Monday, May 11, 2009
A group of thinkers, mostly scientists, meet in Rome on Friday at the invitation of the Vatican. For four days, they will discuss not what’s good for the soul, but the stomach and mother earth.
Specifically, the gathering will discuss viability of genetically modified foods. The conference demonstrates the interest the issue is generating, sometime acrimoniously.
The conference comes soon after two announcements: production of a maize strain containing three vitamins, a first, and a failed court case in Germany over a genetically modified maize strain. It’s a product of Monsanto, a US biotech company.
Monsanto, L’Enfant terrible to anti-GM brigades, fights to maintain its near total monopoly of GM products. It wanted German Agriculture minister Ilse Aigner’s ban of one of its maize strains lifted. A German court said No! last Tuesday.
The European Food Safety Authority considers the strain safe. However, Ms Aigner said it harms some insects.
Late month, PNAS, the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, reported European creators of the 3-Vitamins maize saying their methods surpass conventional one in nutrient yields. A supposed beneficiary would be the usual suspect of human ills, sub-Sahara Africa.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, defended the Rome conference. He said GM protagonists use “a lot of propaganda.” He added: “And for exactly that reason, some scientific clarity is needed.” However, the Vatican isn’t seeking data to justify a magisterium, or ruling.
Essentially, to produce genetically modified foods, scientists engineer genes in order, in the case plants, for them to acquire specific traits. The traits can be against weed, insects, to produce additional nutrients like vitamins or to withstand certain weather conditions.
The genetically modified plants don’t reproduce. Whoever makes them owns a patent, now glorified to “intellectual property right”. The foods nobody is jumping up and down against are also modified, but through selective breeding.
To a farmer, seeds for both types cost money. The main difference generally is that a farmer can save seeds from most conventionally modified plants harvest for replanting.
Producers of genetically modified foods talk a great deal about feeding the world. However, cumulatively, food shortages don’t exist in the world. For example, has anybody ever heard the UN World Food Programme complaining about food shortages? It complains about lack of money to buy it. That goes for the hungry. They’ve got no money.
For Monsanto et al to proclaim from mountains tops about feeding the world, is rubbish. Growing food for sale yes! Creators of the 3-Vitamins maize say their operation is humanitarian.
Presumably, someone somewhere will dish out free seeds to farmers in sub-Sahara Africa. More rubbish.
From an economic point of view, the hungry will remain hungry, with or without genetically modified food. It’s up to governments to rid their countries of causes of poverty and to fight monopolies like Monsanto.
Logically, development of genetically modified food is valid. If scientists can develop a rice strain that would flourish in the Sahara Desert, what’s wrong with that? However, of what use if only a few can afford to buy the rice?
There’s a catch, however. Genetically modified foods are relatively new phenomenon. Most of their effects on other organisms or the environment, remain mostly obscure. That shouldn’t cause worries though.
Drugs doctors prescribe are scientific concoctions of all types of organisms, chemicals, metals, ad infinitum. However, these drugs are tested to as high a degree of safety as is possible. That’s what needs be done with genetically modified foods. Away with hullabaloos!
L’Osservatore Romano newspaper recently offered advice on GM foods debate saying, among other things, it should be “faced without dogmatism and with common sense and responsibility…” That’s reasonable.
Copyright 2009 Nation Media Group (NMG) Limited
Source: The Daily Nation