Yes or no to GMO

Zhu Yanling|2013.12.03

I made presentations in two small workshops in Kunming after I came back from India, to introduce how Indian NGOs fight against GMO, which has fierce debate in China recently. All the participants had a lot of discussion on that after presentation. I find some problems during the discussion, as same in India. We will talk about this later. Now let’s start from the beginning:

Genetically Modified Organism is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. This is the definition on Wikipedia.

As a technique, it’s hard to say it’s good or bad, but this technique has fierce persistent debate in the whole world since it shows up, for we are confused with GM technique and GM crops or GM food. I think most opponents reject GM crops or GM food, but some people mix these two concepts on purpose which is easier for them to develop GM crops in the name of developing GM technique. But when this technique is used on crops or other plants and animals, it has uncertain risk on ecology and people’s health. As big experiment fields, Indian people and China people will burden this risk.

From the whole world, GM crops cover 170.3 million hectares areas.  The top five countries with GM areas (million hectares) are USA (69.5), Brazil (36.6), Argentina (23.9), India (10.8) and Canada (11.6), the following is China with the area of 4.0 million hectares. And almost 80% are developing countries in top 30. Most Europe countries don’t accept any GM crops and GM food. (See below table 🙂 (http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/briefs/44/executivesummary/pdf/Brief%2044%20-%20Executive%20Summary%20-%20English.pdf)

Global area of biotech crops in 2012: by country(million hectares)

Global area of biotech crops in 2012: by country(million hectares)

 

I believe that varieties of plants are modified genetically, but we have few resources to know that. Even from the public news on GMO, we can see that cotton (81%), soybean (81%), maize (35%) and canola (30%) are GM kind. Many other GM crops or plants get permits to grow in different countries, like sugerbeet, alfalfa, papaya, squash, poplar, sweet pepper and so on. No doubt that more and more GM crops and plants are being researched by GM companies.

As we mention the GM companies, we can’t ignore and skip Monsanto, which has almost 90% of GM patents in the world. This is an international seed company based in USA. More interesting thing is this company used to be a chemical company, and made the “Agent Orange" and DDT once, the former is used in the Vietnam War and induced serious health problems in this country, even nowadays; the latter is one kind of pesticide with toxic chemicals, so DDT was forbidden by the many countries already.

In 1970’s, this company separated with its mother chemical company and transferred to be bio-technique and started to research GMO, the following story is well known. This company is dedicating to extend GM area in the whole world, including GM plants and GM crops, regardless of possible huge risk of ecology and health risk. We have to say Monsanto is very successful on this job with the absolute monopoly of GM seeds patents, of course, this success is under the help of international “justice" organization, like WB and WTO, and even some expanding ways are not legal. This is the reason that many countries criticize those international organizations on their unfair terms bias on rich countries in the trade, which is also one movement in alter-globalization.

When we search for Monsanto, almost all the results are negative, like what exact this corporation is, how unscrupulous this corporation is. Most of them are protest news and anti-Monsanto movements in the whole world. But even so, this corporation is still alive; we can’t stop to imagine what the background is or who the real boss of this corporation is.

As we said, China and India are their big experiment fields for their GM crops. Let’s see the GM situation in these two counties.

GMO in India

India has vast farmland, even more than China. How could the GM companies miss the perfect trial country?  So many cultivated lands, so big population and weak management.

Indian government was forced by WB to change their seed policy in 1980s and deregulate seed sector, to open the door for Monsanto and GM crops.  Monsanto did field research of GM cotton in 1996, and started to sell its GM cotton seeds illegally to farmers in the following years before they get seller’s permit in 2002. GM cotton seeds were sold as so called “high-yield" breed to the farmers, who would like to choose this new breed without any GM knowledge.

After GM cotton growing for many years, it lost superiority on anti-pests and high yields, besides, price of cotton seeds with GM patent are higher than others, and farmers have to pay much on pesticides, many farmers are suffering with heavy debts. When they cannot pay back their loan, they choose suicide to end this suffering, left the whole family unfed,  which becomes a severe social problem in India, especially in the states with big area of GM cotton growing , like Maharashtra, Andhra and Punjab state.

