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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 22:207–213.


Reception of Genetically Engineered Living Organisms by Environmental Organizations


The introduction of gene modification technology in agriculture created severe disputes worldwide from the moment it began; some considered it a miracle, others saw it as a source of new dangers. The disputes have been the most vehement in countries of the European Union; it was here that the widest range of social organizations was involved and the disputes had the greatest effect on shaping governmental policies. The result was a de facto moratorium, in effect since 1998, meaning the suspension of permission to the marketing of gene modified products and recently enacted new directives, including labelling and tracking dissemination. Environmental associations played a major role in the mobilization of public opinion and the introduction of government regulations.

When the first shipments of gene modified (GM) soy products arrived in Europe, the subject immediately came to the focus of public interest. This was different than previous environmental disputes for instance, protests against the application of nuclear energy followed the introduction of relevant technologies only several decades later; in contrast, arguments objecting to the application of gene technology emerged promptly from the moment of its introduction. Many associations dedicated to the environment and consumer protection made their position clear within a few months. At the beginning of October, 300 associations from 30 countries announced a boycott of such products worldwide. The rejection of the gene modified products was an open expression of resistance by public opinion; according to some surveys, consumers reacted to food products containing gene modified vegetables with great resistance. This was the more significant because the first gene modified crops – soybeans and corn – are important components of processed food, their derivatives could be found in 60-70 % of marketed products, which means that they can hardly be avoided.

Responding to the demands of consumers, more and more food producers and wholesalers refused to accept components from plants that were genetically modified and promised to voluntarily exclude them in one way or other from their products or at least to label their merchandise accordingly.

In the first four weeks of the boycott, there was a 10 % decline in the import of soybeans from the US to Europe. Today, the loss of income is valued at $300 million a year. In other regions of the world, such as in India, similar movements began that were initiated by the state or by certain segments of society.

The response did not elude Hungary, even if it happened with some delay. Local environmentalists held their first news conference in April 1997, in which they informed the public of the issues involved. A good opportunity was provided for them by the newly introduced rules based on those of the European Union. As a result, a law of 1998 [XXVII] was passed by the Parliament dealing with activities of gene modification technology.

The major effort of the environmentalists was directed toward ensuring openness and the right of society to participate in decisions concerning gene modification technology. These efforts were mostly successful, because representatives of the “greens,” dealing with this issue, had been included in the work of the Gene Technology Advisory Committee and had the opportunity to voice their opinion. In addition, the most important pieces of information concerning permits were made accessible for the public.


Background of Disputes Concerning Gene Modification Technology

Disputes concerning the application of gene modification technology – especially in plants – have not abated since then. In fact, opinions tend to become more extreme on both sides. Some participants in the dispute consider the opposition to represent nothing more than innate fears and irrational or protectionist economic interests. However, the issues cannot be reduced to such simple explanations. The assertion that the major source of opposition originates in ignorance is difficult to maintain because, according to the latest survey conducted by “Eurobarometer”, the rejection of the application of gene modification technology increases with the level of available information. The disputes really originate in fundamental disagreements about differences in points of view. In fact, the cause of gene modification technology cannot be separated from modern agricultural practices and, therefore, it is related to the general goals and desirable future sustainable development of agriculture in the wider context.

Sustainable agricultural production, considered from society’s and nature’s interests, must include, in addition to production functions, the maintenance of the landscape and culture; in other words, beside producing food the task of agriculture includes the protection of the elements of the landscape (biodiversity, the soil, water and air purity), the reduction of its impacts and the maintenance of relations between human beings and nature. The basic principle of sustainable agriculture practices is accommodation, because, in the long run, only those systems will survive that will be fully able to respond to conditions that are changing in time and space. Only small-scale systems developed organically in response to local needs and practices, depending on local energy resources and ecological conditions, are able to fulfil this role.

A natural objection may be that, regardless of the desirability of changing over to such systems, the need of fundamental changes makes such transformation possible only in distant future. However, literature and theories dealing with sustainable agricultural practices have risen above such levels for a long time; in Hungary, there already exists a framework that is approved by the government; this is the National Agri-Environmental Program. The major issue is, therefore, the question, whether the use of gene modified plants and animals would promote the maintenance of a sustainable agricultural paradigm, or be necessary for its success.

