When most people think of revolutionary movements, images of the Storming of the Bastille and the March on Washington come to mind. It takes a city to make a revolution. That’s where the people are, right? But the latest new radical movement to take Europe in its grip has sprung up in what might at first appear to be an unlikely place: a plot of land in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania that the left-wing newspaper Junge Welt calls “probably Germany’s best-guarded potato field.”
On August 31, a group of forty anti-genetic engineering activists from England, France, and Germany met in the village of Zepkow in Mecklenburg to announce the creation of the European Field Liberation Movement (EFLM). The location was well chosen: The farm near Zepkow has been serving as a test field for a new crop of genetically modified “Amflora” potatoes developed by the BASF Group, and it was harvest time. And yet, the demonstration was over before it could begin. Acting on orders from the state government in Schwerin, the police banned all protests and created a 1000 m embargo zone around the test field.
The European activists decided to create the EFLM following a recent ruling by EU Commissioner John Dalli that said that individual states should decide for themselves whether or not to grow GM plants. (Responding to popular pressure, both Austria and Luxembourg subsequently banned the planting of Amflora in the spring of this year). The EU Commission approved the test-planting of Amflora back in June and the German government has allowed the Zepkow project to go through, sending economics minister Rainer Brüderle of the pro-business Free Democratic Party to harvest the first forkful and to confer the Federal Government’s blessing. The activists had tried several times over the summer to destroy the crop but without success. However, according to French activist Francisca Soler (52) of the anti-GM “Faucheur Voluntaire” movement, the new international network intends to keep returning to Zepkow to demonstrate against the Amflora potato.
What is so terrible about Amflora potatoes that Europe needs a new radical environmental movement to halt them? According to BASF, the Amflora represents a milestone in the march towards a better future. They say it contains a gene that makes it more resistant to certain diseases. Aside from this inborn antibiotic function, it is rich in starch for use in manufacturing paper, textiles, and adhesives, and it is also excellent as feed for animals.
Not so, says the EFLM. They warn of the severe dangers it poses to human beings and the rest of the natural environment. For example, they point to World Health Organization studies suggesting that the plant’s antibiotic characteristics could spread to other plants in the area. They also point out that the potato is highly susceptible to drought, and it is also at greater risk to certain parasites and viruses than non-GM varieties. In addition, they believe the potato is of poor quality and has no economic value. Since the European Commission and other government authorities have failed to respond to the will of the people, the EFLM says that citizens who reject genetic technology now have no choice but to grasp the last means that democracy has at its disposal – acts of civil disobedience.
Francisca Soler and the EFLM have received support from a very high place, namely from the agriculture minister of Mecklenburg, Social Democrat Till Backhaus, who himself showed up at the abortive demonstration. There he told reporters that there is no legal justification for growing Amflora potatoes in Germany. “It is not possible to prevent them from blending with and contaminating other crops, and that is why there can be no coexistence between conventional agriculture, organic farming, and the planting of genetically manipulated plants.” In recent days, the Green agriculture minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Johannes Remmel, has called for transforming his state into a “GM-free zone.” So the resistance to GM foods is growing. But why does anyone really care, anyway?
Coming to a field near you: The Day of the Triffids redux
The very term “genetically manipulated foods” – popularly known as “Frankenstein foods” or “Frankenfoods” – conjures up visions of “triffids” and “killer tomatoes,” Nazi “Lebensborn” projects, and even the beastly nightmare of H.G. Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau. But how realistic are such scenarios? Developing genetically modified foods essentially involves taking the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the genetic code of another, thus creating what amount to new beings. Once patented, these plants and animals become the property of the corporations that created them. In the United States, around 85% of soybeans have been genetically modified, as is 45% of American corn. As a result, somewhere between 70 and 75% of our processed foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified in some way. Europe has been far slower to embrace GM foods, but here too the industry is on the march. Hardly anyone imagines that, according to some estimates, up to 80% of European foods have had at least some contact with genetically modified substances.
