Benedikt (Benny) Haerlin has worn many hats in the fight against genetically modified organisms (GMOs): campaigner, journalist and politician to name a few. Back in the early days of the GM issue, he served one legislative period (84-89) as Member of the European Parliament (Green Party, Germany), where he specialised in genetic engineering issues. He founded the Gen-ethic Network in Germany in 1987 and worked for several years as International Coordinator of Greenpeace International's Genetic Engineering Campaign. He is now coordinator of the ‘Save our Seeds' campaign, which is trying to keep GMOs out of the European seed supply. Here he offers some perspective on where the GM foods issue has come from and where it is headed.
What was going on the world of GM food when you first became interested in it?
When I first got in touch with the issue, in 1986, the world was still free of GM food. In the US the first deliberate release was executed in California: men in white full protection suits were spraying a bacterium called “ice minus” on strawberry fields with the idea of protecting them from frost. A nearby Christmas tree farmer led an initiative to stop these releases. The product was the Pseudomonas syringae bacterium which had a gene removed which produces a protein that acts as a crystallising agent for ice formation. People were concerned that if the bacterium escaped into the clouds, it would not rain anymore. Later this type of “ice minus” bacterium was found to exist naturally. The first big dispute over GM products was over Bovine Growth Hormone, a drug used to force increased milk production in cows. It is still on the market in the US but was never approved in the EU.
During your time as a Green Member of Parliament, what were you working on ?
Probably the most important piece of work was on the famous Directive 90/220 regarding the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment, which was the ‘mother' of all dedicated GMO legislation in the EU and its member states. To identify Genetic Engineering as a specific type of risk that needs to be legislated was a big breakthrough, (something that has never happened in the US). In the last vote of the Parliament before I left we lost a vote to impose a five year moratorium on releases by only one vote. It was rewarding to see such a moratorium implemented nearly ten year later by the EU member states. One surprising revelation for me at the time was that concerns about GMOs spread through nearly all political groups there and that with a certain degree of competence and common sense it was possible to prevent their rushed introduction. We were laying the groundwork then for the widespread rejection of GMOs throughout Europe.
In your eyes, how has the GM food debate shaped up over time - what have been the main challenges, successes and failures?
When we first started to publicly argue against the release of GMOs into the environment and their use in food, the public's reaction was “That's outrageous!” The gut feeling that genetic engineering is something unnatural, which humankind can probably not properly control, has persisted over the past 20 years. Over this period GM research has become more and more sophisticated and scientists have learned a lot more about molecular biology - only to find out that they ‘know' much less about the ‘book of life', DNA, than they thought they did. It has shaken even their most basic understanding of what was thought to be fact.
On the other hand industry agressively insists that GM plants are absolutely safe and the call of the future, because they have invested billions of dollars in this venture. Their influence has been so pervasive that a whole generation of GM scientists now dominate academia in the field of biology. Yet the only market returns so far in agriculture are from two products: herbicide resistant Roundup Ready plants (mainly soybeans) and Bt-plants, which kill maize and cotton pests. None of these products have gained international acceptance and GM crops have created big problems for US and Canadian exports and agriculture. Monsanto's share value fell by 50% and the dream of integrated ‘Life Science' companies has been dropped. All that is left is four huge agrochemical multinationals who are promoting GM seeds. Investments in agricultural GM technologies are drying up and the GM companies are all suffering losses in their seed businesses.
What are the main challenges ahead to keep GM food out of our food supply?
The biggest challenge now is probably the issue of seed contamination with GMOs. GM seeds turn up in supplies of conventional seeds, seeds are planted from GMO contaminated food exports, especially maize. GM companies argue that this is “nature at work” and it is impossible to control the ubiquitous spread of those GMOs. We urgently need proper laws to prevent this from happening (see box).
The other challenge I see is whether Asia will introduce GM crops or not. Today there is only significant commercial planting (of Bt cotton) in China. India's first commercial crop of Bt cotton seems to have failed miserably. But governments there are eager not to be left out of what they still perceive as the technology of the future and the GM transnationals are concentrating their efforts on these markets. The Asian context is very different from the US and Argentina and Canada, where big farmers have adopted this technology as a kind of convenience product for their industrial farms. The battle in Asia is about the sovereignty of small farmers and whether their agricultural systems will be converted into industrial agriculture producing cash crops and commodities for the wealthy, or whether they succeed in developing their own systems to feed and create livelihoods for their own people. Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and DuPont are pushing for patent laws and GM technologies, which would allow them to fully control the seed business in the region. International institutions and development organisations are investing heavily in GM research and development in the region, arguing that GM crops will feed the poor. Unlike the industrialised countries, in Asia it will be up to the farmers to decide whether the technology will be spread or rejected.
What are your personal challenges now?
The “Save our Seeds” initiative will continue and I see good chances to win this issue here in Europe, and also in the context of the international Biosafety Protocol later on. I have recently joined the Foundation on Future Farming in Germany, which finances the development of organic seeds and promotes organic future technologies. We can't wait for the GM companies to take over all the seed business and then ask them to produce the seeds which are really needed. We must organise this ourselves and that is a very long term challenge for the decades ahead. I am also very much engaged in the international discussion about the right choices for research and development. I am personally very interested in promoting sustainable solutions in addition to opposing the introduction of GMOs. What are the seedlings for the future?
What are the implications of the current debate on GM food aid n Southern Africa?
I think the discussion about GM contamination of food aid in Africa epitomises
what we can expect from the GM industry and the US government in the future:
“Eat our GMOs or die”. It is outrageous, especially when the lives
of desperate people are taken hostage for the forced introduction of GM crops.
I have the impression that many African governments have understood this message
quite well and are going to take preventive measures for the future. And I hope
the international Biosafety Protocol will play an important role in this context.
I cannot believe a UN organisation like the World Food Programme could simply
ignore this agreement as it has done for the past seven years.
SOS Save our Seeds
On the 14 October 2002, a delegation representing more than 300 European environmental, farmer and consumer organisations and 70,000 individuals from 25 countries handed a petition entitled ‘SOS Save our Seeds' to two EU Commissioners. The petition demanded that the new EU Seed Directive guarantees a contamination level of zero for seeds planted in Europe. The current levels proposed in the Seed Directive would allow between 0.3 and 0.7 percent of genetically modified organisms in conventional seeds without having to be labelled. These levels would result in a large scale growing of genetically modified crops in European fields. This would mean that one in 150 seeds planted by farmers could be GM without them even knowing.
Agricultural ministers and the European Parliament only recently seemed to wake up to the vast implications of the proposed Directive. The Commission has promised to redraft the Directive, but has so far refused to lower the proposed thresholds for GM contamination in seeds. The EU Scientific Advisory Committee estimates that if the Seed Directive is passed as drafted the genetic contamination in food and feed will increase substantially and that the one percent threshold for labelling may well be exceeded under certain conditions. The new threshold level of labelling food and feed if contamination levels are more than 0.5 percent, as proposed by the European Parliament, would certainly be unachievable at this level of seed contamination.
“Save our Seeds” Initiative: Foundation on Future Farming, Benedikt Haerlin & Reinhild Benning, Rungestr. 19, 10179 Berlin, Phone: +49 30275 903 09, Fax: +49 30275 903 12