After the social problem showed up, the researchers did a lot of research on GM, many NGOs started to focus on it and educated the farmers with GM knowledge. I read a story once that an Indian student told his father about GM cotton and the reason the yields are going down year by year after the student got some training organized by NGO, and his father got to know some concept of GM cotton he grew for many years and to know the negative impacts of this cotton.

However, cotton is the only crop that gets permit in India, which can be said a lucky thing for Indian people.  Even so, Indian people are wise to plan ahead to prevent other GM crops growing in India.

There are many protests against GM crops and Monsanto in the whole country.  Besides, the NGOs build seeds bank to preserve varieties of traditional seeds, encourage and organize farmers to grow them, as one method to cope with GM crops and seeds company Monsanto. In addition, some NGOs guide the farmers to grow organic food without chemical pesticide, which is also a way to decrease the cultivation input and save costs for the farmers.

The protest poster from Chethana

The protest poster from Chethana

Firstly, spreading GM knowledge to farmers and consumers through education, like a farmer’s school, as a platform to deliver famers the GM knowledge, the pros and cons of GM, which guarantee the farmer’s right to know. Then farmers can decide which kind of cotton and other crops they would like to grow, of course, they can discuss other issues like climate change.

Secondly, protecting traditional seeds and building seeds bank. I think this is a necessary way to against GMO. India has rich biodiversity, no matter flora or fauna. Seeds bank is a way to protect biodiversity and different choices for farmers. Their aim is to develop traditional crops to compete with GMO on market eventually.

Farmers chose to grow traditional seeds by BIRDS

Farmers chose to grow traditional seeds by BIRDS

 

Also, growing organic food. Organic food is popular in the whole world considering the benefit on health. More people would like to choose organic food, more powerful it is as a method to fight with GM food. Indian people have a harmonious relationship with nature, and they make use of varieties of plants in their daily life and agriculture. Like there’s a kind of tree, named Neem tree, used as pesticide when they process crop seeds or spray on the crops.

I joined in farmer’s meeting in farmer school once. All the farmers participated very well, and discussed traditional seeds. After that, school teacher introduces a kind of duckweed called Azolla. It reproduces very fast, and covers the whole water surface, which can prevent weeds. This plant also can fix the atmosphere Nitrogen and transmit to paddy, which can reduce the use of pesticide and chemical fertilizer. In addition, this plant can feed the livestock and prevent mosquito reproduction. Farmers were very interested on that, and most of them took this kind of plant from test field to their own paddy field.

Farmers are picking up duckweed Azolla

Farmers are picking up duckweed Azolla

After many years’ protests and other endeavor, the government heard the voice of people to resist GM crops, and also they realized the severe social and ecological problems caused by GM crops, therefore, panel of experts appointed by government suggested suspending all the GM crop tests in ten years in August, 2012. Another step is to refuse a patent application from Monsanto in July this year, saying that this company just found one existed property which cannot be approved as a new patent.

Lucy for Indian people, although problems still exist, they avoid GM food because of the endeavor by their people.

GMO in China

China has less GM planting area, but more breeds of GM crops, such as cotton, papaya, tomato, sweet pepper, poplar, even some other crops and food, maybe even worse situation than India.  But the GM development in these two countries is similar. Some international organizations force the governments to change related policies as preparation to open the door for the GM company, like Monsanto; GM companies funded some national seeds company for GM seeds experiment and some institutes to research on GMO; then, started to sell or spread the GM seeds illegally or legally but cunningly; in the end, they monopolized GM seeds to charge high patent tax and get excess profit.

Basically, there are two absolutely opposite opinions in China, Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO, represented by an expert and a famous journalist respectively, and they did fierce debate on GM food.  During the debate, more and more people know about GMO, and express their worry on that. I don’t know the percentage of person with these two opinions, but at least I know whoever knows GMO will resist it around me, they would like to choose non-GMO food in the premise that they know it.

What’s the problem?

During the discussion on the workshop, I find some problems:

Firstly, our right-to-know is missing.

For farmers, they were not told about the GM knowledge by the experts, or the government or the company before they purchase it. The GM seeds were sold to them as regular new crop breeds. Except that, farmers were given seeds for free in the beginning several years as the GM seeds spread in some areas, after then, farmers lost their own traditional seeds and have to purchase high-price GM seeds from company. So, who kidnaps farmers’ right to know on GM?

