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Stanley Simpson: The Right To Know What You Eat

The Right To Know What You Eat


By Stanley Simpson

The debate over genetically modified (GM) food and products has been in the spotlight for many years now especially in Europe, Africa and the US. It is time we have this debate here in Fiji.

The government must make a stand on the issue after consultation with local farmers, provincial councils, churches, citizen's groups, the consumer council and other interested parties, as the GM food debate touches on human rights, religion, food security, the environment, health, corporate control, consumer rights, culture, poverty, science and on many aspects dealing with development.

The debate is intense between the EU and US, and between biotech food corporations that push the product, and consumer councils and scientists groups that oppose. Even America's closest ally in the war on terror, Britain is terrified of the US push for GM food to be introduced into their market.

Thankfully, two weeks ago the US Embassy kicked the debate off for us with a letter to the Fiji media pitching their views on the benefits of agricultural bio-technology products and food, and condemning the EU for placing a ban on these products. This dispute is now at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

So far in Fiji, only the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) and the Consumer Council of Fiji have responded opposing the US view.

Genetic engineering alters the basic makeup of plants and animals, mixing, inserting or injecting genes from one to the other, or from one particular species to the other. For instance genes from insects, animals and humans have been added to crop plants, and human genes have been added to pigs and cattle. This genetic engineering breaks up the natural boundaries that exist between species. A fish and a strawberry will not breed in nature, but in a laboratory, scientists can take a gene from a fish and insert it into a strawberry, and essentially create an entirely new organism.

In laboratories around the world, scientists sponsored by food corporations are playing God, distorting the natural processes of living things and the environment to create new life and species.

Huge food corporations like Monsanto have invested heavily in this new technology with the hope of profiting from these new genetically modified crops and organisms. Therefore, they patent every new 'discovery' or modified gene and claim ownership over its use. Their intention is that consumers the world over purchase these new GM products, and that farmers start buying GM seeds from them and plant GM crops, as opposed to natural traditional varieties. Evidence shows that they will go to any lengths to force these onto consumers.

In the US and at the WTO, these powerful and influential corporations have forced judgements whereby they are not obliged to label their products as genetically modified.

This means that consumers will not be able to know or determine whether what they are buying off the supermarket shelf has genetically modified ingredients or not.

Consumers have the fundamental right to know what they are buying, and not labeling that a product has GM ingredients violates this right.

Further it violates the religious rights for those with dietary restrictions, and cultural rights for people such as vegetarians who chose to avoid consuming foods of uncertain origins. How will we know that the product we are buying has genes from Cattle or Pigs if the product is not labeled? Product labels perform an important social function between a seller and would-be-buyer. Consumers have a right to question the process that created the product they are buying - such as whether the product was made in sweatshops, not made by child-labour, or if the product is environmentally friendly. Yet GM products are not labeled, because these powerful corporations fear that consumers will not buy their GM food when placed next to organically grown products.

Thus even here in Fiji we may already be buying GM products in our supermarkets without knowing so.

Proponents of GM food insist that there is no scientific proof that it is a threat to natural plant and animal species and the environment, or that it poses a danger to human health.

But the association of Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Application of Science and Technology (PSRAT) points out that there is inadequate knowledge about the long-term effects and risks of these new GM organisms on the ecology and human health, and they are supported by the British Medical Association which last month stated: "We cannot at present know whether there are any serious risks to human health involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food products." Moreover risk studies conducted by food corporations cannot be trusted.

Most of the adverse effects that happen in laboratories or field tests are kept quiet or confidential from the public for obvious reasons.

Among other things, genetic engineering may cause harmful changes in the biochemical processes of living things in ways that are impossible to predict with present knowledge. Once released into nature the GM organisms may spread widely and uncontrollably, and the changes may have very complex effects that could endanger human health and the environment.

For instance, stronger resistant laboratory-made GM crops or species could gradually take over or wipe out natural varieties. Imagine natural varieties of mangoes being gradually wiped out by a laboratory-made mango seedlings with stronger genes. GM crops and non-GM crops cannot co-exist.

Importantly, it must be pointed out that once these man-made organisms are released into the environment and the food chain, they will reproduce, and it will be virtually impossible to control them, or recall them. We do not know what impact this will have on other forms of life such as soil micro-organisms, insects, birds and such.

This is the basis on which the EU has placed a ban on GM food, and presently prohibit its widespread use in their farms. They have put in place the precautionary principle of making GM food "guilty until proven innocent" - as the danger if there was to be a health or environmental impact could be almost impossible to rectify.

Food frights such as "mad cow" disease highlight this danger. Contrary to assertions by the GM industry, there is already evidence of adverse effects and harm to people and the environment from GM food. People have suffered allergies after eating strands of GM corn, and GM crops have harmed the monarch butterfly.

GM crops could see the loss of biodiversity.

The claim that GM food is for the benefit of the poor and a solution to world poverty by producing more food is absurd.

The underlying cause of hunger throughout the world is the unfair distribution of food and unequal trade, not the lack of food. The world already produces more food per person today than ever before, but many of these food surplus is used to feed livestock in the developed world rather than make its way to poorer countries.

Rather, the push for GM crops is seen as an attempt by big food corporations to extend its control and influence over food production. The GM industry is a threat to small farmers in the developing world, and could destroy diversity, local knowledge and sustainable agricultural systems that have developed for centuries.

At the heart of the issue of GM crops is that the GM seeds are not owned by the farmers but by the biotech companies that make them. Farmers who use GM seeds or crops do not own them but have to pay royalties to these companies, or buy new seeds every harvest season.

Hence, once local farmers use this seed, they become dependent on these corporations for their future crops.

Imagine an introduced genetically engineered taro top much stronger than the local traditional varieties. At first farmers may benefit from its increased resistance to weather changes and disease, or that it matures at a faster rate. But after every harvest local farmers will have to buy new tops from the biotech companies, or pay royalties. Not only do they become dependent, but eventually the traditional varieties of taro tops are wiped out by the laboratory produced variety.

Much more can be said but essentially we need to thoroughly assess the risks to our farmers, our biodiversity, economy and health when making a decision on GM food and technology.

Standing on the side of caution as the EU has done would be a wise thing to do.

- Stanley Simpson is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG). The views expressed here are his and not necessarily those of the network.


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