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Thursday, January 16, 2014

GMO Food Debate - to be Informed or Not...





I am relatively new to the GMO, Monsanto issue.  For some reason, it has completely flown past my ‘must find out more and be informed’ radar.  Like most, I’ve seen snippets of the debate and I’ve seen posts alluding to it on FB.   I did however believe that it did not apply to NZ, and that the debate over GMO was not a big deal here.  Furthermore, I wasn’t aware of what Monsanto is, let along why it should be a cause of concern for Kiwis. 

Then, just prior to New Years, a friend sent me a link to a concerning Food Bill that is currently making its way through parliament.  food bill  He wanted to know if I knew anything about it.  The implication from this bill is that it will take the right to grow food away from the average Kiwi, and potientially make it illeagal to save seeds and barter seeds – something any good gardener in NZ prides themselves in doing.   At the time, I thought this was preposterous, and couldn’t be legitimate.  As it was from 2011 I felt it must be wrong.  But, it’s been niggling away at me since. 

In an effort to be more informed, I decided I would take a little look into it as there seems to be more and more posts about Monsanto and GMO, and instead of scrolling past, I figured it was about time I found out more.  The more I read, the more I can see links to the Food Bill.   On top of that concern, as a family we are getting more and more into our ‘clean eating’ and ‘juicing’ regime, and it behooves me to know where our food is coming from.  You hear terms like GMO and GE being bandied around, and I confess that I have been quite misinformed in my understanding.   Add the unease I have over the ‘Food Bill’ and it is timely to do some research. 

Lets start with the basics – I am confident I am not the only one who has been idly scrolling past GMO posts with little to no idea what the big fuss is about.    Please note, there is screeds of information out there and I appreciate this is turning into a LONG read – so feel free to skip to the bits that are pertinent to you. 

The Basics


Who is:

Monsanto – Monsanto is an American based multi national company that trades in chemicals and biotechnology.    They have been forefront leaders in LED technology and were known, in the past, for the production of toxins such as DDT, PCBs, Bovine Growth Hormone and Agent Orange to name but a few of their more controversial products.  More recently they are known for their pioneering work in agriculture, in particular genetically modifying plants.  Their business model which  includes biological patents, and the various litigation cases and lobbying they have been involved in, have made things controversial.  

What is:

GMO – Genetically Modified Organism.    This is where an organisms genetic material is modified using genetic engineering.  They are the source of genetically modified foods, but are used in the production of other items.    There is much controversy over GMO foods – at present the majority of food that is GM is applied mostly to crops that are commercially lucrative, such as soybean, corn, canola and cotton.  Incidentally this technology has been applied to animals, but from what I can find out, to date none of these animal products are available in the market place. 

GE – Genetically Engineered  - see above. 

Issues with Genetic Engineering:


So, what’s the big deal, I hear you ask? 

Apparently, according to all the articles and information around GM and GE, the key issues are;

Food Safety – those who are anti GM foods claim that GM food has safety issues associated with it.  The producers of such food counter claim there is no evidence that GM food is unsafe. 

Labelling  not all countries label GM food.  The GM producers don’t want their food labelled (which raises questions in itself).    Advocates of food labelling argue that consumers can find out if our food is glucose free, has MSG in it, and we can read about the fats and sugars, yet we are unable to know if it is GM.  Alternatively, companies like Mansanto suggest that if they label their products, then the public might think they are unsafe.  

Ethics of Ownership and Monopolising the Market – GM foods are currently monopolised by very large multi national corporations such as Monsanto.  Concerns around business practices, biopiracy and controversial monopolisation of seeds, bring this issue into the forefront of the debate. 

Contamination of Traditional Food Sources – some of the critics of GMO relates to the contamination of traditional crops, with concerns that not enough research or investigations into the impact this has on world food sources, has been undertaken. 


