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News | Wednesday, 10 March 2010 Issue. 154

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Attack of the killer... potatoes?

The Commission’s decision to allow cultivation of genetically modified potatoes has stirred a hornet’s nest among environmentalists. Raphael Vassallo analyses various reactions to the rise of the so-called ‘Franken-foods’ in Europe

Along with climate change and nuclear technology, few environmental ‘hot potatoes’ are quite as sizzling as the cultivation and spread of genetically modified foodstuffs. For decades the subject of science fiction B-movies and ‘Frankenstein’ inspired horror stories, ‘experimental microbiology’ is now so closely associated with catastrophe and disaster in the collective subconscious, that few would feel reassured to discover that the food they eat (or feed to their pets), may have been tampered with on a genetic level.
But are their fears justified? Are genetically modified GMOs really as dangerous as they are so often portrayed?
Environmentalists like Martin Galea Degiovanni, of Friends of the Earth (Malta), certainly think so. FoE International was in fact among the first to respond when the European Health Commission, under incumbent John Dalli, earlier this month approved of BASF’s Amflora potato, as well as three varieties of Maize, for production within the EU.
In a nutshell, Galea Degiovanni argues that this was a near-sighted decision, which has failed to take into account a number of scientific studies suggesting inherent risks in the cultivation of Amflora potatoes in particular.
“We should be protecting and promoting our typical agricultural products, and not introducing other varieties that can be grown anywhere in the world,” he told MaltaToday. “There is also a growing body of evidence that links GMOs to health risks and loss of biodiversity, among other factors. Simply put, the risks of GMOs are too great to take.”
Like many GMO-sceptics, Galea Degiovanni alludes to numerous studies and case histories which point towards far-reaching (and largely unforeseen) negative consequences wherever genetically modified crops have been introduced.
“Many of the studies conducted so far have pointed out the risks of growing and consuming GMO products. Yet, in most cases, companies would not be liable for any environmental, consumer health or economic damage resulting from GMOs,” he says.
One of the major planks in the anti-GMO argument concerns a genetic modification of corn, undertaken in the USA, as a form of pesticide in the past decade.
The crops were sprayed with a chemical - “Bt delta endotoxin” – through which certain proteins within the plant are geentically altered to become highly lethal to Lepidoptera larvae (caterpillars).
“The biotech industry has widely promoted Bt corn as a way for farmers to reduce insecticides such as the (now banned) DDT,” Galea Degiovanni explained. “Yet studies in the U.S. point out that before the genetically engineered corn was available, only about 2 per cent of corn was sprayed for the insect killed by the Bt toxin. Other analyses have also found that GMO crops have not decreased pesticide use.”
Moreover, statistics strongly suggest that the modified plants have successfully cross-fertilised with other, non-modified varieties of corn.
“According to the EPA, about 19 per cent of corn in North America contains the Bt gene. This is an alarming statistic, especially in the context of the history of the previous solution: pesticides,” Galea Degiovanni adds. “DDT was widely used for decades before it was found out to be highly carcinogenic. Vast forests and whole cities were sprayed with this deadly toxin. The same companies that in the 1960s produced DDT, for the second time in history are now using planet Earth as the testing ground for Bt crops, and GM crops in general. Should Europe and Malta be part of this experiment?”
Galea Degiovanni believes that past experience in the field of large-scale agricultural pesticides, especially in the USA, should serve as a timely reminder of the perils of GMP.
“The EU commission and our local authorities should not repeat the same mistakes and learn from what is happening in countries where GMOs were deliberately realeased.”
In this, environmentalists enjoy vast political backing – and not just among Green Parties such as Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party, which yesterday reiterated its strong opposition to the approval granted by the EU Commission for the cultivation of Amflora potaotes.
“The introduction of GMOs brings about a threat to human health, a risk never to be taken. Whilst Amflora potato cultivation is not intended for human consumption, cross pollination with other non GMOs is a serious threat to consider,” Simon Galea, AD’s Spokesperson for Agriculture and Animal Welfare, said yesterday.
“Citizens’ health should hold top priority above all other interests including those of multinational companies involved in GMOs,’ added Simon Galea.
Even centre-right governments like Italy’s ‘Popolo Delle Liberta’ coalition, traditionally close to major industries, have come out fiercely against the Commission’s decision. Austria has already declared it will ban the use of GMOs on its own soil, while France’s environment minister Chantal Jouanno openly accuses the Commission of basing itself on flawed data.
“We do not recognize their expertise because we consider that their opinions are incomplete,” she said about the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) last Friday. “They are only interested in the sanitary consequences of GMOs, without taking into account their long-term environmental impact.”
However, Dalli himself has defended his choice of direction for the Health Commission, which he defines as one of ‘responsible innovation.”
“A considerable amount of sound scientific work constitutes the basis of this decision,” he said in a Q&A informational press release circulated last week.
“The request of authorisation for the placing on the market of Amflora potato received a first favourable opinion in Sweden that was initially in charge of the risk assessment. While some Member States had objections to this assessment, EFSA repeatedly confirmed the favourable safety assessment.”
Dalli also minimised the risk of unforeseen cross-pollination: “Potato is by nature a crop that poses little risk of spreading into the environment or of transferring its genes to other plants. As outlined in the EFSA opinion: ‘Potato rarely survives outside the cultivated environment and there is no indication of enhanced weediness or invasiveness of the GM potato. Potato has no cross-compatible wild relatives in Europe. Since it is vegetatively propagated and the natural exchange of genetic material is only possible with other varieties of potato, there is negligible risk to the environment of any transgene flow. Therefore, no unintended environmental effects due to the establishment and spread are anticipated.’”
Be that as it may, NGOs such as Friends of the Earth insist that the Commission’s decision was not just morally reprehensible, but also illegal.
“One key argument is that there is a mandatory ban on antibiotic resistant marker genes [explained on facing page] in the EU’s Directive 2001/18,” Galea Degiovanni points out.
This Directive stipulates that: “Member States and the Commission shall ensure that GMOs which contain genes expressing resistance to antibiotics in use for medical or veterinary treatment are taken into particular consideration when carrying out an environmental risk assessment, with a view to identifying and phasing out antibiotic resistance markers in GMOs which may have adverse effects on human health and the environment.”


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