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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Aug 23, 2010 - 8:24:15 PM

Comment - Lisbon Treaty Aftermath: The case of European politicians confusing concerns of "people" with the anti-science opponents of Genetically Modified (GM) food
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Jun 20, 2008 - 10:48:13 AM

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The Lisbon Treaty Irish No campaign leaders have extolled plebiscites as a better form of democracy and have suggested that the "political elites" should reconnect with the people. However, we already have an illustration of European politicians kowtowing to "people" -  in the guise of well-fed activists who object to Genetically Modified (GM) food  - sometimes with violence - and even worst than climate change deniers, they try to sabotage the work of science. As communism well showed, no shade of politics is immune to elites with their motor force of ambition and personal agendas. In the case of GM food, European politicians have taken the easy course and responded positively to an elite group that has scaremongered about the health impact of GM food without any credible evidence, while research that would benefit people in poor countries, is subject to the constant threat of sabotage.

Irish voters who recently rejected the Lisbon Treaty, may not wish to think of themselves as being in the same boat as US President George W. Bush - i.e. multilateralism is fine until it isn't when it suits. Well-fed anti-GM activists who are ignorant of the challenges facing agriculture in tropical countries who can always Google to find some "expert" research to support their views, likewise would not likely be happy to be lumped with climate change deniers but they have a lot in common.  

Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens writes today: "For all the accumulated evidence to the contrary, there are still a determined few who see global warming as the invention of woolly-hatted do-gooders and of scientists who want to be soothsayers. The small band of sceptics seizes on the inevitable imprecision of the effort to predict the future relationship between greenhouse gases and changes in temperature as an excuse to ignore the overwhelming weight of scientific knowledge.

The tactic is familiar, once used to grim effect by those who sought to refute the link between smoking and cancer –if you cannot prove everything, you cannot prove anything. This is a cynical thought perhaps, but I often wonder whether it is entirely coincidental that so many of the climate change sceptics are of a sufficient age to be sure they will be gone before they can be proved wrong."

Swiss Sabotage

Last Friday, a group of around 35 masked intruders destroyed genetically modified wheat being tested by researchers near Zurich.

The presumably well-fed group, used wire cutters to get through the gate into the field at the federal agricultural research station in Affoltern where the tests were being carried out.

In the course of their attack early on Friday morning, they were reported to have threatened three employees of the station with violence if they tried to stop them.

According to the research station's spokeswoman Denise Tschamper, members of the group then trampled the GM wheat plants or cut them down before escaping.

The police were called immediately and soon afterwards arrested five people, two men and three women, who were found near the research station. They were aged between 29 and 39 and all were Swiss.

The research station is conducting controversial GM field trials with Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology and Zurich University as part of a national research programme.

The results of the programme will be used to make informed decisions about whether GM plants should be permitted in Swiss agriculture or no

Anti-Multinational Sentiment

In a Europe of food mountains and wine lakes, European politicians responding to environmental lobbies could indulge in anti-GM rhetoric, much of it motivated by a perception that it was a conspiracy to benefit US multinational Monsanto, which was seen as having a mission to control seed supply worldwide.

Today, a time of food shortages and surging prices, the evidence of more than a decade growing commercial GM crops shows an overall net benefit, in higher yields and lower inputs. There have been reported isolated problems with crop management but no known effects on human health and little impact on biodiversity.

Activists will latch onto a report of no particular improvement in yield in the US for example, but they may have no experience of life outside the comfortable rich world.

There are many more serious threats to the environment than genetic modification. Research on producing a second generation of GM crops, is focused on countering drought and excess salt while improving  nutritional content and flavour in addition to existing advantages in resting pests or herbicides..

Syngenta, the Anglo-Swiss group formed eight years ago by merging the agricultural activities of Novartis and Zeneca, is seeking to take a technological lead in the global market for seeds.

“The fundamental drivers are food and feed,”Mike Mack, Syngenta Chief Executive told the FT. “As people are becoming richer, they can afford more calories by having more meat-based proteins in their diet.”

Mack believes acceptance of GM seeds will continue to grow worldwide. “All the indications are that the GM business is going to become bigger than we ever envisaged in 2004,” he says. “All that scientists have been doing since the late 1990s is replicating in the laboratory what nature has been doing for thousands of years. The European Union represents an area of resistance. But Europe is increasingly an island.”

By preventing public research in Europe, the anti-GM activists are boosting the profits of the multinationals.

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Professor of International Affairs, the New School University, wrote recently in the FT: "As The Gene Revolution: GM Crops and Unequal Development (Earthscan 2007) shows, the truth about GM technology is that the first generation of crops targeted cost reduction (not increased yield) for the big world market crops - cotton, soy, maize - to benefit US farmers. This is not surprising because Monsanto and a few other global companies are leading this technology development. Their agenda quite understandably is not driven by the needs of global food security that must address the needs of poor consumers and producers. Increasing staple food output to keep pace with world population growth and increasing productivity of poor farmers who make up the majority of the global poor is not their priority – as it must be for public agricultural research.

It is the role of public agricultural research institutions to address those needs. But with notable exceptions in China, India and Brazil, most developing countries have eschewed GM technology for lack of resources and international support. In the face of anti-GM lobbies, international development efforts have dismissed this technology. The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research that led the Green Revolution in the 1960s invested just $25m in 2004 in GM research, a mere fraction of the $500m invested by Monsanto that year."

GM is not a silver bullet to boost world food production but European politicians kowtowing to saboteurs is not democracy.

GM seeds now account for almost the entire maize and soya output of the US, the world’s biggest ­producer.

Last November, after France suspended commercial cultivation of genetically modified maize, the Czech Republic became the European Union’s second largest producer of biotech corn, after Spain. At a press briefing in Prague last month, the leading Czech scientists in the field of agricultural biotechnologies called for a rational debate on the issue and for more liberal EU policies on GM in general. Jaroslav Drobník, a professor of biotechnology at Prague’s Charles University, says the EU rules on biotech plants are the strictest in the world.

“Politicians in Brussels follow voters’ concerns, and not rational arguments...EU votes on the issue reflect people’s concerns and never rational arguments for or against,” he said.

The challenge for politicians is how to respond to the concerns of informed citizens rather than the elites across the political spectrum and lobby groups that may well be well-intentioned, but ignorant.

There can also be some public concerns, for example, intolerance of immigrants, that should not encouraged. That is not to say that legitimate concerns do not at times arise in this area as with many more aspects of life.

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