Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 21:24:59 -0300 (ADT)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: an active day in Halifax: Kosovo; GMOs


As described below, progressive activism was in full effect in Halifax on Saturday, April 17. This report will likely be of greater relevance to residents of the Halifax region but I trust those of you who live at a greater remove - whether further afield in Nova Scotia or outside the province altogether - will also find it of interest.

On the order of 150 people rallied outside the NS Legislature on Saturday, April 17 to protest NATO aggression in Yugoslavia. In addition to the protesters an agent of the state (made by conspicuous by his standard issue sunglasses, moustache and general demeanour) turned up and proceeded to videotape the event. I am told that similar surveillance has been the order of the day at the silent vigils for victims of UN sanctions in Iraq which are held each Friday at noon in front of Halifax's main library. Apparently a successful method for driving off these monitors is to have a newsmedia personnel focus their cameras on the spy. No TV crew was on hand on Saturday but the observer eventually left after being subjected to a lengthy barracking by a member of the International Socialists.

A number of individuals addressed those assembled - some providing analysis of the situation in the Balkans, some sharing their personal feelings, some offering an admixture. NDP Member of Parliament Wendy Lill admitted that her party initially supported the NATO bombing campaign but, having seen the disastrous consequences of this action, has now called upon NATO to desist. (Interestingly our trusty secret agent did not record Ms. Lill.)

A solid case against NATO intervention was put by a member of the Canadian Federation of Students. Principal in her arguments was the point that the bombardment of Yugoslavia - purportedly undertaken to prevent the massive violation of Kosovars' human rights - has actually produced the largest humanitarian crisis the Balkans has seen in this century. (Naturally this speaker was filmed by "the spook.")

Two of the most powerful speeches came from a Serbian and a Kurdish emigre. The latter inveighed against the hypocrisy of Bill Clinton's protestations of concern for oppressed minorities given the US alliance with Turkey, which savagely represses its Kurdish population. The other speaker noted that states perenially justify their bellicosity by the manipulation of "atrocity tales," noting, from her own experience, how Milosevic had defended his annexation of Kosova on the grounds that Albanians had persecuted Serbs while the West has used reports of Serb abuse of Albanians as grounds for military intervention. On examination, Saturday's crowd was told, neither set of horror stories appears accurate but this is of little consequence to the warmongers who are interested only in generating the hatred necessary to fuel conflict. (I need hardly mention that Mr. Espionage got all of this on tape.)

A call for action arose at the rally, and the possibility of a march on the US consulate or some other appropriate destination was propounded. The committee which planned Saturday's demonstration will meet Tuesday evening at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to discuss this and future events. Anyone interested should contact Penny McCall-Howard, 423-8335.

Another event of note on Saturday was the holding of a "Frankenfoods Forum" at the Dalhousie Student Union Building. Some 50 or 60 people gave over bulk of the afternoon to this colloquium on genetically engineered esculent.

The session began with four (plus two - but more about that in a minute) directed presentations. These lasted about 10 minutes each.

The first pair were courtesy of a brace of scientists from the Nova Scotia College of Agriculture. One of these gentlemen actually works with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while the other is an interested observer. The general tenor of their remarks was that GMOs have (or potentially could have) some positive characteristics, and that GMOs present no significant danger.

The key advantage attributed to GMOs was with regard to chemical treatments : it was suggested that GMOs typically require a smaller and less toxic cocktail of pesticides and the like. To a lesser extent, the biotechnologists stated, genetic engineering could also produce hardier plant strains which would allow the expansion of agriculture in degraded areas such as the Sahel.

As to the possible hazards of GMOs, the biotechnologists allowed that these exist but minified their importance. We were reminded that GMOs can only interbreed - and thus pass on their characteristics - conspecifically and even then many such unions would be sterile. Strict zoning regulations could virtually eliminate this possibility by decreeing that GM varieties could not be grown in the vicinity of unaltered plants which would be sexually receptive to them. Even at that, it was pointed out, if the qualities which had been introduced (chances are, resistance to a certain pesticide) were an improvement, why worry if this spreads?

To be fair, these fellows together had perhaps 20 minutes to make their case; obviously one could not hope to do justice to the issues involved with such a brief allotment. Of course, it doesn't help that their position lacked merit to begin with.

At all events the agbiotech side was looking bad before its opponents had even spoken : if the main beneficiation to be expected from GMOs was a reduction in pesticide use why not promote organic farming instead? This would achieve much deeper reductions in chemical use without running any risks whatsoever. On the question of engineering plants for "fitness," one of the biotechnologists himself remarked that GMOs are normally less sturdy than their natural cousins. Thus though it might be possible to design a plant that, say, had reduced water requirements, the same plant could be expected to exhibit offsetting defects.

Up next was a biologist from Dalhousie University who at once issued a disclaimer : he was not a Luddite, he told us, he opposed the application of genetic engineering in "open systems" but not under controlled conditions such as obtain in the field of medicine. I personally see no shame in being a Luddite; and I regretted that Linda Panozzo, NSPIRG's executive director, was not on hand to explain why we ought not to be sanguine about the use of genetic engineering in the health professions either.

