Archived news articles - 2003

The Straits Times, 25 June 2003

Of GM food and greed

THE long-term safety and benefits of genetically modified (GM) food crops are important but infant issues, best left to scientists to work through.

But governments just cannot leave the matter alone. The larger an agrochemical industry or farm sector there is to promote, the more extreme the positions they take.

Hence, Europe resists the encroachment of food biotechnology, for both genuine safety concerns and the continued prosperity of its pampered farmers.

The United States, as the front runner in GM-crop production in maize and soya bean, takes the calculated position that gene-spliced foods are safe. With that as the departure point, no matter how premature and suspect, it is natural the US wants to expand its market share to GM-resistant regions. That is pretty much most of the globe.

This week, the US again hoisted up Africa's starving as an issue to press its case for wider acceptance of GM food. President George W. Bush told an agri-technology conference in California that 'unfounded, unscientific fears' of European nations were hampering research in high-yield, disease-resistant crops and worsening the famine in Africa.

A week earlier, talks to open up the European market to GM items failed, and an American complaint is soon to be filed with the World Trade Organisation.

Where does truth end, and obfuscation begin?

Is it conceivable that health and safety can come off second best in a contest with mercantilism?

Mr Bush is doing no more than what he was elected to do - promote US interests - when he tries to prise open the European market. There should be no shame in acknowledging that US agrochemicals and seed firms like Dow, Monsanto and DuPont need to expand markets to make up for falling export revenues.

It actually supports the US position that Europe has its own comparable agrochemicals giants in Novartis and Zeneca-Astra, which are waiting for the day when the European Union (EU) moratorium on GM organisms is lifted.

But lobbying should be honest and based on good science. Citing the African famine is cynical and dishonest. It would not advance American credibility abroad.

Both America and Europe have abundant food surpluses, little of which have ever found their way to relieve starvation in Africa. Between the two, Europe spends more of its budget on foreign aid.

That does not absolve it of the surplus grain, milk and other dairy produce that go to waste on account of its generous farm subsidies, but the EU has played the GM issue straight. To the Europeans, it is not about altruism but the fundamental question of safety.

American industry and governmental claims are based on negative evidence, meaning a decade of GM-food ingestion has not turned up scientific evidence of ill effects to humans, or damage to soil ecology and contamination of other crop genes.

Hence, the extraordinary Bushism that the EU is being 'unscientific' in holding that GM science needs patient empirical study before it can be pronounced conclusively as safe.

But how could one determine the illnesses or deaths that could have resulted from the mutations introduced into the food chain via foreign genes?

There is a simple riposte to the US stand: Until epidemiological studies turned up proof, there was 'no evidence' that cigarette smoking was injurious to health. It is likely GM science would satisfy most safety criteria in good time. That would be a boon, a second Green Revolution.

But good science is based on positive evidence from experimental observations, not speculation based on 'no evidence' of harmful effects.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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