Losing food sovereignty

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GM crops are unlikely to benefit anyone but corporations who will gain control over food production, experts warn


International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Deputy General Director for Research Achim Dobermann receives a rice cake with the message "˜IRRI GO GE-Free!' from a Greenpeace activist

The Vietnamese government's plan to have genetically modified (GM) crops grown on half its arable land is fraught with food security, food sovereignty and biodiversity issues that have not been given due consideration, experts have told Thanh Nien Weekly.

They have called for a more prudent approach and serious thought given to alternatives before taking the GM route.

They say a few major agricultural corporations like Monsanto, which infamously produced the defoliant Agent Orange and have refused to accept responsibility for actions that poisoned millions of Vietnamese people and devastated its agricultural infrastructure, are the major promoters of GM crops. Their aim is to gain control over food production, the experts alleged.

Dr. Suman Sahai, founder and president of Gene Campaign, an India-based research and advocacy organization working to empower local communities to retain control over their genetic resources in order to ensure food and livelihood security, said: "There is as yet no connection between food security and genetically engineered crops. The BT and HT gene [present in gene-altered plants] offer nothing for food security.

"As we face climate change, we need to focus on biodynamic agriculture that reduces input costs and distributes risk. The strategy today should be to minimize risk, not maximize output," she told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

"There are several approaches to increase the food basket of the poor which we should try. Bringing genetically-modified technology that is expensive and unsafe is not very useful," she added.

Vietnam has completed the first-ever field trial of GM maize at two places - in the Red River Delta's Hung Yen Province and Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in the south east of Vietnam. The government recently announced a major plan to cover half of the country's agriculture land with the controversial gene-altered crops by 2020.

Dr. Le Huy Ham, director of the Agricultural Genetics Institute that conducted the trial, said the GM maize has higher resistance to pests and herbicide than organic plants. He said that for the trial the maize was planted on an area of less than 1,000 square meters in contained conditions with a safe distance of 200 meters from natural maize.

He confirmed that field trials would be expanded and GM crops commercialized by 2012.

However, the Association of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit organization in the US, has pointed out that several million acres of GE soybeans and cotton in the US are now infested with glyphosate-resistant and tolerant weeds. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has also reported that the number of glyphosate applications by farmers has risen considerably, and the amount of herbicides used on HT soybeans now appears to be considerably higher than it was prior to the introduction of the HT crop.

Hervé Le Crosnier, a researcher at the University of Caen and the French National Center for Scientific Research's Communication Sciences Institute in France said that most of the actual GM products are plants that can resist herbicides.

"This helps industrial farmers to put pesticides on their fields that kill anything except for the GMpest-protected-plants. But if the gene of pest-resistance spreads to other plants, we won't be able to use herbicides where we need it.

"Another question is the one of adaptability. Insects can develop resistance, and also differ from country to country. Some GM-plants that can have agricultural interest in one part of the world can provoke incidents and loss in other parts. India and China have experienced this with cotton and South Africa with maize," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"The consequences on health of GM-plants are globally unknown. Most published data do not form sufficient evidence to come to sold conclusions. Too few experiments have been done for too short a time. Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini, in France, who gained access to Monsanto data about GM-maize has closely examined the data and found risks that Monsanto has disregarded," he said.

Self-reliance destroyed

If Vietnam goes ahead with GM crops, it runs the risk of becoming reliant on foreign companies for seeds and chemicals needed to protect the plants, several experts said.

"GM is mainly a way for agrochemical firms to sell more and more of their pesticides... But states and some farmers only look at the promises of biotech companies. They have been promising a bright future for years now, with new plants that can give people vitamins, health, protection... But we don't see anything happen, only pest-resistant plants that are part of the industrialization of agriculture," Crosnier said.

"There is one very strange thing: biotech companies try to impose their maize in Mexico, which is the cradle of this very important plant. And Monsanto now tries to have BT-brinjal in India... the cradle of this plant," he added.

According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the first field trial of GM maize in Hung Yen and Ba Ria-Vung Tau this year was conducted with the support of US- based agro giant Monsanto's office in Vietnam as well as Syngenta Vietnam.

Crosnier said: "The top four seed companies account for 44 percent of the commercial seed market worldwide. The world's largest seed company Monsanto - accounts for 20 percent of the world's commercial seed market."

"Such a concentration is a big danger for farmers and food security over the world. The way for these companies to maintain their domination is to add "˜intellectual property rights' to their market dominance... Why do rich countries try to impose the domination of their big biotech leading firms through intellectual property rights? We are confronting a new "˜bio-imperialism'," he said.

Dr. Sahai of the Gene Campaign said she backed allegations that some agro giants like Monsanto were looking for new markets to sell seeds and chemicals in Southeast Asia after many EU countries had banned several or all GE crops.

"I think this is true. South and Southeast Asia are agriculture regions with a large seed requirement which the agro giants hope to capture along with agro chemicals like pesticides," she said.

"The outstanding question about GM crops/foods is their safety. Food safety testing is difficult to do and is expensive. Companies don't want to spend that money so the safety of these foods remains in question," she said.

Vietnam is perhaps a perfect place for Monsanto to sell its products, because the government is "really bent on cutting its GM imports [maize, soybean] by growing those crops domestically, said Shalini Bhutani of GRAIN, an India-based international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.

"We've seen this plantation agriculture agenda taking form with the government's reorganization of land ownership, and offering farmers alternative livelihoods so that they'll give up their land," she said.

"The issue here is Vietnamese people farmers, consumers, should have a choice to opt out of GM, and whether there is a mechanism to do that. Merely addressing this through labeling is obviously a very limited viewpoint," she added.

Critical context

Bhutani said it was important that the push for GM is placed in proper context.

She noted that the US is an aggressive biotech giant that has not signed the global Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

"Its track record in pushing GM agriculture in other countries should be an eye-opener in itself," Bhutani said.

US-Vietnam trade relations have laid the ground for the operation of US companies like Monsanto. There are several FTAs [free trade agreement] that the Vietnamese government has signed with other governments, like Japan and the US at a bilateral level that require Vietnam to raise its IPR (intellectual property rights) standards, favoring the big companies, she noted.

Daniel Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner in Southeast Asia for Greenpeace, based in the Philippines advised a more prudent approach by Vietnamese scientists.

"Vietnam should first answer the question whether GM crops are indeed needed as a strategy to achieve food security. There are two basic traits of GM crops: herbicide tolerance and containing pesticides - or pest resistant - which is a wrong way to call BT crops since they are only resistant to one particular pest. Not one GM crop was developed to increase yield," he said.

According to the final report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization and other UN agencies such techniques as genetic engineering are no solution for soaring food prices, hunger and poverty.

Alternatives

"The way forward is working to make real "˜Food Sovereignty' happen. And solutions lie within Vietnam itself," said Bhutani.

She said there were groups who have been researching and experimenting and promoting alternative ways of farming - using traditional means and farmers' seeds, employing organic agriculture, utilizing botanical pesticides.

"And the wealth of knowledge that they're getting is that these are more economically viable and food secure systems, preferred by Vietnamese farmers, and suited to their local conditions. So it's really up to the Vietnamese government to facilitate this approach rather than blindly pursue GM."

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