TCS Daily

The Crops of Wrath

By Carlo Stagnaro - November 3, 2004 12:00 AM

"Left" and "Right" may be useful concepts in many respects, but not as far as the debate over genetically modified crops is concerned, at least in Italy. While the general public is ill-informed about the issue, in the political realm we have a strong anti-GM lobby. In it you find all of the guys you usually see in similar movements around the world: professional politicians from the left, green activists, environmental organizations, and farmers' associations (who have a vested interest in keeping foreign competitors on the other side of the border). But, surprisingly enough, the coalition is led by Gianni Alemanno, the Italian minister of agriculture, who was an MP from the extreme right-wing party National Alliance before being appointed.

Alemanno proposed a decree law aimed at regulating the diffusion of GM crops on Italian soil. As often happens in the bureaucratic jargon, "regulating" means "getting rid of." In fact, the proposed decree would forbid the sowing of GM crops in Italian soil. The reason - to be more honest, the pretext - is the risk of "contamination" of the organic fields and the risk of a loss of biodiversity. In other words, Alemanno's emotional message is: If we accept GM crops in Italy, a huge number of typical products would be lost because of the invasiveness of the bioengineered species. Moreover, he claims, GM crops may harm public health.

The bill is self-contradictory. Initially it states that regulation should aim at favoring "coexistence" of GM and traditional crops. But then it states there can be no coexistence, because of the tendency of GM seeds to spread well beyond their field's border. Alemanno declared that he is skeptical about the opportunities in the biotech sector, yet he would fund further studies and research in order to know more. In practice, however, he would fund more research on how to trace GM crops. In other words, he would shift universities' activities from the development of new species to the fight against new technologies.

Alemanno and his leftist comrades are simply wrong. First, there is no evidence of adverse health effects as a consequence of GM foods consumption. Somebody might object that most research on the issue has been funded by the "evil multinationals," thus it's not a reliable information. Again, that is not true, since all of the anti-GM claims rest on a very small number of studies, most of which have been rejected by peer-reviewed scientific journals.

After all, most Italian scientists oppose Alemanno's efforts to ban GM crops. Professors Renato Angelo Ricci and Franco Battaglia wrote a letter to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on behalf of the Association "Galileo 2001," pointing out that "our Agricultural Minister proposes... a return to the agricultural Middle Ages." "Galileo 2001" is a scientific association which was formed a few years ago in order to support a science-based approach to public policy.

If you don't trust scientists, you might want to query those moral authorities that you think are reliable. For example, such a Catholic country as Italy should pay more attention to what the Church says. A report by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences declares that "virtually, all food plants have been genetically modified in the past; such modification is, therefore, a very common procedure... Genetically modified food plants can play an important role in improving nutrition and agricultural products, especially in the developing world."

Luckily, Berlusconi understood that liberty itself is at stake, and openly opposed the anti-GM measure. He defined Alemanno's proposal as "illiberal". "It violates consumers' freedom of choice," he said. This is a good sign. It may be a consequence of the latest electoral defeats that the center-right have suffered, or just a demonstration that, despite all of the compromises he had to accept, Berlusconi still is confident that market does it better.

Alemanno has tried four times to have his decree passed by the government, and all four times it was not on the government meeting's agenda. More important, each time the criticism got louder and clearer - to the point that today a significant number of center-right MPs and government officials have openly spoken out against it.

There is a growing sense of frustration and protest even on the part of producers, especially small and medium farmers. Often they have to comply with the big industries' goals - that tend to have more to do with protectionism than improving their situation. The more entrepreneurial farmers ask for more economical freedom, in order to gain new markets. They know that GM crops offer a unique opportunity.

The question that only time will answer is if the challenge of the latter will be fully accepted by Berlusconi. If not, such people as Alemanno would win their Luddite battle, but Berlusconi might lose his natural constituency.


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