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Genetically Modified

GM = Genetically Modified, and whether it be food crops, animal protein or trees, it spells consumer fear through ignorance and the opportunity for governments to promote a protectionist agenda.Under ...


September 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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GM = Genetically Modified, and whether it be food crops, animal protein or trees, it spells consumer fear through ignorance and the opportunity for governments to promote a protectionist agenda.

Under pressure from business interests, the US government has recently launched a formal complaint to the WTO about the European Union’s moratorium on GM foods. This long-standing debate has the potential to spill over into the tree and fibre domain. It is important for our forestry experts and government agencies to establish the right story based on good science and consumer sensitivity, and not allow the junk science of special interest groups to fill a “story gap.” If an incorrect symbol is created, it will be hard to erase.

The US is leading an attack on the GM ban in Europe after one of the world’s most credible sources [Britain’s Royal Society] attacked the environmental groups’ narrow and unsubstantiated agenda around “Frankenfoods.” The Royal Society has concluded that there is no credible evidence of any risk to health from eating so-called GM food. Many other notable scientific bodies around the world have also substantiated this view. There has been an explosion of transgenic crops over the last five years; a UN report in March said about half of the soybeans and a fifth of the cotton grown worldwide is now genetically modified. This is because of their higher yield and resistance to insects and weeds. However, there is a body of consumers that is still nervous, and this might represent a new market for alternate “natural” products. In reality, this market would be based on filling an emotional need rather than any significant health need in the case of GM food. Along these lines, the UN is pushing for worldwide standards for labeling and tracking of GM products. As well, governments everywhere are being selective in their banning or acceptance of GM farming and imports for trade reasons. Various political agendas continue to confound the marketplace, leaving the beleaguered consumer confused and exposed to any junk science of the day. A recent survey of consumers in countries due to join the EU in 2004 showed that more than 80% of those surveyed thought that science would improve their life, but 68% rejected GM food outright, with more than half believing the stuff to be positively dangerous. In the interim, it is worth noting that stem-cell research has familiarized the consumer with the notion of tweaking nature, and the good that it can do. GM technology has also moved on, to encompass more pressing issues like healthcare delivery systems in food, glow-in-the-dark fish and salmon that grow five times the normal speed!

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Since no plausible evidence has yet emerged of risks to human health from eating GM food, the environmentalists’ main remaining objection is that GM plants may cross-pollinate others, spreading their alien genes to other species with unpredictable outcomes. However, a breakthrough announcement by a group of Canadian scientists may overcome the perceived problem: they have developed a kind of agricultural contraceptive, whereby GM plants that pollinate their non-GM relatives produce only sterile offspring. The initial research was carried out on GM tobacco plants but, if it proves applicable to other species, it may make the worldwide spread of GM crops unstoppable.

Why is this important?

The debate over GM foods is worth watching for its potential implication in forestry and fibre issues. This debate is about values, emotions and politics and has to be addressed using these parameters. Real science will have little impact unless it is backed by recognition of emotional values and consumer-recognized credibility — like governments or independent research. Brazil, a leader in bio-engineered forests, has already experienced some public backlash concerning their right to cut their own plantations. The industry should be thoroughly prepared with credible science and an emotional perspective concerning their use of managed forests and engineered fibers. Early warning signs to consider: current WTO decisions, boycotts of bio-engineered fiber, consumer sentiment for science, purchasing behavior for “natural products,” government posturing on the GM debate, breakthroughs in cross-pollination contraception, goings-on in Monsanto.

Alan R. Procter is an international consultant helping organizations exploit the future in their business strategies. He can be reached through www.alanprocter.com