Eva’s Apple: is GM food the forbidden fruit?

The debate has many angles to be taken into account, but they can all be summarized in two groups expressing different positions. The first one defends the liberalization of the sector, on the grounds of improving food security and decreasing the prices, while the second one calls for a strict application of the precautionary principle and a more environmental approach to food production and consumption.

Cornucopia vs Poison

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms,  can be defined as organisms whose genetic material has been non- naturally altered, often using scientific methods that include recombinant DNA technology and reproductive cloning. Arguments in favor of GM food are the reduction of production costs, a longer commercial life, higher productivity, resistance to aggressive conditions, weed killers and plagues and better nutritive conditions.

[The first agricultural GMO, a tobacco resistant to antibiotics, was created in 1983. The last years have been very rich in research, trade and small-scale tests, while countries like Argentina or the United States have become major producers and exporters. Meanwhile, GMOs faced a ban in the European Union. ]

Moreover, the introduction of GMOs has not received a unanimous acceptation. Early in the 90s, public organizations such as Greenpeace have publicly expressed their disapproval of these products on a global scale. In the EU, some countries like Austria, Luxembourg or France have strongly protested against  the announcement of the end of the GM ban introduced by the European Commission. The European mistrust has much to do with food security scandals like the mad-cow disease[1] or high dioxin level in poultry.

Despite its recognized advantages, GMO are suspected of containing unknown allergens and toxins. The risk of pollution and interaction with other genes, like the human, is not specifically measured. There are doubts about endangering traditional agriculture, modifying the composition of the sols and making producers more dependent on Biotech companies. Thus,the precautionary principle is seen as an useful tool in a undefined context.

[The precautionary principle, announced in the Agenda 21[2] in Rio in 1992 and confirmed by the Cartagena Protocol on Biotech Security in 1994, states that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” ]

Do what I say but…

Scientists and biotech companies demand more freedom and protest against this “ecological dogma” which prevents their discoveries from becoming useful. They claim GMO are as risky as common use pesticides.  Moreover, the role of the EU Commission is rather confusing, since the EU research programmes have made significant investments in GMO research.  On the other side, NGO’s and agricultural producers ask for the protection of the traditional and environmentally-friendly production.

[With the EU being a member of the WTO, international rules of trade engage the signatories to avoid creating “artificial obstacles to the exchanges”, and main producers as the Unites States or Brazil have already described the European ban on GMOs as one.]

Concerning discoveries, another question arises. Biotech companies have taken profit of the “Green Gold”, the possibilities offered by the untapped genetic potential of species that grow in Thirld World countries; creating a conflict between intellectual property rights and the right to development.

Regulations: finding the Ariadna thread

From the French ban to the United States complete liberalization, responses to the GMO dilemma vary among countries (even if slower, regulation tools have been accompanying the development of research and its discoveries).

Among them, the most important is traceability. Traceability refers to the completeness of the information about every step in a process chain. It can be completed by Identity Preservation, whose methods identify varieties providing additional features. Both identity preservation and traceability have to become clear to consumers, thus defining a need for specific labeling. However, supplementary controls mean additional costs.

Some other ideas have been brought to debate. Attitude should shift to more responsible and towards eco-friendly initiatives based on Corporate Social Responsibility. First, a kind of ISO for GM food, tracking the process from the research and engineering to the shop shelf, shall be envisaged, so as to raise trust. Moreover, if GM food is to be seen as complementary (and not substitutive) of organic agriculture, research should also allow recovering traditional biological production. Thirdly, communication on these products may assume risk and liability in a more clear speech, adding features as carbon-print, water print and health impact.  Other systems may draw attention to the already available information, such as the existence of a public agency of Food Security Information or liability regimes.

For further information:

Genetically modified food information and risk in the market 

[1] BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), commonly known as mad-cow disease.

[2] Agenda 21 is an action plan designed by the UN, that is aimed to address the pressing problems of today and prepare the world for the challenges of the next century.

This is a non-profit explanation

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