Terra Madre Conference

(Key note address, given by Josef Finke at the Terra Madre Conference in Waterford in September 2008)

Ladies and Gentlemen

To evaluate what GM technology can contribute to our needs when it comes to food I have looked at this question from various angles.

In this debate I am a share holder in different ways:

  • As a consumer
  • As a farmer
  • As a processor
  • As an Irish, European and World citizen

The issue of genetic modification of life forms is very complex, touching every aspect of our life, not only food. As I cannot elaborate on every detail I just would like to set the scene and highlight for the different stake holders the questions which need to be debated. Some of them do of course overlap between the stake holders.

For me as a consumer the issues at hand are

  • Food security
  • Nutritional value of food
  • Risk free food
  • Value for money
  • Proper information
  • Choice
  • Food culture

GM technology, backed by patenting laws, will lead to a quasi monopoly of food supplies. This impacts negatively on food security, choice and value for money. Key words here are the effect of variety driven crop failure, the worldwide buying-up of seed companies by GM corporations impacting on choice and the fact that he who controls the seed can decide who he sells it to and at what price. With all the excitement of our scientists and politicians I am taken aback that nobody reflects on the dangers of food being controlled by a handful of corporations. The workings of monopolies can for instance well be observed on the M50 toll bridge. The only difference however is, we don’t have to travel the M50, but we have to eat.

In regard to nutritional claims we have to separate facts from fiction. Too many claims have been shown to be untrue or just sales gimmicks. Take for instance Golden Rice which has genes inserted for the production of carotene vitamin A. It was hailed as addressing malnutrition in the 3rd world. A closer look however revealed that you would have to eat 7.5kg of this rice per day in order to meet your daily requirements, something highly unlikely in the 3rd world. Secondly you do need a sufficient supply of fat on top of this in order to metabolise this carotene. Fat, being of short supply too in the 3rd world, de-masked Golden Rice for what it is: a gimmick.

The information on the risks of GM foods to consumers is completely unsatisfactory. On the one hand we hear claims from leading Irish and international scientists that GM technology poses no risks to consumers, on the other hand we hear of cattle dying from GM fodder, rats dying from GM potatoes and GM tomatoes affecting stomach lining. And we see critical scientists being bullied or even sacked.
Information for risk assessment is mainly provided by the GM industry itself and since the concept of GM being equal to non-GM plants has been established in the courts there is no need for risk assessment anyway according to the GM industry. What strikes me however is the fact that this equivalence is not recognised when it comes to royalties.

To continue on the issue of information: the big dream of the GM industry of having a money printing machine on the horizon is so tempting that anything seems to be permitted to get there. Key words here are: how much is science compromised by its paymaster, the selective use and spin or locking-up of research results, the lowering of borderlines between the state and private corporations and the disappearance of the term conflict of interest. The GM industry has managed to establish itself worldwide very close to power and even here at home we have to ask: are our elected representatives still serving the Irish people?

When it comes to the issue of food culture I believe that monopolised raw material production will pre-condition all other steps of this raw material down the food line. Uniform raw material will lead to uniform food. Our food culture will be replaced by a new food sub-culture. Food becomes merely stuffing.

For me as a farmer the issues at hand are

  • long-term survival
  • freedom of choice of the type of farming I do
  • genetic diversity
  • safe work place
  • fair, cost based market conditions
  • independent information and advice
  • sustainability

For our long-term survival we have to successfully link the two points, the farm and the market.

It is bad enough to see a concentration process in the retail market with a handful of multiples controlling an ever greater share of the market, but to see this happening on the supply side means, we are now being strangled between two increasingly monopolised structures with a high level of dependency. And if we are dealing with invasive crop species we have no way out anymore. We now have two choices: we submit (that’s what Canadian farmers have done) or we give up (that’s what Indian farmers have done when they killed themselves).

