International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

Genetically manipulated foods
Annamaria Procacci

Humanities Graduate and Green Group Member of Parliament

There is great concern in many European countries about the arrival of GM foods such as soya, maize, chicory and rape. Unfortunately this is just the start of what the market promises us: pears, apples, strawberries, fruit genetically mutated into a sort of reinvention of nature. Many experts are becoming increasingly worried about this situation. What effects will these products have on health and the environment? This question is our point of departure, and the work of the European Commission in 1996 authorising the distribution of GM products all over Europe was hardly reassuring. I do not intend to talk technically about what a genetic mutation is, but I would like to tell you about the main queries raised by experts in response to questioning by the Italian Government.

Firstly health risks: there is a risk of allergies, especially towards soya. Allergies are spreading fast - now 8% of children suffer from them. These allergies will be unpredictable since people do not know when they are eating GM foods - the labels do not tell us anything! Secondly environmental risks: we cannot predict the behaviour of GM vegetable organisms. These are super-plants, able to absorb greater quantities of herbicides since they are more resistant than others, and represent a heavy blow to diversity. We cannot predict what will happen with crops. When multinationals maintain that they are working in laboratories to eliminate world hunger they are lying. Crops of plants which have not undergone thousands of years of natural selection will probably run the risk of viruses we do not even know about yet. A scenario which creates insoluble problems.

The Italian media have not even touched on these matters, which is regrettable because I know that in other countries there has been considerable discussion. Six months ago, in the face of the tough stance of the Austrian public, Nestlé gave reassurances that they would not distribute GM foods. We know however that this did not apply to Italy. This is what we are working for in Parliament, voting unanimously for a bill which would block distribution of GM foods in Italy. That same morning, by a happy coincidence, the European Parliament disclaimed responsibility for the European Commission's decision to say yes to distribution, accusing it of giving way to profit and business without consideration for the environment and the health of its citizens. We must mobilise, in my view more forcefully and skilfully than we have so far. Consumers hold great power, but can only wield this power if there is information and therefore choice. We want to know what we are eating.

A few days ago the European Commission issued the ultimatum that Italy should remove its bar on GM products. We Greens demanded that Italy, like Austria, contest this order and appeal to the Court in Luxemburg. Furthermore, on July 17 the first reading of a bill on the possibility of patentability of life went through Parliament. This allows - for commercial ends - for patents, and therefore property rights, on living organisms merely because they were created in a laboratory. But can life be patented? I believe that the answer is "no"! I believe that Europeans should play a completely different role in the face of these enormous silent changes in which our lives and ecosystems are being gambled with. Let us work together to stop this process, which is also antidemocratic. I believe we have great potential, but only if we act together. Those hardest hit by these unnatural processes will be the vegetarians, those looking for the most natural lifestyle, but who are instead subjected to organisms manipulated in a laboratory.

Questions

Q: Another danger is that of hybridisation. Can these plants be modified by weeds they come into contact with, leading to unimaginable environmental repercussions, the creation of new species, micro-organism diseases which will upset the balance of our planet?

A: That's right. We run the risk of creating, for example, parasites or superparasites, so worsening the world famine problem, with an unpredictable upset of environmental balance and agriculture. This is the end of millennium problem we should devote most energy to.

Q: Apart from information, how can we act to make known the presence of GMOs in our food? We have already heard that there is a law establishing equivalence between products, so would it be possible to demand a trademark on healthfoods to let us know, without breaking the law, that the product contains only natural foods?

A: This is the road we are attempting to go down, asking food companies to write on labels "does not contain GMOs". Despite obligatory obedience to the EU, there is some room to manoeuvre, and this is being discussed in the Chamber of Deputies. There has been an amendment to European law regarding the labelling "contains/does not contain", and we are now trying to get approval from the European Parliament. We will have to make a firm stand if we do not want to be used as guinea pigs.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)