TCS Daily

Better Living Through Polenta

By Victoria Paracchini - October 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Will the Italian government ban GMOs forever and have the most expensive food on earth? Despite the fact that there's no proof that ingestion of a transgenic element in food can harm humans, Italy's government continues to deny citizens the freedom to choose what kind of food to eat, and to refuse to have a real debate on GMOs.


Last month the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg ruled in a landmark case that Italy can temporarily continue to suspend the marketing of Monsanto's GM maize-derived products but must justify doing so by proving health and environmental risks involved.


The GM product had been approved by UK authorities in 1997 in a "fast track" procedure which ensured permission to sell it all over the EU. But by January 1998 the European Commission and member states agreed to ban the "fast track" procedure. In August 2000 the Italian government imposed provisional prohibition on the marketing and use of products derived from Monsanto's GM maize. In 2001, after a Commission proposal for a new regulation that no longer provided for the simplified procedure of GM food approval, Monsanto challenged the decree at the ECJ.


Interestingly, after last month's ruling both Monsanto and the Italian government claimed victory. Italy can maintain its position for a time: not by proving harm but by claiming there is a lack of scientific proof there will be no long term risks. In the meantime Monsanto is selling its product all over Europe and sooner or later will be able to prove that in the long run its product has caused no harm.


Italy's position is based on more than just the "precautionary principle"; it's also a matter of culture and tradition about eating. Good, artisanal food is basic to everyday Italian life. People are obsessed with growing their own tomatoes, fruits, lettuce, eggplants, zucchini, herbs. But you can't grow maize in your backyard. So polenta has to come from the supermarket.


Can Italians be expected to go from specialty organic food to genetically modified flour? From bringing homemade cheese, fresh mozzarella and eggs, salami and prosciuto from a peaceful weekend in a dreamy countryside, to go to the supermarket and read carefully the food labels --which don't exist yet -- to find out whether there are traces of an alien DNA in the flour? To change a habit is very difficult.


GMOs are a strong concern for Italians. People, particularly those who live in the cities, have a very naive and romantic idea of agriculture. But when an entire continent like Africa is starving, why shouldn't technology allow people to produce food in a more efficient way? Biotechnology is a tool for development. Agriculture is pure technology: oil, tractors, better quality seeds, crops that give a better profit. Agriculture is an industry in which it is important to have a good product, to reduce costs and increase gains. Not just farmers surviving through subsidies but developing the ability to enhance productivity and be internationally competitive. GMOs and transgenic elements have proven essential in achieving these goals.


Making matters worse is that Green activists create fear, leading the debate nowhere. Education about GMOs is necessary, not just information. The subject is not only extraordinarily new in terms of civilization but implies a whole biotechnological revolution which must be understood.


The Monsanto case in Italy heats up the debate on the consequences of genetic manipulation in food, as well as the huge GMO trade war between the EU and the US. In the meantime famine-stricken African countries refuse bio-engineered food aid and technology from the US, afraid they will lose market access to the EU.


But in Italy there are specific concerns that have to do with the farming industry, free trade and competitiveness: Is it possible for the Italian government to continue subsidizing farmers who grow conventional food instead of using the money to solve basic infrastructural needs like nuclear power or fast reliable Internet access? Is coexistence of GM, conventional and organic possible?


Italy cannot get stuck in old concepts; it must move on. Instead of delaying the process of progress it should quickly lead member states into biotechnology so as to improve quality of life and lower costs.


And, it should be noted: GM maize makes polenta taste even better!


Victoria Paracchini is a TCS Europe contributor.

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