From my first introduction to Australia via a picture book as a child, I was captivated by Australia’s vast and pristine landscapes. To my mind yours is the country of health, nature and purity.
Yet on my first voyage to Australia as the executive director of Greenpeace International, I am devastated to find myself in a country set to become the first in the world to produce genetically modified (GM) wheat.
Nine trials of GM wheat are currently being planted across five states and territories, with the Australian Government predicting it will have GM bread on supermarket shelves by 2015. As the head of a global NGO that campaigns on food security around the world, I am here to support Greenpeace Australia’s efforts to stop control of this crucial food staple from falling into the hands of transnational GM food companies.
Oxfam reported in 2011 that a handful of manufacturers, producers and retailers already control 70 per cent of decisions made in the global food system. The world’s top four seed companies – Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and Bayer – now control over half of the world’s seed sales. These are also the GM companies pushing for control of Australian wheat.
As a native of South Africa, and someone who has seen first-hand starvation in Africa I am often asked how it is that I can be opposed to GM. This questioning assumes that GM leads to healthier, sustainable and more abundant crops – but this is far from the truth.
In fact, GM has the potential to increase hunger around the globe. This of course jars with most people’s logic (and defies brilliant marketing campaigns by the GM industry) that the companies responsible for producing food globally could actually cause further food scarcity. It angers me that corporate scientists and global GM companies can still get away with making the bogus claim that their seeds will feed the poor, when in fact their only goal is greater profits.
This is not just the opinion of Greenpeace. Last Monday, eight prominent international scientists wrote an open letter to the CSIRO questioning the ethics of GM wheat trials being run in conjunction with the French biotech company, Limagrain.
In 2008, 400 leading international scientists concluded that GM does not produce more food but in fact hurts farmers, because it comes with expensive patent fees and restrictive contracts. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development reported that instead of allowing farmers to save and reuse seeds as they have done for generations, they will be required to purchase new seeds each year.
GM companies like Monsanto also like to boast that their GM technology increases crop yields. Pro-GM advocate Mark Tester, who spent a year on sabbatical at Monsanto’s Cambridge site and is now the scientist running Australia’s largest GM wheat trials, has gone so far as to criticise Greenpeace’s opposition to GM wheat by accusing us of ignorant disregard for the rights of the 9 billion people the world will need to feed by 2050.
The problem of starvation is not crop yields – there is enough food for all of us on this planet. In fact, in 2010 the world produced enough food to feed double the global population. One-third of this food was thrown away as waste and 1 billion people went hungry.
What hungry people need is money to buy food or access to land to grow it. GM provides neither. Nor does it provide an abundance of surplus food that will be readily and selflessly distributed to the global poor.
In Australia, Monsanto has started to add to its ‘feed the world’ myth by claiming that GM crops are more ‘nutritious’ than natural foods. A handful of GM chemical companies are working with government scientists on a type of white bread they say will cure bowel cancer. The reality however is that this magically modified white bread is no better for you than any number of safe, healthy, affordable foods already available in local grocery stores. Yet the Australian government continues to spend millions of dollars on the research hoping to create a market for something that is not needed.
All of Australia’s major wheat market competitors, including North America, have rejected GM wheat. It is my profound hope that Australians will do the same and opt instead to protect the good, safe grains that have kept you healthy for centuries. The pristine country of Australia is no place to start a global GM nightmare.