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From Missouri To New Zealand
The politics of genetic engineering
In February of this year, Bill Christison, the president of both the National Family Farm Coalition and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, traveled to New Zealand to testify before that country's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. He spoke as a member of an international panel assembled by Greenpeace New Zealand. His contribution revealed the connections between a genetically engineered (GE) soy bean in Missouri soil, a human gene in a GE research cow in New Zealand, protesters strapping themselves to a grain freighter in the waters of the Huaraki Gulf, and the spread around the world of corporate monoculture food production.
The Royal Commission's hearings are significant because for the first time a country is deciding, in advance, whether or not to allow genetically engineered commercial crops. At the beginning of the now-concluding, yearlong hearing process, New Zealand declared a moratorium on both GE field trials and the introduction of commercial GE crops.
Bill Christison sees the U.S. experience with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in context of failed U.S. farm and trade policies and a wild west atmosphere of GE crop production. In the U.S., 60 percent of the processed foods in the grocery stores are made from genetically engineered soy, corn, and other crops and they are not labeled as such. Ninety percent of the world's GMOs are produced in the U.S., but, adopting the biotechnology companies' notion that GE crops are “substantially equivalent,” the government does nothing to regulate them. Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is co-owner of the Terminator Technology patent and that technology's sterile seeds could effectively end the generations-old farming practice of seed saving.
Bill Christison points out that U.S. farmers are asked to produce below the cost of production and many go bankrupt—at the rate of 500 a week. Under this kind of pressure, promises by companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, and DuPont that the use of GMOs will lead to high yields, low weed and pest control costs, and better quality crops have lead many farmers to plant GMO. But the results have been poor yields of Roundup Ready soy and failed Bt cotton crops. Bt corn has negative effects on the soil structure. Non-GMO fields have become contaminated by wind-blown GE pollen. In addition, trade has been severely damaged because European and Japanese consumers don't want to buy GE products. For example, export sales to the European Union dropped 31 percent for October/November in 2000. The Starlink corn “mistake,” where GE corn not approved for human consumption was used in food for human consumption and had to be pulled, has cost farmers billions of dollars.
With this background, Bill Christison joined the other members of Greenpeace's panel, in Auckland, then traveled around New Zealand to speak with farmers, community, and government leaders to learn about New Zealand's movement to be GE free. Also on the panel were Norwegian virology professor Terje Traavik; Anuradha Mittal, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy; Professor Doreen Stabinsky, a U.S. Greenpeace science advisor; and Jonathan King, a professor of Molecular Biology at MIT and an expert on patent disputes.
The Role of Maori
The Aotearoa New Zealand movement against genetic engineering has its roots in the Wai 262 claim. This claim was filed in 1991 by six Maori tribes before the Waitangi Tribunal for recognition and protection of the cultural and intellectual rights to indigenous flora and fauna and the traditional knowledge, customs, and practices related to the flora and fauna.
The Waitangi Tribunal was established in 1975 after 10-20,000 people marched the length of New Zealand's North Island to parliament to protest the continued sale of Maori land. The Waitangi Tribunal is considering 900 Maori claims dating back to the 1840 Waitangi Treaty between Maori tribes and the British crown.
In the context of GE, the Wai 262 claim addresses the main tool of the biotechnology companies—laws that permit them to patent life, whether it be an already existing plant or animal or one that they genetically engineer.
In a recent parallel development, Maori in the Waikato area filed an appeal to a decision by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) in 2000. A decision from the High Court is expected soon and it will be the first time there has been a ruling on a decision by ERMA on matters affecting GMOs. The case involves genetic research in which human genes were implanted in genetically engineered cows in a research center located on Maori land.
Nuclear Free, GE Free
In the late 1970s and 1980s, another political environmental movement developed in New Zealand—the nuclear free movement. Part of the process towards New Zealand's eventual declaration that it would be nuclear free was a Royal Commission of Inquiry, though, as Jeanette Fitzsimons, co-chair of the New Zealand Green Party, and a member of parliament, says, “My view of the Royal Commission into nuclear power was that the valuable thing was the process not the outcome. Because, in fact, New Zealand as a society had made its decision long before the judge got around to issuing his recommendations.”
In order to get a Royal Commission established, 100,000 signatures were collected in nine months. Grass roots organizations such as RAGE (Revolt Against Genetic Engineering), the Green party, and Greenpeace held rallies and ran campaigns around the country. The Commission was established on the same day that the ERMA human/cow engineering appeal was filed.
In Fall 2000, Greenpeace New Zealand started a grassroots campaign targeted at companies involved in importing GE crops into New Zealand. Annette Cotter, a GE campaigner for Greenpeace says, “One of the big areas that we were working on within that part of the campaign was animal feed because 60,000 tons of GE soy meal comes into the country each year and is fed to our chickens and our pigs. Tegel uses about 50,000 tons a year so we specifically focused on Tegel and their main customer, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). (We are) working down the supply chain to insure that they go GE Free.”
Greenpeace also carried out a number of actions that focused public attention on the GE issue. One that achieved international attention was the December 2000 boarding of a freighter bringing soy meal to New Zealand. Four Greenpeace activists took a dinghy out from Greenpeace's yacht, the SV Rainbow Warrior II, to international waters in the Hauraki Gulf outside of Auckland and boarded the Federal Pescadores. They tied themselves to the anchor chain and the fore and aft cranes. On their website, Greenpeace reported that “at the formal hearings for the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, a representative from the Feed Manufacturers Association confirmed that there are currently no guarantees that soy imported from the United States is GE free.”
