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NOTE: More on the huge row over the pro-GM conference held in Ireland last week.
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GM-FREE IRELAND PROTEST + RELATED MEDIA COVERAGE: PART 3

GM-free Ireland Network, 3 September 2008

...All these items may also be found on our news pages for September and August at http://www.gmfreeireland.org/news

*How GM firms could rob us of nature's gift - the seeds of life
Irish Daily Mail, 3 September 2008. Op-Ed by Tom Doorley.

*Irish experts to help tackle world hunger
The Irish Times, 3 September 2008. By Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent.

*GM Watch comments on ABIC conference
Non-GM crops are more profitable ­ Prof. Bob Watson
GM Watch, 29 August 2008.

*GM promoter barking up the wrong tree
Letter to the Editor of the Irish Examiner, 29 August 2008.

*A GM-free zone
Evening Echo, 28 August 2008.
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HOW GM FIRMS COULD ROB US OF NATURE'S GIFT THE SEEDS OF LIFE

Irish Daily Mail, 3 September 2008. Op-Ed by Tom Doorley.

[Tom Doorley is a celebrated food and wine critic, restaurant reviewer, radio and television presenter, and author of Muck and Merlot, A Book about Food, Wine and Muddy Boots.]

"We now know from 30 years of international research and development that modern plants and food produced using biotechnology are safe. Food containing genetically modified ingredients are already on our supermarket shelves, and livestock here are being fed genetically modified feeds."

This is what Prof Jimmy Burke of Teagasc, the body that advises the Government on agriculture, recently told a conference in Cork [the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference - ABIC 2008 - Ed]. It came as something of a surprise to me, given the commitment in the Programme for Government to the creation of an all-Ireland GM-free zone. Is Teagasc giving two fingers to its paymasters?

He also told the conference, which Teagasc had organized, that we need an "open, transparent and inclusive" debate on genetically modified foods while claiming that biotechnology is good for society and for agriculture.

Manipulation

As Senator Dan Boyle of the Green Party has pointed out, this is a bit rich given that the conference ignored issues like consumer confidence, cross-contamination and manipulation of markets by the GM companies.

Teagasc has nailed its colours to the mast on the issue of GM crops and it has the gall, the brass neck to spend taxpayers money on an event that appears devoted solely to the promotion of this form of biotechnology in Ireland. Some debate!

Of course, if it were as simple as Prof Burke makes out, there would be no need for a debate. And his faith in GM crops would be touching, pitiful indeed, if he were not a scientist charged with giving the Government impartial and expert advice.

It's true that people don't come out in blue spots or suddenly drop dead when they consume GM foods but I don't think I'm being cynical in thinking that the longterm effects of biotech grub have yet to be established. They may well turn out to be as pure and health-giving as traditional Irish soda bread but I don't see how we can be quite sure.

But why have Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, Greece and Portugal banned a GM maize, produced by the leading GM company Monsanto, the romantically named MON810? The genetic modification makes the plant produce a toxin that kills the camborer, a pest that can afflict this crop. And there is evidence that it doesn't stop there but also kills benefical insects and earthworms.

Last month, Austria banned a further GM maize, again produced by Monsanto, because rats fed on it developed kidney and liver damage. The Austrian agriculture minister issued the ban on health and safety grounds.

And why did Peru suspend the production of GM crops last month? Its Minister for Agriculture cited serious concerns about health and biodiversity.

But according to Teagasc, everything is grand. Tickety-boo. Thirty years of GM and we know they are perfectly safe. Thank you, Prof Burke. You have patronized us quite enough.

Safety is a vastly important issue, but it's not the only one. There is also the matter of choice. And the fact is that huge numbers of people simply don't want any genetically modified foods in their diet. Over 70% of the Irish population, for example, and the proportion is higher in most other EU countries. This may be due to ignorance, to perfectly reasonable concerns about safety, to worries about the environment or a desire to eat as naturally as they can. The fact is that they have a right to avoid GM food if they wish to.

