Christian Aid warns of risks of genetically modified foods

By on September 1, 1999

London

The international development agency Christian Aid has warned that genetically modified foods are a threat to farmers in the developing world and, contrary to commercial claims, are not the answer to world hunger problems.

Christian Aid also says genetically modified foods are being released for public sale in the West without adequate research and safeguards. It is appealing for consumers in the West to unite with the farmers of the developing world in a campaign against genetically modified foods.

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The findings appear in a report, Selling Suicide, issued by the London-based charity which is supported by Great Britain’s main Christian denominations.

Genetic modification, whereby the characteristics of a plant are altered by introducing an external gene, is intended to increase resistance to pests or improve desirable qualities. The world’s most famous genetically modified product is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya, which as a growing crop can be sprayed with the herbicide Roundup, although this kills all other plants. Supporters say the technique is only an extension of hybridising plants, which has been practised for centuries. Opponents argue the introduction of genes from other species, even animals, has unknowable consequences and potentially grave knock-on effects throughout the entire ecosystem.

The British Medical Association has demanded an indefinite moratorium. However, a leading British specialist body, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, recently said there was a “compelling moral imperative” to make genetically modified crops available in developing countries to combat hunger, and found no grounds for a moratorium on commercial plantings.

Andrew Simms, author of the Christian Aid report, told ENI: “This is a very pivotal time. Commercial plantings of genetically modified crops have not gone too far yet, but the world will have to decide whether it prefers the dogma of free trade or the precautionary principle (where a technology is not allowed until it has been proved to be safe).” Selling Suicide argues that genetically modified crops are irrelevant to the food needs of the developing world because the technology is focusing on profitable export crops like soya, cotton and tobacco, rather than local consumption crops. In any case, world hunger is caused by problems of distribution and allocation of resources, not a shortage of food. Where genetically modified crops are grown alone, this undermines the basis of environmentally sound mixed planting, while farmers’ livelihoods are threatened by forcing them to buy new seeds each time rather than use seeds saved from the previous planting.

The genetically modified-related policy of putting farmers under contract not to use seeds from previous harvests has already led to lawsuits by the giant seed producers against North American farmers, and has caused outrage in the developing world, where it is seen as likely to lead to mass rural bankruptcies. In India, for example, about 80 per cent of crops are currently obtained from saved seeds. “Seed saving (for later planting) is so fundamental to Indian rural society that any threat to the practice is a threat to the society itself,” says the report.

The seed companies even hope to ensure that seed cannot be saved by producing genetically modified “terminator” seeds, which do not reproduce and therefore prevent farmers obtaining further crops from seeds.

The world’s top five agro-chemical companies control almost the entire global genetically modified market in seeds. The report lists them as: Aventis (France); Novartis (Switzerland); Monsanto (USA); Zeneca Astra (Britain), and DuPont (USA).-

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