As a farmer I need an agriculture and food policy which allows me to follow my belief, and I want to be protected by our constitution from anybody infringing on this. I want to farm organically without the use of poison. I don’t want invasive GM crops making organic farming impossible (co-existence has been proved impossible). I don’t want bees, which you and I need because ¼ of all food we eat depends on bees for pollination; I don’t want these bees to be exposed and eventually killed by sub-lethal levels of gene-inserted toxins in neighbouring crops. Bacillus thueringensis in GM crops has recently be linked to a global bee colony collapse.

I need constitutional protection that – if wind born GM seeds germinate and pollute my land – I do not infringe on patent laws but that this GM seed infringes on my constitutional rights. This is the battle that Percy Schmeisser fought against Monsanto.

May-be some day our soil will not be needed anymore to produce food and we might get our calories from a lab, and may-be meat doesn’t come from animals anymore but is grown from stem cells instead. But as long as our soils are needed to produce food, agriculture and food policy must be based on the understanding of processes in the soil and the interaction between natural systems.

Finally as a farmer I expect independent, un-biased information from state advisory bodies. To see the main scientific advisor of our government exposed as a lobbyist for the GM industry should be embarrassing for our government and immediately be stopped.

Food processors are stake holders in this debate too. I would like to start this section with a little story which happened to us some 25 years ago when we came to Ireland. Although this happened to us as farmers it is however relevant to processors too.

In 1983 when we arrived in Ireland we arrived somewhat early. The term organic in relation to food was nearly unknown, an organic market did not exist. For survival we had to look for customers of our farm produce outside Ireland and one of our clients was the company Nestle. They wanted to buy our oats for their baby food line. A group of Nestle buyers came over to look at the farming system and the crop and before they left they took a sample of our oats for analysis. They put this through a gas-chromatograph, a machine which detects unwanted substances down to a level of 1 part per million. Arrived at home they rang us and asked for a second sample as the machine hadn’t worked. So we sent a 2nd sample. A few days later they rang again and said they hadn’t seen grain samples like this for 25 years. There were zero heavy metal levels in our grain.

In a world in which food associated health risks are nearly as much heard of as nutritional benefits, isn’t it foolish to undermine Ireland’s unique marketing platform for natural, clean food by engaging with GM technology in food.

If diversity disappears – and this is the concept of GM technology – we will see small and medium food processors disappearing as well. Their domain is niche markets as main markets are occupied by the big companies. These small and medium processors, who live from producing something different, need choice, need variety and diversity of ingredients to choose from.

Finally, I am a stake holder in this debate as a member of Irish society, as a European and World citizen.

The question arising in this context is what impact has this technology on our future life, on our society, on our economy, on our ecology?

Firstly it has to be said that the GM concept has in its tow a quasi monopolisation of food supplies. Handing over control over our food supply base to the GM industry is to my opinion unconstitutional as this is not for the good of the Irish people.

Our society has equality as a core value. To submit to a system that concentrates obscene and decadent levels of profit in the hands of a few corporations is anti-social.

The recent attempts of the GM industry to soften the opposition to GM food by offering this technology as a solution to food shortages and the needs of the future shows very clearly that this industry is part of a school of economics which stands for the most ruthless form of savage capitalism. It emerged over the last 30 years around Milton Friedman and his Chicago School of Economics. The term ethic does not feature in his books. He teaches privatising, deregulation and cutting down social spending. His god is money, and maximising profits justifies all means. His strategy is taking advantage of the misery of others. Your misery is his chance for profit.

I am a person, brought up in a Christian culture, and even if it sounds like Martin Luther King “I have a dream”, I want to be part of a caring society, an inclusive society which embraces all parts, where citizens relate to each other on the bases of good ethical values.
I want to live in a democratic Europe with a socially inclusive economy at its heart, an economy based on fair competition in the market place, an economy which encourages and rewards entrepreneurship, but where success is not built on the misery of others. GM stands for none of these values.

We have built and must maintain a Europe with a diverse and vibrant culture where citizens can find and live their own identity and still work on and shape the overriding project Europe.

The last decades have brought home to many people the concept of one world, one world of ours, with opportunities and with responsibilities.

As a world citizen I would like to see a world community which treats all parts with respect. This excludes all forms of neo-colonialism.