For consumers, we have limited information sources to know which kind of crops and foods are GM breeds, in other words, which kind of crops get permit from government. During the discussion, I found that our information are not same, I searched from internet, there’s a report from ISAAA showing that we have GM crops like cotton, papaya, tomato, sweet pepper, poplar, but some participants said we have other GM plants like potato, maize, soybean, even some illegal rice, which means we don’t have official notification that which kind of GM food or vegetables or plants get the permit.

Secondly, our regulator’s roles are missing.

I was asked how to avoid GM food by myself, and I was really got by this question. Although China is said to require labeling GM food, but most of us never see the label.  We have “without GM" label on some oil, definitely I choose this kind of oil, but I really don’t know how to avoid other GM food. Firstly, I don’t know what GM food we have. Secondly, they are never labeled by government or regulators, though China has rules to label the GM food, how can I know which kind of food or vegetables are GM, and how can I avoid this GM food?

Also, I believe that there is still big population who doesn’t know exactly what GMO is and what are its negative impacts, which I was asked by friends. My answer is that I can’t say GM food is dangerous, but it has uncertain and potential risk to our health and to ecology. GM food is lack of long-term experiments on human, so many Europe counties refuse any GM ingredients in their food, and GM companies choose many developing countries to do the human experiments on GM crops, especially some countries with weak management, like China and India. As their slogan: Indians are not Lab rats. As the same to Chinese.

In addition, we can see that the process of GM crops development is led by government in these two countries, they never ask for people’s altitudes on GM but experts; however I don’t think experts are neutral because of the research fund from GM companies. The right of decision making is missing in this process.

The most disappointing thing for us is that we don’t know which the proper way is to express our attitude to against it or to impact decision-making of government. Firstly, protest is forbidden. Secondly, there’s no platform for people to express their opinion in reality. So, most people just express their voice on line, which is considered irrational, rude and know-nothing voice by experts, and usually will be ignored when the government made policies. But who has the right to make policy to decide what kind of food on the table eventually, the government, some “important" person on political consideration, or the people? The answer is obvious, but the reality goes against the obvious answer actually.

Our appeal on GMO

Based on the problems referred, our appeals as follows:

Make information transparent. Inform people what kind of GM crops we have or what kind of GM crops got permit for commercial growing. Tell us what kind of potential risks that GM has. This is the basis to solve with other problems.

Make label on GM food officially as government committed, respect people’s choices on GM food or Non-GM food.

Respect people’s right on decision making on GMO. Ask for people’s attitude on GM food, and then make decision carefully.

Experiences from India

Though we have differences between India and China, for example, Indian farmers usually have many farmlands, they can choose part of their lands to grow traditional seeds and still can guarantee their income, but in China, every family has limited farmland, they don’t want to risk family interest to grow traditional seeds with lower outputs, which is a big challenge for China NGO and farmers. Also Indian people delivered their attitude on GMO through protest, which is a powerful weapon for the people to fight for their own rights and got a favorable turn already. Although we can’t protest it on the street, but still we can get some experiences from Indian NGOs to show our opinion against GMO as referred in spite of different situation.

I know some China NGOs are doing the similar work.

Green peace China has focused on China GMO for many years; they promote public discussion on GM, supervise illegal process of Monsanto and related institutes to spread GM plants in China and educate public on GM knowledge, which is very important endeavor.

Many other NGOs are developing organic food, organic market and organizing farmers to grow local seeds considering food security, they connect farmers and citizens. At first, many citizens think the organic food is very expensive, few of them would choose it. But nowadays, more and more consumers would like to choose organic food or vegetables with fear of severe food security problem, even it’s much more expensive, and organic food has bigger market in cities. This is a very good hint that even farmers choose traditional seeds with lower output, they still can gain the same or more benefit compared with GM crops, then more and more farmers would like to grow traditional seeds. This is a sustainable way to protect local traditional seeds and crop diversity and to against GMO.

But this is far enough; we need more education to people on GMO. We need more endeavor on seeds preservation like India; we also need more experts to research on GM food risks and more debates on GMO.

We need our government return the right to people to say yes or no to GMO.

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