Today, the admitted goal of gene modification technology used on a large scale in agricultural commerce is the effort to increase the volume of plant production. The professed goal is the production of insect and disease resistant plants and the creation of new species of such plants in the near future. However, it would be possible to increase the production of food by making better use of the potentials of existing plant species. For instance, in the Hungarian case, it is not desirable to increase the volume of agrarian production in light of a declining population, since the marketing and sale of food products already cause problems every year. In a world wide context, we are producing enough food for the support of the population and the causes of starvation and malnutrition are not to be found in the insufficient volume of available food but in the uneven availability and distribution of food resources. The starving populations either have insufficient amount of available land, or are forced to abandon their land because of wars or the expansion of large estates, or they are simply lacking money to pay for their food. This problem cannot be alleviated simply by increasing production; political and social changes are necessary for a proper solution.

The currently available genetically modified plant species have been created with the needs of modern, intensive agricultural practices in mind and will probably be used mostly in the developed countries. Concerning their transfer to areas where hunger prevails – in light of currently existing tendencies – is at least a questionable proposition. In fact, the increase of agricultural production in the developed countries undermines the security of the food supplies of the poorer countries, because cheaper production methods – themselves the results of agricultural subsidies – will exclude local producers from the market.

As far as the promised decrease for the need of chemical insecticides is concerned, protection of plants is related to accommodation to local conditions prevailing in respective areas, and therefore their purpose is first of all the prevention of crop damage. Such protection suggests various solutions, depending on the selection of the location of production, the structure of poly-cultural plant varieties, crop rotation systems, as well as biological and physical means. Chemicals used in this process serve, first of all, as substitutes or they may play preventive roles.

Recent research, conducted mostly in America, concerning genetically modified plants do not support assertions of increasing yields or the reduction of the need for chemicals; in fact, in cases of glifozat-resistant soybeans they show 5-10% reduction in the volume of crops depending on the climate and the locality where it is used. The sole advantage of the new crop may be – it seems – in the simpler agrarian technology it needs.

The largest problem of the new gene modification technology is that agricultures that are already based on mono-cultural production systems, will become even more uniform. In fact, not only one species of plant are produced in the process. Individual plants will be of the same genetic type, because it will be more profitable for the producers to raise “super varieties” created by gene modification technology in order to ensure larger crops. Gene modification technology, therefore, reduces the security of agricultural production, because plants consisting of the same gene-type will be more vulnerable to insect damage and to changes in the living environment.

The survival of the variety of species and kinds of plants could provide a basis for future selectivity and improvement, and the creation of new kinds of plants. This is a process that ensures adaptability to changing environmental circumstances. Gene-banks cannot preserve species by themselves because individuals withdrawn from production will become sooner or later barren and will be inbred; consequently, they will be extinct forever. During the past 40-50 years of intensive agricultural practices, species and regional kinds have already disappeared at an increased pace and have been replaced by modern varieties producing larger crops.


Sources of Hazards in Gene Modification Technology in Agriculture

Scientific arguments supporting gene modification technology employ, by necessity, coarse simplifications. They cannot do otherwise, because living organisms are so complex. In fact, a genome cannot be considered simply as a mathematical sum of genes. It is a unit that has developed during millions of years of evolution. If we included in this system – which we do not fully understand as yet – one (or more) elements in a haphazard way, we cannot be sure that such element(s) will operate smoothly. The procedures of gene modification technology include huge uncertainties (and it is successful only in 10% of the cases). It is by mere coincidence if unexpected consequences become immediately apparent. It is more likely, however, that such consequences will not surface incidentally but rather over generations in time.

The impact of consequences will be further increased if the gene modified plants were introduced through open plough lands or in the natural environment in general. The lack of scientific knowledge decreases the possibility of trustworthy prognoses. What is true for processes taking place within cells, is also true for nature as a whole, including entire ecosystems, with the difference that we know even less about emerging mutual influences. Genetically modified plants do not exist in isolation from their environment. For instance, when gene modified plants enter the environment of their naturally developing counterparts, they may have an advantage of survival over the original local plants, thanks to their modified genes. They may pass their genes on to the local species or kinds, providing them with special advantages or disadvantages. In Canada, where they produce several species of gene modified canola, resistant to certain chemicals, they discovered wild species of canola being resistant to two or three weed killer chemicals. Most of the genetically modified species produced today also speed up the growth of weeds and insects that are resistant to weed killer chemicals. All this makes the introduction of newer chemicals of greater efficiency – and more poisonously effective – necessary. Genetic pollution – the escape and spread of modified genes – can be determined with difficulty or not at all, and when it occurs, there is no way to turn the process back. One of the central issues in the disputes in the European Union is the so-called “co-existence” of gene modified agriculture and traditional agricultural methods, or whether there are sufficient security measures that would prevent their intermixing? Several opinions maintain that there are none.