Still, I won't say too much against your man as he offered some valuable thoughts on GMOs. He pointed out that the risks posed by GMOs were not confined to the transmission of induced characteristics to natural varieties through accidental interbreeding but also included the effects of consuming GM food. In this regard he alluded to the research of Arpad Pusztai which demonstrated that genetically altered potatoes induced cancerous tumors in rats - hence might do the same in humans. The biologist concluded his address by quoting Jeremy Rifkin to the effect that people love that which has a purpose of its own and therefore a world which we had crafted in our own image would be "incredibly lonely."

The last of the principal presentations was given by an officer of OXFAM-Canada. The focus in this instance was on food security (uncompromised access to food plentiful and healthful enough to allow people to flourish) : was it lessened or increased by the introduction of GMOs? The view from OXFAM was that genetic engineering is likely to diminish food security globally.

Central to this argument is the for-profit nature of the endeavour. GMOs are being developed at considerable expense by transnational commercial conglomerates whose overriding concern is to make money, not make the world a better place. To ensure a good (nay, outstanding) return on their investments these firms insist on the protection of their "intellectual property rights;" in this case, patents on GMOs. The chief means of capitalizing on these patents are to force farmers to buy new seed every growing season and to compel farmers to treat their crops with name-brand chemicals.

As to the first, farmers in the developing world normally save the seed naturally produced by a growing crop but GMO vendors explicitly forbid this (Monsanto is currently pursuing scores of lawsuits on these very grounds.) Peasants are unable to afford the cost of purchasing new seed yearly and will accordingly be forced out by large agribusiness concerns, leaving the displaced smallholders to scrabble for scarce jobs in order to survive. Similarly, peasants lack the wherewithal to buy the chemical treatments which Monsanto and other corporations are engineering their seeds to require.

Following these four presentations two, slightly briefer, talks were given. The moderator adverted to these latter addresses as though they were adscititious which, if correct, was perhaps a trifle unfair to the agbiotech proponents. Already by this stage it was beginning to look like the biotechnologists had accepted a suicide mission, and with the two additional speakers the forum took on the appearance of an ambush. Still, if one promotes genetic engineering one ought to expect a rough ride, I suppose!

Regardless, the two closing speakers provided some excellent analysis. One, a gardener, put paid to the biotechnologists' suggestion that genetic engineering was necessary to extract 100% of plants' productivity. The gardener noted that she already was able to achieve such results : such parts of her produce as she did not eat she returned to the soil as compost! She also offered to give the benefit of her experience to those who felt that genetic engineering was necessary to inure plants to adversity; again, she stressed, there were natural alternatives available already. In closing she urged horti- and agriculturalists to purchase their seed from small companies which could guarantee organic origin, and to themselves become knowledgeable about seed-saving.

The other of the pair of extra commentators was a biologist; if she stated her institutional affiliation I didn't catch it. As a scientist, she told us, one of her major concerns was the underhanded approach to genetic engineering displayed by the government. She told of the undue emphasis which Ottawa has placed on the potential pecuniary gains to be had from genetic engineering, an emphasis which sets aside safety issues as encumbrances. As an example she read out the federal government's legal definition of "biotechnology" and showed that it was set out in such a way as to minimize its subjection to regulation. She further noted that while, e.g., plans for an oil field development must be open to public scrutiny, citizens are only given access to the decision on whether a GMO project will be allowed to proceed - not the particulars of the project itself.

Following these six presentations about 25 minutes were given over to questions from the floor. For me, the most interesting aspect of this part of the colloquium was a comment that one of the factors impelling Canadian farmers to plant GMOs is the insistence by corporate buyers on uniform product; i.e., a vegetable or fruit must conform to strict requirements of size and shape if it is to be acceptable to these purchasers. Since most of the produce grown is bought by these corporate clients farmers are desperate to please them and will look favorably on technologies which promise predictable results.

At this point there was a break in the proceedings which allowed those in attendance to sample the fine organic and fairly traded food and drink provided by the organizers. Such was the excellence of this repast that it was a bit difficult to call folks (including yrs. truly) back to order...

Upon the eventual resumption participants were encouraged to join in batches of ten or so and talk over the issues. With the numbers involved I found that the time allotted for this was insufficient to admit of fruitful discussion; limited the groups to four or five might have been more effective.

After about 10 minutes of this the plenum recovened and all present were given an opportunity to comment. I was scarcely surprised that no voices of support for GMOs - other than the biotechnologists', of course - were heard, but I was somewhat bemused by the lack of intensity from opponents. For the most part those who spoke out against GMOs either favored mandatory labelling or believed that the answer lies in persuading people to buy (or preferably grow) organic food.

Labelling strikes me as an inadequate solution for a number of reasons. First, it is often difficult to establish whether a substance contains GM elements and a labelling regime puts the burden on already overstressed organic producers to guarantee that their products are GM-free. Second, labelling does nothing to lessen the dangers posed to the environment by GMOs (e.g. unforseen destruction of beneficial insects with consequent damage throughout entire ecosystems.) Third, this buys time for multinationals like Monsanto to entrench themselves.

Switching to organic produce is, of course, advisable under all circumstances. Again, however, I feel it is not a sufficient response : even if, in the best case scenario, people began to convert the corporate lobby, left unchecked, will find means to block this (e.g. the attempt by the US Department of Agriculture to redefine "organic" to include irradiated foods, crops fertilized with toxic sludge, etc.) Certainly we should back organic farming but we must actively oppose the biotech lobby all the while. GMOs must be banned.