Two views on GMOs
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.
Ten 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 is an Italian writer and journalist funder of the Slow Food Movement.
Ten 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 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).