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Checkbiotech: Fear the reapers
Posted by: Prof. Dr. M. Raupp (IP Logged)
Date: September 28, 2005 07:26AM ; ;

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a notoriously bad reputation in
France. In such a hostile environment, some people have not hesitated to
destroy the few authorized fields of genetically modified plants in the name
of the precautionary principle, September 2005 by Xavier Mera.

This summer, three attacks occurred in the Puy-de-Dme department, and
responsibility for some of them claimed by the Collectif des faucheurs
volontaires (or, "the volunteer reapers"). The company Meristem, French
leader in the development of medicines made from genetically modified
plants, was the target of this last wave of anti-GMO violence, without much
media coverage.

But one group that did object to the anti-GMO vandalism was the organization
Defeating Cystic Fibrosis. It turns out that the plants destroyed were meant
to be used to develop drugs to relieve secondary effects of cystic fibrosis
and to produce anti-cancer antibodies.

First of all, this is an obvious illustration of the dangers of the
precautionary principle. By focusing only on the possible risks of GMO
production, this principle also forces us to ignore the costs of abandoning
it. Every choice has a cost, even if it is guided by this principle. In this
case it is the availability of such medicines and the income they would
represent for their producers - which have to be abandoned if the naysayers
have their way. This is what "precaution" means for patients and
pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Obviously, GMO opponents refuse to be seen as neglecting the interests of
patients. They claim that such interests do not require the production of
genetically modified plants. They claim that alternative techniques exist
and that the only reason why GMOs are chosen is for greater profit. They are
probably right: most of the time there are various technologies available
for reaching a same result, and the choice of one or the other is generally
not based on humanitarian reasons. So what? What is so sinister about
financial considerations?

When a cheaper technique is found for using the soil more productively, as
is typically the case with GMOs, it is good news for consumers because
competition, if we let it do its job, will bring the prices down. Producing
more by spending less means a more profitable investment. When investors
come to understand such an opportunity for making money, they tend to turn
towards the sector concerned by choosing this technique, thus increasing the
production and lowering the price of the product. The choice of technique is
thus not unconnected to the well being of patients. As long as free
competition works, it is such financial considerations that guarantee
patients wider access to treatments.

What about risks linked to GMOs? Perhaps we might agree with a statement
made by the "voluntary reapers" claiming that "no scientific or therapeutic
reason can justify the use of farmers' fields as laboratory fodder". Then
the group referred to the risk of genetically modified cornfields
"contaminating" the neighboring crops. According to Meristem, their plants
are sterile and do not expose the neighboring properties to a change in the
nature of their production. Even if we imagine that such deterioration is
possible, this does not lead directly to the conclusion that GMOs should be
banned, contrary to critics' claims. In reality this argument has nothing to
do with GMOs, but rather with trespassing on other people's property. Owners
of genetically modified plants "contaminated" by neighboring fields could
just as well use it. And it would have to be proved that such trespassing
had occurred, unlike self-appointed "reapers" who do not wait before acting.

In fact, it is not necessary to ban GMOs to prevent farmers' fields being
turned into laboratory fodder. Instead of resorting to vandalism, these
reapers could fight for the government to take more seriously article 2 of
the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, enshrining the
right to own property. If acts of pollution like "contamination" of fields
were considered by lawyers as what they really are, trespassing on private
property, GMO producers would tend to settle far away from possible
plaintiffs or would invest in means of protection, such as greenhouses. In
any case, the possibility of legal proceedings would push investors to
better estimate the real risk of GMOs. Defending farmers does not call for
banning GMOs, and destroying plants can only put a halt to the process of
discovery about the risks linked to them.


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