Weeklog Kartika Liotard: Manipulated Spuds...

9 March 2010

Weeklog Kartika Liotard: Manipulated Spuds...

Kartika LiotardLast week I was in New York for a UN women's conference. But you can't turn your back for a minute. By the back door, a decision was taken on the cultivation of genetically manipulated potatoes and the sale of GM maize in the EU. And I still haven't had an answer to my parliamentary questions of 22nd February on the subject. The spokesperson for the European Commission had explicitly reassured us with the announcement that no approval was in the offing. The first actual personal policy decision taken by European Commissioner for Health and Consumers John Dalli was the liberalisation of the cultivation of potatoes whose genome has been altered. This member of the Commission, who comes from the potato-growing island of Malta, has the improvement of public health and the safety of foodstuffs in his portfolio. In my view, food that has been tinkered belongs in neither category.

No pressure

In a press releasefrom the European United Left (GUE/NGL – the international group in the European Parliament to which the SP is affiliated), I call the unexpected approval "shocking". It shows the hypocrisy of Commission President Jose Barroso, who is defying public opinion, which is against the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When the European Commission's spokesperson solemnly declares that no-one would have his or her opinion subject to pressure when it came to GMOs, you have to be on your guard. It means, you see, the opposite of what you might think: Brussels wants to put no obstacles in the way of producers or the member states. Innocent members of the public who want to avoid these products will just have to emigrate. The United Left group asked for a debate this Monday at the Strasbourg plenary, but the centre-right and centre-left groups used their combined majority to block the proposal.


It's no ordinary farmer who has been given permission to cultivate such potatoes, but the multinational BASF. The world's biggest chemical giant, with 100,000 employees, is meddling with our spuds. The variety in question is a charming little tater called Amflora. The company has been lobbying for thirteen years without success before finally coming up trumps in Brussels.


The claim is that the EU has looked into every safety aspect of these GM potatoes, but shocked environmentalist groups are wondering just what this means. Will the spuds be kept out of the food chain? Because they will be used to make starch? Don't make me laugh. As everyone - or at least everyone who doesn't work in Brussels – knows, after every harvest some potatoes inevitably remain in the land as 'sports', re-germinating and growing again, and these can mix with crops intended for consumption. And a GM Amflora would no doubt look just as delicious on the end of your fork as a locally-grown Bintje or a spud imported from Malta.

Accepting risks

Every genetically manipulated product forms a risk for the environment and for human beings. The political question is, therefore, just what risks are you willing to accept? That should be a democratic decision. If humanity stands to gain enormously from an innovation, from say a medicine, then in my view the bar can be set rather lower than it can in a situation in which substitutes are available. For the production of starch there are of course other varieties of apple around which can do the job.

No frontiers

BASF wants to begin commercial production right away, this year. That their Amflora won't find their way directly into the food chain is open to doubt. The company writes that human consumption is not foreseen, but this is very different from saying that it could not occur as a side-effect, and they have not said that consumption can be ruled out. The EU will also allow Amflora waste to be used as animal feed. If animals eat the stuff and people or other animals eat their meat or drink their milk, then they will be consuming the Amflora. That member states are allegedly 'free' to decide whether wish to liberalise the cultivation of these potatoes means nothing in a European Union 'without frontiers'. Greenpeace fears that remnants of the novel potato plants will come directly into the environment, reducing the effects of antibiotics.

Antibiotic- resistant

Op 11th June 2009 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a positive report on the antibiotic-resistant “test tube potato”. But the safety of long-term consumption is not guaranteed. Worse still, no research has been conducted into this. It is not only the cultivation of Amflora by BASF, but also the sale of GM maize by Monsanto, which has been liberalised by the European Commission. And as far as Dutch Christian Democrat farm minister Gerda Verburg, who offered no resistance whatsoever in Brussels, is concerned, the spuds can go straight into the ground, buried, presumably, alongside the concerns of environmental organisations who warn of the dangers of antibiotic resistance. So all I can do is sit and look at this decision, as it's written in bold type that the European Parliament can exercise no further influence on the matter.

Why resist?

GMOs are fatal to biodiversity. Once planted they compete with local crops, consigning them to oblivion, and dominate the ecosystem. The insect resistant GMOs guarantee the poisoning not only of target pest species of creatures which are harmless or beneficial. The special agricultural poison which you must use if you cultivate GMOs – 'crop protection' – creates many victims amongst untargeted species. So it can be stated, for example, that the recent collapse of bee populations was caused, in part, by excessive use of agricultural poisons. (See also this news release from 2008


Perhaps the worst of this, however, is that GMOs almost always enjoy the legal protection of a patent, because they are the intellectual property of the multinational which sells the things. This means that they almost always occupy a monopoly position on the market for the relevant product, with all the negative consequences that this implies. In addition, the GMOs can often be produced only under licence, so that the farmer must pay dear for the right to use them.

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