According to Prof Burke, food containing genetically modified ingredients are on the supermarket shelves. And he says that animals are being fed GM cereals despite the claim by Fine Gael that Irish farmers are saddled with a €60m bill each year because of the need to source GM-free feed. What is going on here?

There is a great deal of pious talk about GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) being the only solution to world hunger. Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that we would have solved this humanitarian problem decades ago if the developed world cared enough about it, let's look at what GM crops could achieve.

GM is all about producing new crops that maximize yield, that are immune to disease and drought, and that can cope with climate change. Sounds like a great idea and one that it would be churlish, even luddite to resist.

Maximise

But just as there's nothing simple about the technology of GMOs, there's nothing simple about the way in which are designed to maximize market share.

You see, in the kind of agriculture that we have practiced for millennia, seeds are sown, a crop is produced and the next generation of seeds can be saved. All farmers in the world can be self-sufficient in what they sow if they want to be.

GM crops are different. The companies that produce them make their money by selling the GM seeds and often by selling selective weedkillers for use on the resulting crop. But the farmer has to buy the seed again and again. Year after year.

As every harvest goes by, the vast multinational agribusiness conglomerates own more and more of the means of crop production. Plants, which were once our commonwealth, are now being patented and, in a sense, leased to farmers for a fee.

'Plants, once our commonwealth, are now being patented and, in a sense, leased to farmers for a fee'

Forget about the spectre of "Frankenstein foods". The really scary thing is the concerted effort to take the commercially useful bits of the plant kingdom into private ownership. And charge a fortune for access.

Biotechnology has many hugely beneficial applications, especially in medicine. But once you take genetic modification out of the sphere of animal biology and start applying it to plants there is a huge danger that you are letting the genie, no pun intended, out of the bottle.

Plants produce pollen. Pollen is spread by bees, butterflies and other insects, and by the wind. There is nothing to stop GM pollen from pollinating a related non-GM plant and then where are you?

Well, it's a good question. This is clearly contamination. But it may be contamination that brings with it, for example, a GM-induced resistance to weedkillers (so you get a super-weed growing wild) or the so-called "terminator gene" which will mean that all resulting seed will be sterile. Quite an effective way of wiping out a whole wild plant population, I would have thought.

We have been breeding plants ever since humans first started farming. Only the other day, I marked one of my tomato plants for saving seed - because its fruits are a bit bigger and a bit tastier than those of its siblings. This is improvement by selection. If I keep doing this, I'll have a really superb strain of Yellow Pear tomatoes.

And I'm absolutely certain that it won't unleash untold horrors upon the natural world.

But Teagasc, bless their little Bunsen burners, have great faith and, as I mention above, a brass neck. Perhaps it's a very highly developed sense of irony that allows them to call for open and inclusive debate at a conference of theirs which, to say the very least, lacked balance. Or perhaps it's just arrogance.

In any case, it strikes me that Teagasc is throwing down the gauntlet to the Government over the GM-free zone commitment. But is it with tacit Government approval?

Irish Governments hate upsetting the United States and that GM-free zone business got right up the nose of Uncle Sam. The U.S. ambassador complained.

I can't help wondering if Teagasc's conference and its curiously uncritical tone was organized to pacify the Land of the Free (and home of the biggest biotech companies on the planet).

Comment by GM-free Ireland:

Following all the media coverage and protests against the abuse of Irish tax-payer funds to sponsor the ABIC conference, their website was retroactively modified in a desperate attempt at damage control. Following the sentence “The ABIC programme is highlighting biotechnology advances across the agriculture, food, plant, animal, marine and pharma sectors”, they added the words (with added emphasis in bold typface  “The conference covers both GM and non-GM agricultural biotechnologies.” This is patently misleading, as the event was backed by the some of the worlds biggest GM companies including Monsanto, BASF, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta.

