THE RECENT DECISION to give the go-ahead to field trials GM potatoes in Carlow set off a little storm of debate over the scientific benefits (or not) of GM crop cultivation. However, the introduction of GMOs into the Irish environment is a bigger issue than just a question of ‘making the right decisions based on sound scientific research’.
GM crops are highly politicised, because they affect the relationship our society has with the production of food to feed its people – and for those of us here in Ireland and Europe lucky enough to eat three square meals a day, that means nearly everyone. An issue which affects our food system, our environment and the livelihoods of people working in our food and agriculture sectors is an issue for all of us. And that means it is political, and not just a question of good or bad science.
Citizens and farmers have expressed their opposition to GM agriculture. Consumers across Europe have reiterated their opposition in Eurostat polls and through direct action on GM crop fields in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. In Europe and internationally La Via Campesina, the world’s largest movement of farmer’s organisations which counts on upwards of 300 million members, has repeatedly rejected GM technology. So if farmers – who produce our food – and consumers who eat it are opposed to GM food and the agricultural model it represents, who exactly is pro-GM?
The answer of course, is the companies which stand to make huge profits from any expansion of GM agriculture, transferring the control of seeds and food production from farmers and consumers to transnational corporations and industries and surrendering all public or community control over what kind of food we eat and who benefits from its production. This means not just seed companies, but fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide producers and international trading agencies. This process is already under way – 10 companies now control as much as 70 per cent of the seed market. It is a process which must be reversed, not facilitated by the Irish government and its agencies.
On top of this, GM crops are patented. They are the intellectual property of the companies which develop them, meaning farmers cannot save the seed from their own crop. In extreme cases (such as in Canada) farmers whose crops have been contaminated by GMOs have been forced to pay royalties on their contaminated seed. Even in Europe, the ‘polluter pays’ principle has been reversed, as organic farmers have been forced to pay to test their crops for GM contamination.
In Ireland unfortunately the debate seems to centre around the issue of ‘scientific progress’ as government and public figures appear to believe that the rejection of any new technology will make them seem conservative or lacking faith in scientific advancement. This position perhaps comes from a wider malaise in our society which seems to assume that science can do no wrong. Science has a vital role to play in our society, but it should focus on solving the cause of problems, not continuing to only try and mitigate their effects.
The problems we now encounter internationally – be they climatic instability, hunger, biodiversity loss or economic and financial crises – cannot necessarily be solved solely by science alone. Often what is required is the reorganisation of our society’s structures and systems so they place priority on sustainability and the common good as opposed to profit – and not the application of the latest techno-fix. GM crops are not necessary, and numerous viable alternatives exist.
Ireland is ideally placed to implement agro-ecological, input-free farming systems which can produce high quality as opposed to high quantity food for the Irish people. This means rejecting the paradigm of GM agriculture and embracing agricultural systems which work with as opposed to against nature.
Internationally (including in the Civil Society Mechanism of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN) the tide is shifting away from a heavily industrialised, input dependent model of agriculture. Instead the move is towards local, agro-ecological (low to zero-input) farming which supports food for people, not profits for private interests. Irish citizens – and our government – need to think long and hard about what social or economic benefits GM farming can provide in the short, medium and long term to our little island, let alone to our children and grandchildren.
A decision to grow GM crops – be they in a “controlled trial” or not – means Ireland turning its back on the idea of a future where farmers work with their environment and not against it, and where communities, citizens and farmers ensure that healthy food is produced for with and by the people who need it.
Our food and agricultural systems are too important to be left in the hands of transnational corporations. The food we eat and how our society produces it are issues we all need to be aware of. GM is no exception – it affects you too.
Fergal Anderson is a member of La Via Campesina.