Here’s my take on the issues:


Safety of GM food:

This one is not so clear-cut.  It is dependent on what you read and which side you take.  Some research shows it to be safe, and others question the safety of the GM food.   The World Health Organization publishes an interesting fact sheet on the matter, which you can read here. WHO

I do know it raises some questions that leave me a little uneasy.

What’s interesting to me, is that GM food is breed to be resistant to various insects and viruses.  To do this, they need to infuse the plant with a gene that permanently  produces a toxin (one similar to that used in traditional insecticides) so that it is resistant to insects and viruses, thus requiring less chemicals during production.    My wondering would be, if the plant is producing this toxin, and we are eating it, are we not digesting more of the toxin than we would if it was sprayed traditionally?  I admit, I’m no biochemist, but its sounds counter intuitive to me.  A toxin – and I don’t care if someone deems it ‘safe’ – is a toxin. 

One ‘story’  (and although its been reported on sites like Greenpeace and in various articles, I can not verify if its fact or fiction) is that Monsanto bans GM food from its own canteens.  If this is fact, I would wonder why.  greenpeace

Labelling:

I want to know what I am eating, and I want to know where it comes from.  As the consumer spending the money on the product, this is a basic right.  End of. 

If you the manufacturer  (cue Monsanto here who are desperate to ensure their products are exempt – read their statement here monsantos view , in particular point 3 under ‘At a glance, our view’) are lobbying so hard to ensure your products are not labelled GM, then I would ask you this.  

If they are safe, what are you worried about? 

As a consumer, it concerns me more that you don’t want labeling.  I would wonder, what are you hiding?  What risks do you not want uncovered?  You see, if you knew your products were safe, you would lead the charge to label your food and you would be proud to shout your products from the rooftops.  To hide your company’s involvement suggests to me that you are wary, and you have something to hide.  Automatically, me, the consumer, wants nothing to do with your product.  It implies something unethical is going on, and that makes me nervous for my family. 

Fortunately, for the most part, NZ has such labeling, but some foods are not labelled.  You can find out more here:  MFE


The Ethics of Ownership and Monopolising the Market

I have some questions and wonderings around how ethical it is for huge (and by huge I mean mega huge) multi national companies like Monsanto (and others) owning the rights to seeds and food production. 

If you take what happened in India into account (reports of high debt, seed sabotage, farmer suicide and monopolies), you are beholden to the company.   You can read more about the controversy in India here: Criminal Case against Monsanto   and here:  India - Opinion Piece

In an effort to be balanced, this is Monsantos PR Spin on the issue. Monsantos View

It flies in the face of traditional practices of saving your seeds and replanting.  Under this business model you can't do that – you will be sued.   You must buy new seeds each year, and pay heavy licensing fees.   If you are found growing these seeds without a license you will be dealt with severely – and there are stories of farmers in the US facing big issues from Monsanto who has taken many farmers to court when they found out seeds from GM farms had cross pollinated with non GM farms – by accident.    

In summary, seed ownership by multi national companies where they hold the monopoly flies in the face of a competitive market place that allows for niche producers such as organic farmers.   I for one, want choice of what I buy and I want to know how it was produced. 

Contamination of Traditional Food Sources:

You know this is a real issue for traditional and organic farmers when there are numerous sites and articles that offer advice on how to protect their crops from contamination of GMOs.  

As a consumer interested in where my food comes from and the way its grown and produced, it is my opinion that it would be a disaster if all our world food sources were to be contaminated by GMOs.  When you hear the stories of the multi nationals like Monsanto suing farmers for contamination that was not their fault, you wonder about where this will all end.  For organic and traditional farmers and for the home gardener.   I mention the home gardener here, because Kiwis are a nation of peoples who love to garden and produce their own food.   Imagine the outcry if you were unable to do so.  

NZ has extensive bio security laws and protections in place – introducing GM seeds into our food production makes these protections pointless. 


Additional ‘Food for Thought’


Is Monsanto in NZ?