But so what? A moment’s thought reminds us that human beings have been cross-breeding, grafting, and otherwise manipulating our plants for centuries, often with spectacular results. The so-called Green Revolution since the Second World War has been based on a range of radical news strains and high-tech fertilizers, which now make it possible to support a global population of more than six billion human beings. What is so different about continuing this scientific triumph with modern technologies?
A blessing for humanity
The answer depends on whom you ask. If you listen to the GM lobby, you will learn that genetically manipulated foods well save the planet. It is not, they say, a matter of creating Frankensteins that will break free and terrorize the world. Instead, genetic modification means better foods at lower costs, which will benefit everybody. They argue that there is not a scrap of evidence showing that genetically manipulated foods are in any way more dangerous than so-called normal products. GM foods can be manipulated in such a way so as to make them more resistant to parasites, thus requiring fewer insecticides. GM foods can also be designed to last longer in storage. They represent a sort of self-help movement for poor people in the developing world. If the patents, and much of the profit, remain with the global corporations, so what? These companies provide value for money. In any case, farming is a business: if farmers feel they are not making a profit, they are under no compulsion to buy these seeds.
The biotechnology industry believes that it can even cure diseases through GM crops. The Rockefeller foundation, for example, is promoting so-called Golden Rice, which will enhance nutrition and immune systems across the developing world by including an easily absorbable form of vitamin A, which is scarce in many people’s diets, and perhaps also iron as a cure for anemia. At Cornell University, scientists are even holding out the possibility of developing a banana that comes equipped with the hepatitis B vaccine. This GM banana would provide extremely inexpensive and easy to administer vaccines to places where it is desperately needed. And how could anyone object to, say, an anti-AIDS cucumber?
Proponents of GM foods claim that they are merely continuing the Green Revolution with modern methods. They accuse their critics of a social Darwinistic approach, essentially condemning the poor in Africa and other developed areas to starvation in order to reduce the surplus population while maintaining a romantic “green” vision of the world. The GM industry, it would appear, is humanitarianism on steroids.
In support of its claims, the biotechnology industry is able to point to a vast number of glowing testimonials from scientists and even the world’s major religions. For example, the Vatican itself praised GM foods as a “blessing” at an international conference in 2009.
With some of the world’s best scientists and genetic engineers, humanitarianism, support from governments, and even the Vatican on its side, what’s there not to love? They almost make it sound immoral not to embrace GM foods.
Not buying it
Here is where the anti-GM movement feels that “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s the vehemence and moral drive of the pro-GM argument that suggests to many of them that something is seriously wrong. For the anti-gene movement, the wholesale introduction of GM products onto tens of millions of unsuspecting consumers, both in the developed and developing world, represents an irresponsible human experiment on a vast scale. They identify three major problems:
First, they believe that many of these products could pose a critical risk to humans, let alone to animals and plants. These risks could include an increase in allergies, toxic reactions, a resistance to antibiotics (as in the case of the Amflora potato in Mecklenburg), immune deficiency symptoms, and even certain forms of cancer. For example, three genetically modified corn varieties contain genes that are resistant to tuberculosis, which some scientists feel could cause a threat to human immune reactions. They are also concerned that natural life forms can be contaminated with genes from genetically manipulated beings, thus transforming our entire food chain and our infinitely complex natural environment in ways nobody can foresee. The notion of a GM “superweed” that can no longer be stopped by standard pesticides is a popular image. While the critics are hard-pressed to present any hard evidence for these dangers, they argue that the technology as a whole is untested and therefore not worth the risk.
Second, they resent exports of GM crops as a sort of seizure of power on the part of global corporations. They believe that farmers in the Third World are being made more dependent on these companies to grow their own food. They argue that farmers in the Third World work with very low profit margins and require very high overhead for such things as machinery, storage, processing, fertilizers, and other expenses which they would not otherwise have to endure with more traditional seeds and practices. Since many of the GM crops are sterile, farmers have to keep buying new seeds and grain and instead of planting seeds set aside from their own harvest. Furthermore, Third World farmers using GM seeds are required to buy specific fertilizers and pesticides tied to the specific product they have chosen to use. Biotechnology represents neo-colonialism on steroids too.
