NEWS

Who will control the patents if genetically modified organisms become a central part of our everyday lives?

A typical advertising strategy is to create a situation where «customers» are summoned to discuss a supposed problem, which either does not exist or has been defined in such a way that the only solution is to get the product manufactured by the people who initially set the question. Such a method freely avails itself of popular science in order to win public toleration and acceptance, before the strategy is pushed at all levels. In the case of genetically modified foods, the two large segments of public opinion, consumers and farmers, are bombarded by arguments that: – Weaken people’s resistance to the possible dangers posed to both man and the environment; – Arouse in consumers/citizens feelings of guilt over world hunger and project a scenario whereby the adoption of GM products will eliminate both hunger and guilt; – Create desires for super-sandwiches that will cut cholesterol, enable slimming, increase life expectancy by 300 percent, improve sexual performance by 1.324 percent and will cost nothing; – For farmers, everything will be rosy; – The cost of production will drop; – The work of growing crops will be much easier – a simple matter of spraying crops that have their own fungicides and insecticides, and are utterly immune to every form of disease as well as weed-free; and – These crops will also be highly resistant to extreme environmental phenomena (very high or low temperatures, salination and drought). This tale has been spun so well that anyone who attempts to enter the fray and tackle the arguments set by the debaters is lost beforehand. Turning GM foods into the solution for all ills has been nothing short of ingenious. But it also depends on the piecemeal approach to agriculture, food and the environment adopted up to now. It’s a simple process: Instead of laying out for the public the entire crisis of agriculture, food and the environment, it’s broken up into fragments, and for each fragment of the problem, there’s a panacea. The overall problem, however, remains unsolved. Nor are we summoned to explain why we created it in the first place. Policymakers are some of the biggest victims of these methods. Unfamiliar with the problem yet wanting to seem up to date, they enter the debate on terms set by its organizers and, irrespective of whether they declare themselves for or against, serve their strategic purpose, which is to break the problem down into separate parts. I have a professional and scientific interest in genetically modified foods. I have been following the debate closely and I have been persuaded that we should not join the debate on GMOs on the terms set by its organizers. DDT fiasco I am convinced that we have here a repeat of the story of DDT, which, when discovered (in 1939), was shown in commercials as so safe that beautiful girls even washed their hair in it. A few years later, they were tearing out their hair over the consequences to man and the environment. The argument that GMOs will solve world hunger is another subterfuge. Even if we accept that everything is rosy in the garden and that food will become cheaper through GMOs, I would want answers to the following questions: a) How will this «cheaper» food be paid for? b) In what way, by which method and through what policy will the food be distributed, so as not to disturb the existing global balance of trade? If these two questions are analyzed before launching into a discussion on whether GMOs are cheaper and better, it will expose the groundlessness of the whole argument. World hunger is not a question of quantity, but of distribution of resources. There are basically three agricultural arguments in favor of GMOs: a) Lower costs of production; b) A simpler cultivation process; and c) Resistance to extreme climatic conditions. As is well known, agriculture, like every production activity, rests on production factors that could be summed up as follows: 1) Land, that is the totality of natural resources such as soil, plants and animals, genetic material, climatic conditions, water, sunshine, and temperatures; 2) Labor, which involves manual work and also professional input, meaning the choices a farmer will make to become more competitive like when to sow, water, and prune; 3) Capital. The more the factor of land (as defined above) contributes to production, followed by that of labor, then the more competitive agricultural production is. The more the product relies on capital, then the more agriculture as a basic socioeconomic activity is diminished. To put it simply, the issue is who will own the means of production. This is what the whole debate is about. Will we have an agricultural sector where the farmer will participate in the unique game of the creation of life by combining freely given goods, such as genetic material and natural resources, or will we end up with the macabre scenario in which the farmer will do piecework on behalf of GMO production companies? Control over production Without ignoring the known dangers of genetically modified foods, it is wise, especially in this land-rich country, not to get into the GM debate on terms negotiated by the organizers. First of all, we need to ask: If we accept that GM products are OK, and we will have lower costs of production, greater resistance, etc, can someone tell us if the GM patents will be free? And as the answer will be no, we should continue: «But then would we be surrendering our professional rights to a GMO oligopoly that will one-sidedly control prices of genetic material? Given that food is our first and foremost need, people will agree to anything in order to eat.» Automatically, the question takes on other, sociopolitical dimensions. We need to focus on that side in order to counter the ostensible philanthropy of GM supporters. «Who will control the patents? Who will have production rights?» If we agree on this, then we can go on to argue for a rejection of genetically modified organisms for reasons of environment and public health. (1) Spyros Kachrimanis is president of the Panhellenic Association of Fruit and Vegetable Growers (PENOP).