safm debate on gm foods

Submitted by turbosprout on Wed, 2007-05-09 20:38

SAfm's After 8 Debate last Friday morning was on Genetically Modified Foods - are they the answer to alleviating poverty in Africa?

tobacco plant: expressing firefly genetobacco plant: expressing firefly genePoverty alleviation is probably the most quoted reason I hear for why GM foods should be supported. It is also a complete sham that GM foods will alleviate poverty. Genetically Modified foods will not enrich Africans, they will however enrich the multinational biotech companies who produce the GM seed that is marketed to African farmers.

The debate was extremely interesting and the sentiment of most callers phoning in was anti-GM. It is a darn shame that transcriptions of debates are not available from SAfm. So as a service to green bloggers and interested readers here goes with my shamelessly biased version of the debate. :-) My mom-in-law let me know about the program just as it was starting and fortunately I was on the train to work with a mobile radio and notepad, so I jotted down what was being said as the debate unfolded....

Let me start with some background on the two guests.
Willy De Greef was billed as an "international agri-biotechnology researcher in the EU". He used to work for Syngenta (a big Swiss GM seed company) and is now director of his own private consultancy - International Biotech Regulatory Services.

Leslie Liddell is the director of Biowatch, an anti-GM campaigning NGO currently awaiting the verdict in their appeal against having to pay Monsanto's (another, more evil, multinational GM seed company) legal costs.

My comments follow, italicised, in brackets. If you want to jump to my summary of GM food go here.

Jeremy Maggs opened the debate stating that genetic modification is simply the transfer of genes between organisms. [he made it sound simple and harmless enough - in fact it's a touch more complex]

Liddell started by pointing out that Biowatch is critical of Genetic Modification, but not Biotechnology, per se. She then mentioned a report stating that after a decade in Africa GM crops have failed to deliver any benefits. [by the African Centre for Biosafety and Friends of the Earth Nigeria - Ten Years of Genetically Modified Crops Fail to Deliver Benefits to Africa.]

Willy De GreefWilly De GreefDe Greef refuted the report making the point that you have to consider who publishes the research. [I found this ironic as all the research touted by biotech is biased in the interests of getting the technology to market as quickly as possible]. He then made a classic biotech argument that GM is ecofriendly, claiming that insect resistant cotton reduces pesticide use here in South Africa. He was cautious on crop yields though, saying GM "very often" raises yields.

Liddell countered by quoting the University of KwaZulu-Natal's recently released research on the Makhatini GM cotton fields which states that yields remain more or less the same and that pesticide use initially decreased, then later increases. [the pesticide used to control bollworm decreases as the crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to it, but pesticide use to control other pests such as jassid substantially increases]

De Greef's rebuttal was that if it isn't better then why do the farmers buy it again [something to do with being tied into a contract with the GM seed companies perhaps? Or that farmers not allowed to save their own seed anymore!!]

First caller: David Wolstenholme of Organic Freedom Project and Natural and Organic Products Exhibition fame. [Yay! Go David.]
He briefly mentioned the OFP and that it was being funded by Pick 'n Pay and Anglo American. Then made two quick points: 1) he's never met a wealthy farmer, but plenty of wealthy biotech execs 2) GM is suited to large scale, not emergent farmers.

Second caller: Professor Jocelyn Webster cited the Reading University study that shows increased yields, lower pesticide use and health benefits because of lower chemical spraying.

Panel given opportunity to respond. Liddell said that the Makhatini cotton farmers are now locked into the cotton market. She also said there are high barriers to exit once you are a GM farmer and that an early prominent cotton farmer flown around the world to do PR by Monsanto, has now made a U-turn and is working with Biowatch to see how he can get out of growing GM.

De Greef refuted that the farmers are tied in and that it is difficult to exit the market. [this despite being indebted to the seed companies and the now greater obstacles to becoming an organic farmer - yeah right!]

Eddie from Ficksburg phoned in to say that whilst his GM maize yields are higher and his pesticide use is lower he has noticed that his cows (that are being fed on GM maize) are more sickly.

Maureen phoned to mention the Percy Schmeiser case. [Percy was sued for patent infringement by Monsanto when they discovered unauthorised GM canola growing in his fields.]

Peter raised the labelling issue - how will we know if we're eating GM food? We won't. He mentioned that if fish genes are inserted into paw paws we'll not be the wiser. [I think the GMO act does actually enforce labelling when an animal gene is used in a GM product]

Peter from Mokopane called to say GM is going to cause more poverty in Africa and mentioned some of the difficulties facing small farmers.

Ruth Rabinowitz [Member of Parliament and health spokeswomen for the IFP] phoned in to address the health safety issue and the fact that there is insufficient, independent testing of GM crops. [I may have missed other points raised by Ruth, as my radio reception was dodgy coming round the bend at Salt River]

Biowatch access to information courtcase 2004Biowatch access to information courtcase 2004Liddell raised the point that often the farmers who buy their seed from co-ops are illiterate and are not informed on the issues surrounding genetically modified crops. She quoted an example of a farmer growing three species of maize side-by-side; two of which were genetically modified and one which was conventional. She also said GM seed is more expensive and that because it is patented it is owned by the seed companies, and so farmers are not allowed to save the seeds produced in one season to be planted the next season.

De Greef said that all GM seed is labelled [neatly dodging the illiteracy issue]

Maggs then questioned the guests on the health aspects of GM food.

De Greef said that health is a legitimate concern, but that Mad Cow disease was what had caused a perception problem which couldn't be applied to GM. [he acknowledged that there is a problem and then swiftly ducked the issue, such a political move] His line of the day was "when the elephants fight, the grass also suffers" and then proceeded to say the debate on GM food safety is over in the EU! [not by a long shot Willy]

Liddell was quick to disagree, saying the GM debate is still raging in the EU and that GM food is being introduced into SA without South Africans having a proper understanding of all the issues [GM crops were planted in this country two years before there was even a GMO act to regulate GM]

De Greef retorted saying the EU allows imports of GM and reiterated that it has been mostly laid to rest as a safety issue.

[A few more calls were taken, reception was dodgy again. But one was on the issue of Africa being a dumping ground. The other was an enthusiastic GM farmer]

Maggs wanted to clarify whether De Greef was on the board of Monsanto. De Greef replied that he was on the board of AfricaBio

Maggs also wanted a response on whether Africa was a dumping ground for GM and a response on the labelling issue.

De Greef said Africa has the least amount of GM growing so couldn't understand the dumping ground perception.
[He must surely be aware of the US dumping GM food as aid?]. On labelling he acceded that the consumers right to know what's in their food has to be respected, but then went on to say that labelling does not substitute for good information [he's just worried about what labelling food "gm-free" will do to the market for GM seed, not about consumers having a choice!].

Liddell closed reiterating that there is not adequate testing of GM food and that with multinationals owning the intellectual property rights it entrenches domination of the food supply.

My abridged thoughts on GM food:
GM food safety is not sufficiently proven and we are not given the choice whether we want to eat it or not as it is not labelled. Already most soya and a lot of maize and cotton grown in this country is GM. There has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that long term yields are better, that pesticide use is reduced or that it alleviates poverty. It has been proven to raise the stock prices of multinational GM seed companies and entrench their domination of our food supply. They also own the intellectual property to their seeds so you're not allowed to save their seed and grow your own. Small-scale GM farmers are therefore locked into a cycle of having to buy their seeds from multinationals, guaranteeing farmer indebtedness.

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