Neither Obscurantist Nor Illiberal

Recent attacks in the Italian media and the appeal of those scientists who support ‘unfettered scientific research’ in praise of the ‘magnificent results and progress’ that GM crops will ensure for humanity require an effort of clarification on the part of Slow Food.

What is it we are fighting for?

We want clear and definitive regulations for the cultivation of GMOs on Italian soil and respect for the principle of caution. The legislation put forward by the Minister for Agriculture, Giovanni Alemanno, entitled ‘Regulations for the coexistence of transgenic, conventional and organic crops’, that discussed on November 11, goes some way in the right direction and we therefore request that the Government expresses its approval.

Such a position is entirely compatible with the European Parliament Resolution no. 2003/2098 of December 18 2003, point 3 that ‘… calls for uniform and binding rules to be established without delay at Community level on the coexistence of genetically modified crops on the one hand, and non-genetically modified conventional crops on the other hand …’ and at point 4 ‘calls on the Member States, in implementing Article 26a of Directive 2001/18/EC, to take legislative measures swiftly to safeguard the coexistence of genetically modified conventional and organic crops…’.

Therefore, we do not wish for the prohibition of GMOs but rather for the regulation of their use.

We have been accused of being illiberal but, we would argue, is this not a fight for liberty?Civilised society is founded on the establishment of shared regulations based on the social activities of humankind. Individual freedom ends where the freedom of others begins or, in other words, when the actions of the individual encroach on the rights of fellow beings.

Let us examine how this relates to the problem of GMOs: it has been demonstrated that these crops can contaminate adjacent conventional or organic crops. Therefore, in order to guarantee the rights of ‘traditional’ farmers to continue along their chosen path, the neighbour who opts for GMOs must implement some regulations that will prevent contamination. Where this does not happen, and the farmer is damaged, should it not be possible to identify someone who is responsible for providing compensation?

The label of ‘liberal’ does not condone the disregard for regulations or the lack of respect for the rights of others – practices indicating a reversal to the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest… or it could mean that GM crops, planted randomly on Italian soil, will put at risk our heritage of biodiversity and the specifically typical foods that constitute the added value of our agriculture.

The scientists who have signed the appeal against the proposed legislation have categorised the above as ‘obscurantist, ahistorical and unscientifi’c, confusing Science with its more direct technological applications which, as history dictates, are sometimes both imperfect and damaging for humankind and the environment.

Scientific research is currently neither forbidden nor curtailed, as they would like us to believe; but we would like to see the regulation of the direct and large scale application of this research.

Why such indignation and so many accusations?
We are not questioning the value of scientific research. Given the importance of the subject that embraces ecological equilibrium, the conservation of biodiversity and the health of humankind, we would hope that scientific research could be effectively widened and strengthened encouraging the participation not only of those companies producing GMOs, but also the members of the farming community upon whose shoulders fall the main consequences of choices for the future. Can the expectation of transparency and widespread representation of those promoting scientific research really be called obscurantism?

There are other scientists who are more cautious.
The scientific world has not yet arrived at some universal agreement on the consequences of a generalised and widespread introduction of GM foods into our diets. Some authoritative sources predict the existence of concrete risks for human health. Are we to be considered as ahistorical when we demand that GMOs be subjected to the same regulations that are used for the commercialisation of pharmaceutical products – given that these too are products of the laboratory for our consumption? Can it be considered as unscientific if we request that the effects of these new technologies be tested over a reasonable period of time?

Those supporting the immediate and unregulated introduction of GM crops have promoted, at length, what can only be described as an apology for these kinds of plants and seeds. Initially, the reason behind this was that GMOs, thanks to their greater yield capacity, would solve the problems of world famine. Experiments in this field have, however, proved the opposite: it has still to be explained how access to sufficient food will be achieved by the cultivation of GM crops when that same access has been so systematically denied to so much of the world until now.

Subsequently, attention was diverted to the phytochemicals used in the cultivation of conventional crops: GMOs would produce these automatically and would therefore have a ‘low environmental impact’. This solution became redundant when consideration was taken of the problems created by the interaction of plant products with other ecological factors.

A further argument claiming that transgenic organisms could save many traditional and typical products from extinction was introduced. However, the crisis that so many of these products are undergoing is not caused by their lack of resistance to disease and other attacks but rather to their lack of commercial competitiveness with those mass produced. To claim that a typical product has been saved by giving its name to a GMO is completely unsustainable and merely proves how alien the concept of ‘typical’ is to the men of science.

There has been a general escalation in the arguments put forward: today the most fashionable concerns mycotoxins(the aflatoxin B1 produced by Aspergillus flavus on maize being an example).

Moreover, it has been stated, with alarming nonchalance, that ‘pesto is cancerous’. Such a ridiculous claim is hardly even worthy of note and it is enough to delegate the defence of this product to the Ligurian institutions who are engaged in gaining Dop recognition for it.However, we should direct our attention to mycotoxins of which very large family aflatoxins are only a rather small clan. Aflatoxins are effectively cancerous and are formed from fungus and mould that insinuate themselves into fractures in grains of maize caused by various means. Should an insect break the cuticle of the grain in order to deposit its eggs in an atmosphere where the fungus is present, it is highly probable that the fungus will insinuate itself into the fracture and mycotoxins will be the consequent result. The same thing can occur if the fracture is caused by hail or other external agents (birds, pressure of various kinds, storage in silos …) These miniscule fractures, whatever their cause, obviously happen much more frequently after the product has been harvested than when it is in the field.

Transgenic maize contains a substance that acts against insects but not against the attack by fungi.

This means that GMOs will not be damaged by insects but have still no defence against mycotoxins produced in the fractures caused by other means.Therefore, to claim that GMOs forestall the presence of mycotoxins in maize flour and in the milk of cattle fed on maize is simply a way of confusing and alarming the consumer who is clearly considered as incapable of understanding.

Slow Food has recently launched a campaign in support of Alemanno’s legislation and, through the Association and the producers and restaurateurs of all shapes and sizes who share our ideas, called for a widespread demonstration on November 11. On this date, Italian taverns and restaurants served polenta and pesto as a way of ironically and practically responding to those who accuse these products of being cancerous. More than a hundred supported the initiative.

Slow Food Press Office
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