Besides serious ecological hazards, there are also problems concerning health issues. In the absence of general studies, we do not know how our human bodies will react to proteins produced by genes originating from viruses or bacteria; could these be causing allergies or could they even be poisonous? Data from certain experiments suggest that we must count on the appearance of undesirable side effects. Food products containing modified genes do not enter high quality foodstuffs but satisfy the need for mass produced junk food. This is indicated by the fact that the first marketed products of gene modified technology, soybeans and corn, serve explicitly the goals of manufactured food products and provide fodder for large scale animal husbandry.

The secure insulation of traditionally raised and genetically modified plants proved to be impossible in spite of the most stringent measures. There is plenty of evidence to prove that, through pollination or the loss of kernels, the gene modified plants did indeed enter transported products that were believed to be free of them.

When evaluating a new technology, its developers usually do not attempt to examine its effects systematically and in their totality; we are now experiencing their effect in our polluted world. The problems suggested by the system of gene modification technology seem to be inappropriate to break with this practice; instead – and before – under taking increased efforts at their marketing, we should become better acquainted with the processes that occur within the cells influenced by the appearance, activities and impact of alien genes.


Society, Economy and Morals

In the disputes over the hazards of gene modification technology we must consider other points of view as well, because sustainability has not only an environmental, but also social and economic aspects. Since the decade of the 1980’s, large companies previously engaged in producing chemicals for agriculture and medicines for humankind, as well as many smaller firms dealing with the so-called “life sciences” invested many millions of dollars in the promising new market of gene modified plant production. This gave hope for the solution of the problems of modern agriculture. The advertisements suggested that the new technology will produce more crops with less chemicals and under more severe conditions. The appearance of gene modified products on the market was accompanied by an unprecedented series of company mergers and hostile takeovers. As a consequence, there are only a handful [about four or five] companies dominating the seed-, chemical- and grain markets, as well as the marketing and manufacturing of foodstuffs. Although the process appears to be independent of gene modified plants, copy right laws connected with the process opened new opportunities for these corporations. While the borderline between discovery and invention is becoming more and more transparent, it becomes possible, for the first time in history, for someone to become the owner of genes, entire species and varieties and determine who can gain access to them, and under what conditions they will be used. Current intellectual property laws being valid the world over – internationally regulated by the World Trade Organization – moved in this direction. The ownership-rights of genes, cells and even entire species, are very effective means of controlling the market. The overwhelming purchasing power of the strongest participants of the market secures a dominant position for them, because they are able to use their copy rights to avoid increasing competition. Therefore, the engine of the application of gene modified living organisms is the intellectual property rights system, which helps to recover the costs of investments in research and contributes to the acquisition of other companies. The purpose of acquisitions is the ownership of patents that seem to become profitable. Besides economic considerations, the introduction of rules of compensation for the use of patents also damages conditions of further scientific research, a process which is based on the free flow of information.

Besides socioeconomic considerations, ethical issues cannot be ignored; although there are no general principles for such considerations. Humankind is responsible for the preservation of life in the world; it cannot do anything with life as it pleases. Because of the novelty of the gene modification process and its unprecedented intervention in nature, secular or religious viewpoints may also be decisive for acceptance or rejection and this is, of course, a matter for individual considerations. This also concerns the labelling of foodstuffs containing gene modified ingredients, whose application is important not only for ensuring the safety of such foods, (if they are harmful, then they must immediately be removed from circulation), but for providing information for decisions by consumers, based on ethical or moral considerations. It is possible that the choices would be emotionally based, but emotions cannot be excluded from human life and they are necessary and useful. The supporters of gene modification technology are themselves not free of emotions.


The Demands of Environmentalists

Gene modified agricultural products are being created not because of the demands of consumers, but because of the interest in profits by large corporations. However, the hazards of such a large-scale experiment on humans and nature will be born by the consumers. According to the environmentalists, negative consequences that will likely be felt sooner or later, perhaps even causing large scale catastrophes, will affect everybody. The promised but yet unfulfilled results are not in proportion to the hazards.

Most environmental associations demand the following:

– End to all activities resulting in the penetration of gene modified plants and living organisms into the environment, including experiments conducted in open fields, and in any foodstuffs. Such moratoria should be maintained until human knowledge reaches the level that will be sufficient to judge and prevent possible hazards.

– The practice of applying patents to living organisms must be discontinued.

– Financial resources used for the creation of gene modified products should be applied instead to the development of biological processes that will be sustainable in the long run.