Children hold signs during one of many worldwide "March Against Monsanto" protests against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and agrochemicals, in Los Angeles, California October 12, 2013. Photo by Reuters
In a side column to the article entitled In Vietnam, genetically modified organisms find fertile ground to grow, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and renowned activist on food security and food sovereignty, was quoted as follows: “When corporations claim patents [on seeds], they basically ‘pirate’ traits that nature and farmers have evolved. This is not innovation, it is bio-piracy.”
On February 3, 2014, 34 farmers’, breeders’, environmental and development organizations from 27 European countries filed an opposition to a patent from Syngenta, the Swiss agrochemical corporation, which notably is one of the three foreign companies designated to plant their Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) corn varieties in Vietnam.
Why this broad opposition to a particular patent? On May 8, 2013, the European Patent Organization (EPO) had granted a patent (EP 2140023B1) to Syngenta for insect resistant pepper (capsicum) plants. In fact, as it is stated in the press release of the coalition of organizations that filed the opposition, “a wild pepper plant from Jamaica was crossed with commercial pepper plants.” The coalition argues that: “Since the wild plant is resistant to various pests, the patented resistance already existed in nature. However, Syngenta claims the ownership to insect-resistant pepper plants, their seeds, and their fruits, although the patented plants are products of conventional breeding. Such plants should definitely not be patentable under European patent law.”
Developing countries (still) maintain a great bio-diversity, and countries like Jamaica and Vietnam are especially privileged, and have as such interest to safeguard their bio-diversity. Ethically, it is highly questionable when multinational corporations make use of indigenous knowledge and/or local varieties, apply conventional breeding techniques, and in the end succeed in obtaining the patent for what they claim to be ‘their invention’. This is what Dr. Vandana Shiva would call “bio-piracy”.
Agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow AgroScience (a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals) and others assure farmers, consumers and in particular regulators that their genetically modified seeds as well as the pesticides and weed-killers that come with them – be it Roundup, Atrazine, Paraquat or 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid – are safe; safe for farmers, safe for consumers, safe for the environment. But when independent scientists come to different conclusions, the same companies seem to deploy all means possible to refute their findings, denigrate them, pressure their employers and/or publishers, in short: make their life difficult.
In a recent article published in The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv describes in great length and detail what happened to Professor Tyrone Hayes, who, based on his research on frogs, discovered that Atrazine, a herbicide produced and marketed by Syngenta, “might impede the sexual development” of the animals. “Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, and during that time scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals.”
Atrazine, Rachel Aviv points out, “is the second most widely used herbicide in the US, where sales are estimated at about three hundred million dollars a year.” But, it is also “one of the most common contaminants of drinking water; an estimated thirty million Americans are exposed to trace amounts of the chemical.”
Thanks to class-action suits against Syngenta in the US, in connection with the contamination of drinking water with Atrazine, and internal documents which had to be unsealed during the process, there is some insight in the envisaged methods to discredit in this particular case Tyrone Hayes: “have his work audited by 3rd party,” “ask journals to retract,” “set trap to entice him to sue,” “investigate funding,” “investigate wife.”
One of the first critics of genetic engineering, and one of the first victims of the industry, was Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Powerbase, the free encyclopedia recalls: “On August 10, 1998 the GM debate changed forever with the broadcast of a program on British TV about GM food safety featuring a brief but revealing interview with Dr. Arpad Pusztai about his research into GM food safety. Dr. Pusztai told of his findings on the ill effects of GM potatoes on laboratory rats. He was subsequently gagged and suspended by his institute, the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, his research team was disbanded, and his research data was confiscated. He was subjected to a campaign of vilification and misrepresentation by several pro-GM scientific bodies and pro-GM lobbyists, in an attempt to discredit him and his research.”
