stuff, interfer with normal food chain only to satisfy the hunger today and kill all the rest to come is immoral...we have to refrain from this, and time was yesterday not today.....we are already late.

Ahmad Mahdavi
Ahmad Mahdavi says:
Jul 08, 2011 04:23 PM

In the recent decade many GM crops and food are entering in developing countries very fast and these countries have to be prepared to protect their food security, species and protected areas against what so called identity crisis which is about the unknown future about species identities. When we are importing so much genetically modified species in the agroecosystems and ecosystems and there are good possibilities of gen exchange between these modified species and wild ones then how we would be able to guarantee the future of our species which are outcomes of million years of evolution and coevolution by the process of natural selection?

edward says:
Sep 08, 2011 12:29 PM

1.Across the developing world, environmental degradation and climate change are making farming tougher. Why would you want to rule out any technology that could help you respond to higher temperatures, to longer drought periods, to salinised soils? We need every weapon at our disposal if family farming is going to contribute to feeding the 9 billion people who'll be on the planet in 2050. GMOs aren't the only solution of course, but they may yet be an important part of it.
2.Of course Monsanto aren't interested in hunger; but let's not confuse the ownership of the technology with the technology itself. There are public-private partnerships across the developing world, working on issues such as banana wilt, or drought-resistant maize; and the GMO varieties that emerge will be of enormous importance to large numbers of small farmers.
3.Something like 15 million small farmers - in China, India, Burkina Faso - are already using Bt cotton; they are using less pesticides and making more money. And they are very happy to buy the seeds each year. As of course are the majority of farmers in most countries who use hybrid rather than varieties.

Alberto says:
Sep 08, 2011 08:43 PM

Petrini exposes his real beliefs and values in his attempt to claim his reasons are somehow devoid of ideological... prejudices... and then to espouse reasons that are clearly founded on such. And then the self determined "...shared by many researchers and scientists." is clearly a pompous attempt to speak for nameless and fictitious comrades. I'll take the science any day over the let 'em eat cake artistry.

William says:
Sep 09, 2011 10:35 AM

I have followed the debate for many years and found that, for such a short summary of ideas, that Mr. Petrini's arguments are extremely well written and succinctly portray solid arguments backed by a substantial literature--and certainly not "pompous". Mr. Bressanini's arguments, while not wholly "wrong", nevertheless express an opinion using logic that is substantially weaker than Mr. Petrini’s.
“Several studies show that organic and conventional plantations can coexists without any worry risk of contamination”. I’m sorry, this is hardly an argument to show that contamination is not a risk. That is like saying cancer is not a risk from cigarettes by stating “I know several people that have smoked cigarettes their whole lives and didn’t get cancer”. We know contamination is a risk, we know for what crops, we know what groups are most at risk (organic producers). Mr. Bressanini commits similar errors in logic in many of his other points. In other points, he simply avoids addressing the issue.
The experts are pretty clear on the fact that glyphsate, which is an excellent herbicide, is losing efficacy around the world due to overuse of the chemical, and that GM soy has allowed for an enormous increase in the use of the chemical. Sorry, the argument on BT cotton is still not clear as farmers in China, after an initial reduction in sprays for lepidopterous pests, are back up with sprays for secondary pests that are not affected by BT.
On biodiversity: “...For example, safeguarding, thanks to specific genetic modifications, species otherwise menaced by viruses or insects.” Huh? is BT somehow “safeguarding” the commercial species of cotton? And “...Moreover, the development of a GM variety of a plant does not exclude the presence of the other ones.” Sorry, logically incorrect. A GM plant could indeed do so if it confers an adaptive benefit, such as herbicide resistance transferred to a noxious cruciferous weed. From the view of crop varietal diversity, focus by breeders on a GM variety of cotton means that attention and resources are no longer focussed on improving non-GM varieties, so their strength and competitiveness falls away simply for lack of attention and traditional varieties are lost entirely from lack of use.
“Small-farming is perfectly good for some niche of production, which we all can appreciate, but cannot be generalized” Sorry, I’ve worked around the world for 30 years with small-scale producers in developing countries. I’d say that small-scale farming has been and continues to by the dominant form of farming for most people in the world and it’s likely to continue that way. Through helping small farmers intelligently diversify and better link to local markets, we see enhanced ecological and economic resilience. We see a lower carbon and nitrogen foot-print and a multitude of social benefits. Given the likelihood of serious changes in climate in the next century, it would be the worst folly to seek to entirely depend on the industrial, over-connected system of large-scale production and international trade, which is increasingly fragile and, as we saw in 2008, subject to rude failures in the face of global economic shocks.
Finally, with the examples of pharmaceuticals and pesticides, we’ve seen what large corporations do when left to their own devices. If only for this reason it is worthwhile continuing the debate on GM. I am not against continuing to see what can be done with GM research, and in fact there’s no way to stop it. I have yet to see any great “miracle” coming out of the GM industry, and I’d sure be glad if they came up with something that eliminated malaria of allowed maize to fix nitrogen, but let’s proceed cautiously and with clear thinking about risk and uncertainty.

Rupert Knowles
Rupert Knowles says:
Nov 05, 2011 07:50 PM

I have come to this debate rather late. Can I suggest that people read the petition by Swedish scientists that puts the case well for allowing work on genetically modified crops to proceed in Europe.

Claudia says:
Sep 21, 2013 02:13 PM

As these GMO foodstuffs haven't been auornd long enough for see the end results from eating them, then we certainly shouldn't be eating them. I read somewhere that they were good for cultivation where cultivation is diffcult, such as in Africa, as they are more resistant to destruction by bugs, drought & disease resistant, etc. Quite why countries without those problems would want or need them cn only be attributed to -greed?

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