More Heat Than Light Shed on GM Corn

Genetically modified (GM) corn has ballooned into a major source of debate between the United States and Mexico. However, the public has a surprisingly muddled grasp of the situation. Respected news agencies have drawn completely opposite conclusions from the same NAFTA research report. According to this columnist, confusion is only natural, because the safety of GM products is not the real point of contention. Instead, powerful players like the biotech corporation Monsanto and the environmental group Greenpeace have transformed the GM issue into an arena for a moral debate over corporatism. What are the true issues? On the one hand, Mexico is one of the world's largest repositories for corn species and, as such, should protect the integrity of those genetic strains. Adopting GM products, however, could improve Mexico's comparative advantage in global produce markets and solve agricultural problems for impoverished farmers. –YaleGlobal

More Heat Than Light Shed on GM Corn

Kenneth Emmond
Tuesday, November 30, 2004

"Genetically modified (GM) corn in Mexico poses a potential threat that should be limited or stopped."

"Genetically modified corn is not likely to contaminate the Mexican countryside."

Each of these contradictory statements is part of the lead sentence of separate stories carried recently in The Herald about the same NAFTA research report on potential effects of imported GM corn on Mexican production. One is from The Associated Press, the other from The Washington Post News Service.

Both go on to say the report urges caution and more research, but the difference in approach from two respectable news agencies shows the complexity of the GM issue. It shows why it's hard for us non-scientists to filter out facts from the white noise.

What are we to make of the GM issue? Who do we believe? Should Mexico import GM corn? Should Mexican farmers get on the worldwide bandwagon and start using GM corn, or GM cotton, or GM soybeans, or GM rice?

Ranged on one side are the producers and sellers, led by Monsanto. Our reasons for being skeptical of their conclusions are obvious: they want to sell GM seeds.

They are right when they say genetic engineering is solving some thorny problems. By tweaking plant genes scientists are creating a quantum leap in world food productionapacity, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides adding nutritional value to crops, and extending crop-growing areas with strains tolerant to cold, drought, and salinity. They accelerating the solving of problems plant breeders have been working on for thousands of years through gene selection.

On the other side, focusing on the dangers of the technology, are the environmental activists, led in this case by Greenpeace.

They describe real concerns: the potential contamination of gene pools, the possibility of life-threatening allergies to some consumers, and fears that this new branch of agriculture, dominated by private interests, will run amok in the absence of more testing and strict regulation.

In some quarters it's heresy to question the motives of groups like Greenpeace, but like the world's Monsantos, these groups have extracurricular agendas too.

They perform a useful service alerting non-specialists to environmental dangers, but they are not white knights out to save the environment as they like to be depicted.

Patrick Moore, a disaffected co-founder of Greenpeace, left when he concluded that "the environmental movement has been hijacked by political activists who are using green rhetoric to cloak agendas that have more to do with anti corporatism and class warfare than with ecology or the environment." He says its tactics are "not just politics but propaganda, misinformation, and sensationalism."

Extreme? Perhaps, but when was the last time you heard Greenpeace reporting good news? We know what it's against, but what useful alternatives does it offer?

Among its dire predictions about the consequences of introducing GM plants there's nary a word of praise about reduction of the use of insecticides and pesticides. It's been decrying these ever since farmers increased usage after adopting zero tillage techniques to control yet another environmental danger – soil erosion.

Nor do activists pause for breath when they're wrong. One of their most eminent practitioners, Paul Elrich, predicted in the 1960s that within 20 years, 60 million Americans would starve to death. Today, 60 million Americans are fighting obesity but Elrich is still doing the rounds of talk shows.

The confrontational strategies are designed to oppose but not to solve problems, to halt projects but not necessarily to better the human condition.

Had environmental activists been around in 1900, we might still be carrying out environmental impact studies on the Panama Canal!

They worry about agribusiness profits, but so what if Monsanto makes billions of dollars if it solves billion dollar problems?

Prof. Jonathan Jones, a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain and a plant breeder, offers some balance: "The public (and indeed scientists) need a much clearer picture of what modern agriculture actually involves so a rational comparison can be made between conventional farming, 'organic' farming, and the benefits of GM-assisted agriculture."

Getting back to genetically modified corn in Mexico, a leading concern is that imported GM corn could contaminate non-GM strains. This is important because Mexico is the world's leading gene repository of corn.

That said, the thousands of poor Mexicans struggling to produce enough to eat on tiny farms or rooting for leftovers in a Macdonald's garbage dump can be forgiven for not wanting to wait.

Meanwhile, wisely or unwisely, Mexico's competitors are adopting GM agriculture with a vengeance: China, India, and now Brazil. Sooner or later Mexico may be tempted to get on board.

Last week Mexico's Congress was on the point of finalizing a bill to regulate GM research and production, but with the NAFTA report, it decided to give itself another few weeks to think it over.

That is wise: With all the heat surrounding the issue and so little light, there's little wonder if Mexico's decision makers are having a hard time getting it right.

Kenneth Emmond is a freelance journalist and economist who has lived in Mexico since 1995.

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