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COMMENTARY: Who’s afraid of the GMO debate?
by Lea Guerrero
31-May-2012 Philippine Daily Inquirer
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The topic of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) traditionally receives so little air time or print space in the realm of public debate. But there is a need to take this out into the open. In the Philippines, this need has grown more urgent. Since 2002, the government has approved GMOs at a rate of one every two months, without denying any application, even for varieties banned in other countries. Environmentalists and independent scientists are alarmed. But are they being heard in the platforms of public debate, particularly the media?

For a topic so mundane and basic as food, the public should be asking questions. And they should also be given space to lay these questions down. What are the implications of the open field planting of GMOs? What does it mean to you or me as food consumers? What does it mean to farmers around the country?

The fact that most of us don’t know the answers—or worse, don’t even know that we should be asking these questions—is a damning indication of how the GMO debate is being silenced and hidden from public eyes. This debate, however, is crucial to public health and environmental safety, especially since the risks of GMO crops are only recently being fully exposed.

There is a side in this debate—the side of GMO corporations and their employee scientists—who are not only afraid of public scrutiny, but who also benefit from the absence of open discussion. They would rather kill the debate than leave themselves open to questions they themselves can’t fully answer. In other words, the less people know about GMOs, the less the opposition. The discourse of this side brands those against GMOs as anti-technology, in an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that there are indeed grave scientific concerns about the safety of GMOs.

But wherever there is a public arena where giant multinationals have the intent to cover up doubt and silence public debate, there is a darker hidden agenda to influence science, government policy and public perception to conform to corporate interests rather than public good. Unless the former is laid out in the open and discussed freely, the latter agenda will be all the easier to conceal. This is what makes it difficult, for example, for concerned citizens to talk about how corporations corrupt government scientists and regulators to ensure approval of even the most risky GMOs, without even a pretense to solid scrutiny.

The health and environmental threats posed by GMOs are real and are based on sound and objective scientific studies. None of these man-made organisms have ever undergone long-term safety assessments. These living GMOs are able to reproduce and cross breed, leading to irreversible “gene spills” or contamination of natural and wild plant varieties. Laboratory studies also show that intake of GMOs, such as Bt eggplant, is related to kidney and liver damage. This is where discussions should be centered. GMOs come with consequences: Are they worth it when there are already existing ecological farming methods that actually work better, and are less risky and less costly?

Beyond safety, GMOs are part of a system that promotes the monopoly of giant multinational seed companies. It enables firms to exercise control over the food system—not from the seed—but from gene to supermarket shelf. All GMOs have more than 50 patents attached to it—patents owned by the few agrochemical companies who already control most of the world’s food supply. Is this the sort of agricultural model we want our country to pursue?

Clearly, only GMO corporations and promoters are afraid of the questions that should be tackled in an open public debate. But this debate needs to be out in the open, for the public good. Media should be at the forefront, encouraging this discussion. The public should embrace it, but they should be afraid—very afraid—of GMOs.

Lea Guerrero, campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

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