As world citizens we have come to understand that our resources are finite and that we have to develop sustainable forms of living on this planet. This excludes all forms of exploitation of the resources of our planet in order to make sure that this planet is still habitable for following generations.

Our world is made up by many chains of life forms, interwoven to form habitats. We are part of and play a role in this habitat. Within this context we have developed our culture, including food culture.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food states: “Sharing food with family and friends in conviviality is a great ethical heritage that we have. If this heritage is not shared, this is a complete disaster. This is a fundamental part of our civilisation and very important for our health and psychological well-being”.

Carlo Petrini’s definition of food concludes in 3 words: good, clean and fair. I think GM food is far from this. The food however that comes nearest to this is organic food.

To discuss the consequences of GM technology we must come to understand that this is not a technical question which can be answered technically. It is eventually a political question. For me the question is not, is GM a risk to my stomach or my liver. The question is, is GM a risk to the future patterns of our society, our economy or even to the future of mankind. The latter scenario is certainly on the wall once GM enters the new field of synthetic biology and creates completely new forms of life.

We must prevent anything that leads to monopoly structures in our society, to a situation where someone takes control over our life. Diversity is the base of our life and at the same time the spice of our life. Diversity means free thinking but it also means respect for all other elements. Anything that is based on exploitation is not sustainable, and sustainability is what must be the parameter of everything we do and decide upon.

For our recommendation to the minister we should consider the following:

  1. We need a proper debate. No vested interests, no hidden agenda, no bullying. A scenario where the Oireachtas invites 7 members of the pro GM side and 1 member of the anti GM side to discuss GM technology is unacceptable.
  2. At a time when the editor of a leading farming paper says that we have a moral obligation to welcome GM, and the chairman of a leading newspaper is member of a pro-GM lobby group we must make sure that at least the state controlled media carry non-biased information on this issue.
  3. We need independent impact studies. To rely on information from the GM industry is ridiculous.
  4. Our decision makers must know more about the issue on which they decide so that they can detect misleading information and stand up against bullies. The information deficit of some of our politicians who will be deciding on GM is a scandal and seeing them even repeating false claims of the GM industry is breathtaking.
    May I say in all clearness:
    No, GM does not produce more food
    No, GM does not solve the problem of starvation
    No, GM is not just another form of breeding
    No, GM does not mean less pesticides
    No, GM does not improve the income of farmers
    No, GM food is not proven safe
    No, GM will not solve the problem of food shortage and malnutrition. Organic farming is the only way to address this. This has been proven by 100s of research studies. But the problem is that the agro-chemical industry makes no money from organic farmers.
  5. We must be vigilant when it comes to the independence of our opinion formers and decision makers. This independence must be shown. A situation where our government programme aims for an “All island GM-free zone” and at the same time state bodies host a conference to promote GM is most disturbing and does nothing for the credibility of our government.
  6. In all circumstances clear labelling is necessary. The GM industry might not like this (for very obvious reasons), but as European citizens we have the right to know what we eat and must insist on clear labelling.
  7. Under no circumstance should policies be approved which undermine Irelands unique marketing platform for wholesome, clean food. Some day this could be vital for its survival. And what’s the point Bord Bia claiming: Ireland the food island, when we have the same boring food as anybody else. We better fill this claim with substance.
  8. Food crops must not be tampered with. There is too much at stake. Potatoes must not be used to produce cheap vaccine against diarrhoea in pigs. If I see a potato I want to be sure that this potato is fit for human consumption.
  9. We cannot allow that somebody takes ownership of a wild plant. A plant is the result of an evolutionary process. To claim ownership of parts of this process can only come from a twisted mind
  10. Finally the GM industry must be questioned on its Flawed credentials. How can we engage on such a gigantic issue with an industry that has a long track record of misleading, lying, bribing, bullying, falsifying, harassing, unethical behaviour and causing serious environmental damage, just to mention a few of its questionable credentials.

I thank you for listening to me and I look forward to a lively debate. Thank you very much.