On March 1, 2001, Restaurant Brands, New Zealand, which operates the New Zealand outlets of Pizza Hut, KFC, and Starbucks Coffee, announced that it will be working with its suppliers to eliminate any remaining genetically engineered material from all its ingredients and animal feed.
The Impact on Trade
Ships bring agricultural products to New Zealand, and ships take agricultural products out of New Zealand—and the impact on trade by GMOs is one of the major concerns of New Zealand's farmers. Peter Clark, an arable farmer in Southland province on the South Island says, “From a marketing point of view, we multiply various seeds for overseas countries and I believe that if we bring genetically modified seeds into the country it'll ruin that market and that market is more valuable than producing genetically modified commodity crops.”
Russell Simmons, an organic dairy farmer in the Waikato area of North Island says, “The reason why (I'm concerned about GMOs) is because part of our organic certification to meet a market is that market requires us to be free of GMO's. For that very reason, of meeting the market, we can not afford to let GMO's anywhere near our farming environment.”
Ian Henderson, a mixed crop, biodynamic farmer in north Canterbury province on the South Island, says “You know the experience in America and you know what's happened with the Starlink corn and the Japanese refusing soya. There are disruptions to trade right now as a result of (GMO) being present and not being adequately separated or identifiable.”
After several meetings with New Zealand farmers, Bill Christison said, “There are a number of farmers that we talked with that think that the future of New Zealand would be better served to go the organic route and to keep genetic engineering out of the country and therefore be a world leader in exporting non-GMO products.”
Dangers to the Environment
But concerns about the market were not the only problems highlighted by farmers. Robert Saunders, another Southland farmer said, “It's the unknown. We still don't know the long-term effect.... My concern is that I like to think that when my children or grand children come to farm this property I haven't harmed it in a way that they can't make a living off it.”
In an interview, Greenpeace scientific advisor Professor Doreen Stabinsky said, “In terms of the crops that have been released, the effects that we have seen varied from soy beans whose stems crack in the heat because of the unpredictable increase in lignin content to cotton plants whose bolls drop off for no apparent reason. And I think they still don't know why that happens. (There's) corn pollen that kills monarch butterfly larvae and probably other related larvae. And corn plants that exude pesticide into the soil. It's been shown that the pesticide then remains in the soil for over 200 days. That wasn't predicted and wasn't tested for.” There's also “super weeds” where cross-pollination leads to herbicide resistant weeds, such as has occurred in Canada where GE oilseed rape plants are grown.
Both Stabinsky and Terje Traavik repeatedly said that evidence collected during the development of genetic engineering so far shows that its results are unpredictable and that once the genetically engineered life forms are released into the environment they cannot be brought back. The process is irreversible. One of the most well known of the biotech company appeals is that GE seeds will not only benefit farmers economically, but they will increase food production to such a level that world hunger can be done away with. They say also that the latest generation of GMOs, like Golden Rice, can stop Vitamin A deficiency blindness among the poor.
Both Bill Christison, who produces food and represents farmers in Missouri (MRCC), around the U.S. (NFFC), and the world (Via Campesina) and Anuradha Mittal, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, made the point to the Royal Commission that farmers already produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The problem they see is corporate control of food distribution, of food affordability, of access to food. Genetic engineering, according to their statements, will further decrease seed and plant diversity, foster monoculture corporate farming, and add to the precariousness of farmers by forcing them to pay fees each growing season for patented seeds. Similar, Christison said, to the contract relations already developed in the U.S. between farmers and poultry and hog processors.
Anuradha Mittal said in her statement on the subject of Vitamin A rice that the promises of high vitamin A content were overblown and the dangers of GE rice unknown. She said the focus on Golden Rice would further diminish the diversity of rice strains and eclipse attention from vitamin A providers like green leafy vegetables.
MIT professor Jonathan King spoke to the Royal Commission about how corporations like Monsanto, Novartis, Astra-Zeneca, Aventis, and DuPont are using genetic engineering, in combination with patent laws, to control the production of food worldwide.
Often, the first targets of patent laws are the indigenous peoples of the world and their connections to their environment—whether they be the flora and fauna of Aotearoa New Zealand, the neem tree of India, or, as the Scientist reported on their website on February 19, 2001, the gene pool of the people of the Pacific nation of Tonga.
Since this article was written, the Royal Commission finished its deliberations and issued a series of complex findings that Annette Cotter of Greenpeace NZ summed up as “sitting on the fence.” She went on to say that the Commission “marginalized public opinion, ignored Maori views, and basically left the decision up to the government.”
However, there has been a huge backlash to the Royal Commission's findings. On September 1, over 10,000 people marched in the pouring rain, through downtown Auckland demanding a “keep it in the lab” government policy and a GE free New Zealand. This was the biggest march in New Zealand in 20 years. At the same time, a grassroots movement has developed appealing to local governing bodies to declare their jurisdictions GE free. The Green Party, with several members in parliament, has a GE free policy. The Alliance Party, the junior partner in the New Zealand government, recently declared that it was for no release. The Labour Alliance government is expected to decide on New Zealand's GE policy by October 31, 2001. Z
Nic Paget-Clarke is publisher of In Motion Magazine. an online, multicultural, U.S. publication about democracy (www.inmotionmagazine.com).