Another “case” for those familiar with the topic refers to the so-called Séralini study. Over a period of two years, Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, a French molecular biologists, co-director of the Risk Quality and Sustainable Environment Unit at the University of Caen, France, had conducted an independent study feeding rats with a herbicide-resistant GM maize, and had come to the conclusion that its consumption could lead to negative health effects. Séralini and his group of researchers found that the rats that had been fed with Monsanto's NK603 GM maize, including certain doses of Roundup, developed tumors more frequently and died earlier than the rats in the control group. The article, which Séralini et al. published in Elsevier’s journal Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012 and which had been peer-reviewed before publication, was retracted by the journal on November 28, 2013. Some concerned scientists and researchers point to the fact that the recently appointed person responsible for biotechnology at Food and Chemical Toxicology is a former Monsanto researcher. A mere coincidence?
One day after the retraction, ENSSER, the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, published a statement that concludes: “In short, the decision to retract Séralini's paper is a flagrant abuse of science and a blow to its credibility and independence. It is damaging for the reputation of both the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology and its publisher Elsevier. It will decrease public trust in science. And it will not succeed in eliminating critical independent science from public view and scrutiny. Such days and times are definitively over. Prof. Séralini's findings stand today more than before, as even this secret review found that there is nothing wrong with either technicalities, conduct or transparency of the data – the foundations on which independent science rests. The conclusiveness of their data will be decided by future independent science, not by a secret circle of people.”
One of the co-founders and the acting chair-person of ENSSER is Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, a senior scientist at the Institute of Integrative Biology of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), Switzerland. Since 1994, her research has focused on the bio-safety issues of GMOs and the development of concepts for environmental risk assessment and post-release monitoring of GMOs. She is one of the leading experts on food safety and served as appointed lead author in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. The IAASTD Global Assessment is considered “the most comprehensive analysis of agriculture and sustainability in history”, as the author of the article in Vietweek points out. Dr. Hilbeck, who had been involved in the GMO Guidelines Project that included Kenya, Brazil and Vietnam, was in Hanoi in late November/early December 2013, invited by the NGO Working Group on Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources Management. She recalls that, originally, a representative of Syngenta, as a member of the group of authors on biotechnology, had participated in the work of the IAASTD. But when it became clear that the final report was going to express skepticism with regard to biotechnology, the industry withdrew shortly before the publication, not without initiating a defamatory campaign against the IAASTD in professional journals.
The irony of history
“The essential purpose of food, which is to nourish people, has been subordinated to the economic aims of a handful of multinational corporations that monopolize all aspects of food production, from seeds to major distribution chains, and they have been the prime beneficiaries of the world crisis.” These were the opening remarks by H. E. M. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, President of the General Assembly at the High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals, on September 25, 2008, at the United Nations in New York.
Monsanto was one of the main producers of the herbicides and defoliants that were used by the US military forces during their spraying operations over South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. Contaminated with dioxin, these toxic chemicals have left Vietnam, its environment and its people with a war legacy that will remain for generations. But, strangely enough, Monsanto seems to be most welcome in this country and, most ironically, has been honoured as a “sustainable agriculture company.” The many victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin might have a different opinion.
Syngenta, on the other hand, the Swiss agrochemical corporation, cannot sell its genetically modified seeds in its home country because Switzerland has a moratorium on GMO. While it is possible to do research and restricted field trials, the production of any genetically modified plant or crop is set on hold in Switzerland – at least as long as the extended moratorium lasts, which is until December 2017, based on a decision by the Swiss Parliament. In 2012, a national study on the issue came to the conclusion that GMO-oriented industrial production was not necessarily appropriate for small-scale agricultural production, and that there was little economic incentive for farmers to adopt GMO in Switzerland.
Switzerland is a highly developed country. Considering the developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the millions of small-scale farmers in these countries, there are good reasons for skepticism with regard to genetic engineering, and good reasons for questioning the benefits – and the “beneficiaries” – of GMO. Maybe one should listen to the wake up call from UNCTAD: “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.
* The writer is a Swiss expat who lives in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are her own.
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