Brussels knows best
Third, and, I think, most importantly, GM critics – by no means all of whom are trained biologists – are driven by a desire to try to take back at least some control over their own physical existence in what they regard as a globalized economy run amok. It may be that for many Europeans, eating is a bit like sex: people want to decide for themselves what they allow into their body and who puts it there. For examples, vegetarians are not likely to appreciate being served corn with cow genes and Muslims might say no to pistachios with a trace of pig in the mix. These concerns apply not only to GM foods themselves, but also to other products that may have been contaminated. So far, no one has come up with an anti-GM condom.
Freedom of choice is a key issue. Advertising is always celebrating our freedom to choose one product or lifestyle over another. Supermarkets overwhelm us with a choice of fifty different kinds of canned soup and twenty kinds of toilet paper. Politicians constantly celebrate the “free market.” But when it comes to our food, it’s suddenly “beggars can’t be choosers” and Brussels always knows best. And whether or not a certain food is actually dangerous, many people resent having to eat a turnip that has been labeled as some transnational corporation’s “intellectual property.”
No new media stars
The EFLM is hardly original when it comes to ideas and strategy. The anti-GM movement has been around for years, divided up into scores of organizations ranging from various national and regional green parties, Greenpeace, and Germany’s influential Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz to any number of grassroots initiatives. For example, so-called field liberators in Germany have been occupying and destroying test fields since the mid-1990s.
French activist Francisca Soler has been active in a comparable French movement for a number of years. In a recent interview with the left-wing German Tageszeitung, the EU Commission specifically left the decision on whether or not to grow GM foods to the individual countries in order to divide Europe’s anti-GM movement. The new EFLM, however, seeks to unite the existing organizations into a pan European movement.
Soler’s organization, the “Faucheurs Voluntaires,” has made headlines in France through a number of acts of civil disobedience. These have included the destruction of GM crops, including vineyards, and smashing up a McDonald’s restaurant. On three occasions the group has blockaded ports that were importing genetically modified soy beans and corn from South America, which were to be used as animal feed in France. Activities of this kind can be punished by prison sentences of up to five years and also by hefty fines. In 2008, following a field liberation action in Portugal, Europol introduced the term “terrorism” in connection with activities of this kind.
And yet, judges tend to go lightly with members of the anti-GM movement. According to Soler, the French legal system does not want to transform the movement’s members into martyrs, let alone media stars. And in some cases the activists have been remarkably successful. According to Soler, one of these blockades led to a discussion with the French environmental ministry. Soon afterwards, the French government banned the import of a GM corn variety to France.
From the point of view of Soler and other activists, genetic technology represents the culmination of a variety of problems facing modern society: the environment, our health, and economic influence. They believe that large international chemical companies seek to dominate the global food chain through a system of patents, whereas the future, Soler believes, “must be based on local economies with regional structures.”
BASF has already received the EU’s blessing on its latest gene potato, the deliciously named “Amadea,” and you can bet that more are on the way. So why even bother resisting “progress”? The anti-GM movement may sound like something Cervantes dreamed up, but at least this time Don Quixote doesn’t have to rely on Sancho Panza for support. He has his own cheering section in every corner of Europe. In Germany, for example, the EFLM is preaching to the choir. While Americans are still more or less evenly divided on their appetite for Frankenfoods, Minister Backhaus told the press last month that 70% of Germans refuse to touch them. Above all, many people object to the way the EU commission and international corporations can force their way on to their local fields. They resent the fact that the state of Mecklenburg has no way of banning crops that have been approved by the EU, and it has no way of preventing genetically modified material from entering the food chain. In a region like eastern Germany, where many people remember their own fight against foreign domination and centralized tyranny two decades ago, the anti-GM campaign is likely to put down some very deep roots.
Still, the grassroots battle against the GM industry is shaping up to be a genuine combat with windmills. How will the EFLM approach this daunting task? All we know for sure is that the fight will be photogenic: during the August demonstration in Zepkow one demonstrator dressed as a GM free potato got himself arrested by the police. “Today only the gene-free potato was arrested,” a representative said. “But if BASF tries to plant the Amflora again next year, we will put an end to this madness – everywhere in Europe.”