Yes, it trades under Seminis NZ, which it took over in 2005.  Monsanto has offices in NZ.  The product ‘round up’, is also a product Monsanto produce, which Yates was licensed to distribute – this distribution is now with Tui.  Monsanto_New_Zealand

My thinking on this is that the buyer beware.  Be aware of the seeds you purchase and the implications of the pesticides you use.  Now that I know more, I feel I can make an informed choice.  Incidentally, my informed choice will be to avoid Monsanto products.

Does NZ Grow GM Crops?

Not commercially.  From what I have read about how companies like Monsanto are monopolizing the world food production, I would imagine it is not too far off.  The largest resistence to growing GM foods is consumer distrust.  In addition, it is a marketing issue for NZ – our food in European shelves are labeled GM Free – this is a huge marketing plus for NZ and  one we need to take cognizance of.   Thus far, NZ Scientists have worked hard to develop MAS (Marker Assisted Selection) technology, which uses gene science to target better breeding.

Disappointingly, I read an article from the herald that stated we needed to grow these crops.  (see below) I would caution the following – NZ has a clean green image.  We are an agricultural economy, and we have led numerous technological advances due to our ‘number 8 wire’ mentality for decades.  Kiwi farmers and agriculturalists are going to be better off doing it the ‘kiwi way’, and keeping the multi national companies out of our business.   This is not even a 'greenie' issue - apply business logic 101 to the argument of what is good business for us and logically it makes little sense to allow GM based seeds to ruin that image. 

Is there an Alternative to GM?

Here in NZ (see above) scientists are working with MAS, which allows them to do all the same things that GM does but without the same marketing risks.  GMO work is not consistent with the clean green image of NZ. 

Leading the research in this area would seem a no brainer to me – and a great opportunity to pursue. 

Finally:


In final summary, you can see this issue is complex, and there is much debate that surrounds it.  What I have learnt, and what it leaves me with, is that my unease about all things GMO is well placed, and instead of lessoning it, it has grown.

I feel its important to be informed, to know what is in my food and to understand the practices (agriculturally and business) that underpin its production.  

I am all for research and development, and I feel NZ has a role to play in leading the world in terms of sustainable practices.

Ethically, in my opinion,  it is inappropriate for a small group of large multi national companies to control the worlds supply of food, its seed deployment and its scientific development.    One of the biggest issues our world faces is its ability to feed the people – this kind of monopoly should concern us all.  

It really concerns me that scientists have developed a plant (a plant we eat) that naturally creates its own toxins to be resistant to insects and viruses.   How much research has been done on the safety for humans that eat this plant?  

I still have questions around the bio security of other plants and insects.  What happens to insects like Monarch Butterflies if they sup on milk weed that has been contaminated by pollen from nearby GM Corn - corn that is resistant to insects?  Could this wipe them out?  What about other plants.  Does it reduce their ability to reproduce, and could it create a 'super weed', resistant to everything?  

What happens to allergies?  Could we be creating new allergies?

It frustrates me to be left with more wonderings than answers.  But here in lies the key.  When we are left with many questions, few answers, and the consequences of science are unknown and unprepared for, then I wonder at the folly of going forth in the way that companies like Monsanto, and the Governments that support them, have.  When you look at how much of the worlds food is now produced with GM seeds, it is a concern that in the pursuit of big bucks, the research and consequences have not been followed through.  What legacy does this leave our children, and their children?

How you feel on this matter is up to you.  I would urge you to do the research and be informed.  

As for NZ - I hope we keep that gate shut - and that we do not bow down to the might of a greedy corporation - our economy and our future will be better off without it.  

Eat well people, and prosper.  

    


For More Information:
Food Bill:

Center For Food Safety US

Review of Food Safety and GM

Plant and Food Research - NZ

Sustainability NZ

Opinion Pieces 
Should NZ Grow GM Foods?

Dominion Post 

GE Free NZ Site 

Southland Times Article (NZ)

Washington Post 

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