Calls by Labour minister Ruairi Quinn for Ireland to remain GM-free are scientifically misinformed and short-sighted, writes Tom Smith
It seems that the ‘frankenfoods’ controversy will just never go away. Don’t the big bad bioscience corporations such as Monsatan (sic) know that we, the EU consumers, don’t want potato plants with monkey heads growing out of their tubers? Besides, won’t GMOs damage our fine nation’s marketing prospects as a “green” food island?
The latter is a question which would have come to mind after a high-profile press conference last month, at which Ruairi Quinn of Labour tried to pick up some green votes by agreeing that Ireland must remain a “GM Free Island”, for the sake of its marketing evolution into a sustainable food-exporting paradise.
Aside from the irony that most of the participants are avid “local food” advocates, who would never before have taken the slightest bit of interest in Ireland’s export prospects, such arguments warrant a number of addenda:
- The shift of the anti-Genetic Engineering (GE) campaigners to arguments based on socio-political and economic issues such as exporting clearly displays the weakness of the environmental / human health arguments which have been common currency up until now. (Furthermore, while there may indeed be socio-political issues regarding, for example, intellectual property and corporate control, these aren’t unique to the food system. Just take a look at the pharmaceutical industry! What more do campaigners expect from a capitalist, profit-driven economy?)
- The vast majority of Ireland’s exports are as bulk commodities and regardless of whether we’re considered ‘sustainable’ / GM-free or a nation of alcoholic leprechauns, etc. won’t make a difference to this.
- The calls for sustainability-based marketing imply that organic and GE are incompatible. This simply isn’t the case, as demonstrated, for example, by the organic farmer / plant geneticist duo of Ronald & Adamchak in their beautifully-written book Tomorrow’s Table.
- The change in legislation which has provoked such calls for a “GM-Free Island” was simply the idea that what is currently a zero tolerance threshold should be moved up to 0.1% tolerance of GE “contamination” in animal feed (yes, that does say 0.1%).
- Nature doesn’t work in zero tolerance purity, something which has been acknowledged previously by the EU whereby organic farmers can have up to 0.9% GE “contamination” in foods destined to be eaten directly by humans.
Participants at the press conference, worryingly including someone who is now a government minister, seem not to see the environmental and human health benefits which GE cultivation can bring, on large and small farms alike. For example, the enabling of carbon-sequestering zero-tillage farming reduced environmental impacts of pesticides and herbicides, reduced land usage etc. Perhaps they should talk to the Chinese cotton farmers whose lives have been saved by reduced pesticide exposure, for example. Becoming a sustainable food island, and being true environmentalists, would surely involve consciously encouraging such developments, rather than taking the juvenile position of just trying to shut ourselves off from what is a very heterogeneous technology?
So what’ll it be Labour? Will the new government take a rational, science-based position on GE or will Ruairi Quinn be attending more misinformed events for the sake of image? Will they attempt to show consumers, who’ve been influenced by blatant distortions of reality and Frankenfood scare-mongering, that GE food has been eaten safely by hundreds of millions of people for decades?
Maybe then environmentalists and the wider public can get back to challenging the things which are, on a daily basis, actually destroying our health and our planet.