Knowing less and less about more and more

From a soybean plant in Greece to a ministerial meeting in Brussels: the future of our food is being decided

Feature story - 26 November, 2002
Last night was a particularly gruelling one for the crew of the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza. We maintained our day-long blockade of the "Greek Oil Mills" soybean-processing factory in Greece. Our demand: that Greek Oil Mills and other European grain importers stop importing genetically engineered (GE) grains for animal feed and processed foods. Regardless of the legal threats and potential costs, we chained ourselves to machinery in some very dirty, rat-infested, cold and smelly buildings -- in shifts all through the night and day.

Activist chained to a conveyor belt at the Greek Oil Mills plant in Ahladi, Greece.

But the activities of this plant, it must be said, are still perfectly legal in Europe. As the European Council of Ministers of Agriculture meets in Brussels this week to decide on new legislation about labelling of animal feed and refined food ingredients made from GE products, perhaps it's time to recall why consumers around the world are closing the door on the failed experiment of genetically modified crops.

Watchmakers in boxing gloves

They probably yelled "it's alive!" when the crude, trial-and-error process Monsanto researchers were working on finally yielded the first live and growing transgenic plant in 1984. It was quite difficult to keep the newly invented plants alive, as plant cells tend to behave uncontrollably when pieces of genetic material from, say, jellyfish or viruses are inserted into them at random.

From one perspective, genetic "engineers" have actually very little idea of what they are doing. Human understanding of the way genes code for the growth and functioning of living organisms is still, even by admission of the scientists who work in this field, very rudimentary. The daily routine of your average genetics lab is enlivened now and then by a totally unexpected result from an experiment that was intended to do something else. It's a case of, as Lewis Thomas wrote, "knowing less and less about more and more".

Nonetheless, millions of dollars were spent on research, and ten years later the biotech industry was lobbying heavily for approval of commercial planting of GE crops in order to recover their investment. Regardless of the many uncertainties about what would happen if they let these creations loose, the US Environmental Protection Agency relented, and published a historic paper stating that genetically modified plants were not fundamentally different from natural ones.

Long-distance relationships

Heavily marketed and pushed onto farmers, GE crops caught on mostly in the US and Argentina, which together comprise 90% of GE acreage today, effectively becoming enormous laboratories for the brave new technology. More than half a decade of large-scale releases of GE crops has clearly shown that environmentalists were not being paranoid after all when they warned about this being a new form of pollution, and a self-reproducing, irreversible one at that.

Having evolved to have long-distance sex, plants share their genetic code through pollen, borne over long distances by wind or insects. In Canada, herbicide-resistant canola weeds are beginning to develop into a major weed problem in some zones. In Mexico, although genetically manipulated corn has not been allowed to be grown since 1998, scientists have found contamination of traditional varieties from genetically modified corn. And there are fears, that plants with foreign genes to confer them resistance to herbicides could pass on this information to wild relatives, leading to the development of 'super-weeds'.

New adventures in eating

Which brings us back to the fundamental lack of knowledge about how genes work. The creation of genetically manipulated plants involves the insertion of a foreign gene at random into the cells of an organism. The way in which these genes interact with other genes in the plant is largely unknown.

The fact that plant cells are manipulated to produce compounds from organisms that have never been eaten, brings the issue of allergies or toxicity to people that may not be uncovered until much later. Bearing this in mind, regulatory authorities in the US did not allow a variety of GE corn known as StarLink to be sold for human consumption. Starlink was made to produce its own insecticide and there were concerns of what effects this compound could have if humans ate the corn directly. Alas, two years ago, despite special safety measures, it was found that StarLink corn had found its way into taco shells and other food products, and food had to be withdrawn from supermarket shelves on a large scale.

If in doubt, hope for the best?

This stopped StarlLink cold in its tracks. But even if it had not got out of control, it would still be used for animal feed. The effect on humans of meat or milk from animals fed with GE feed is largely unknown, and concerns from consumers remain unanswered by regulatory authorities. Sound familiar? As the "mad cow disease" crisis evolved the fact that there was no absolute scientific proof of danger to humans prompted British policy-makers to say that there was "zero" risk to people.

The ensuing disaster proved that decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty must lean towards precaution. Possible harm from GE food may take years to be detected, and the effects could be irreversible once the genes are out in the environment.

The meeting

The ministers meeting in Brussels must set an example to the world. Biotech corporations will likely deploy their lobbying and arm-twisting machinery during the meeting, but the ministers must respond to the desires of their citizens and impose strict rules on the import and labelling of genetically modified foods.

European Agriculture Ministers should ensure that new legislation provides full transparency and decision making to the consumers and that there will be no loopholes to allow GE products in through the back door.

The owners of Greek Oil Mills met with us today and said they sell non-GE soybeans. Our tests, carried out on samples taken from their silos on a mobile lab on the MV Esperanza say otherwise. Proper regulations would insure consumers are sure about what ends up on their dining table.

Unscrupulous importers must stop bringing in genetically contaminated material through the back door. There is absolutely no need and no wish from the consumers and the vast majority of the food industry for Genetically Modified Organisms.

But until the regulators listen to our voices as consumers, there will be more and more of us chaining ourselves to conveyor belts on this and other plants and spending uncomfortable nights... simply demanding our right to eat natural, healthy food.