One outcome of the ABIC conference is the allocation of more state funding this time from the Department of Foreign Affairs for UCC scientists to carry out research and development with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Nigeria, which is well-known for promoting GM crops! (See next article below)
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IRISH EXPERTS TO HELP TACKLE WORLD HUNGER

The Irish Times, 3 September 2008. By Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent.

[Photo Caption: Micheal Martin: agricultural research can help prevent global hunger]

IRELAND CAN play an important role in tackling the issue of food insecurity by helping develop crops which can survive in some of the world's poorest regions, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin declared yesterday.

Mr Martin said hunger was a harsh reality for 850 million people, while a further 100 million were at risk of hunger each day because of rocketing food prices.

"We must provide food but we must address the underlying causes of food insecurity and in this context top quality pro-poor agricultural research is critical," said Mr Martin.

He was speaking at University College Cork where he launched a research programme between UCC's College of Science, Engineering and Food Science and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture which has its headquarters in Nigeria.

He added that the research programme with UCC would offer some of Ireland's top scientists the opportunity to apply their expertise to tackle world hunger through invaluable field experience in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Martin noted that the institute has led the way in anchoring its research and choosing its partners specifically to tackle the needs of poor African farmers. The programme would also allow the tropical agriculture institute to access UCC's considerable expertise and facilities in crop research.

The institute, which has operations across sub-Saharan African, has been a partner of Irish Aid for many years and has demonstrated an impressive ability to translate scientific solutions into impact on the ground, said Mr Martin.

"Irish Aid has deliberately encouraged the linkages between the international agricultural research institutes it supports and Ireland's own university research institutes, recognising the potential that exists for exploiting synergies and sharing expertise," he said.

The director general of the institute, Dr Peter Hartmann, said that the organisation has more than 100 international research scientists in stations across Africa focusing on enhancing food security through developing a range of staple crops of the poor.

"Many of these crops are of little commercial or internationally-traded interest yet are vital for the food security of millions of the poor in Africa and worldwide," said Dr Hartmann.

"We conduct research on crops such as cowpea, soybean, banana, plaintain, yam, cassava and maize."

Dr Hartmann welcomed the agreement with UCC.

He said that agricultural research has long been undervalued and was essential to move away from a dependence on large producers like the US and Canada to stabilise food supplies.

Comment by GM-free Ireland:

More Irish taxpayer funds to promote GM food and farming! UCC scientists will be paid to research and develop of GM crops with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
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GM WATCH COMMENTS ON THE ABIC CONFERENCE

Non-GM crops are more profitable ­- Prof. Bob Watson

GM Watch, 29 August 2008.

The big ABIC pro-GM jamboree in Ireland this week didn't go entirely to plan. Two contributions in particular proved rather awkward for the organisers.

One came from Defra Chief Scientist, Prof. Bob Watson and the other from Prof. Dennis Murphy, who heads the biotechnology dept at the University of Glamorgan.

Prof. Murphy, despite being pro-GM, has an endearing habit of telling it like it is, and he apparently made statements to the conference such as: "nothing has happened in commercial biotech for 15 years... [we're] relying on 1st generation GM products which have under-performed... we must reduce our obsession with GM ...it will not feed the world, maybe a small section."

And here's a couple of extracts from the press coverage [1] of what Prof. Watson had to say:

"Watson believes the stance taken by GM companies is too positive... financially these crops are not as profitable as conventional crops.

He questioned whether the real reason that there is hunger in Africa is because they do not utilise GM. This, he said, was incorrect."

If such authoritative voices were embarrassingly off-message for the pro-GM hype-fest planned by the Irish/Canadian backers of the conference, then equally damaging for the pro-GM Irish government agencies who'd been drawn into backing it was the controversy that broke about their ears.

GM-free Ireland in comments on a letter from the Canadian government bureaucrat Shane Morris, published in the Irish Examiner [2], note how when they organised a conference which raised concerns about GM, Morris successfully lobbied the one Irish government agency which offered any support to the event to withdraw it on the grounds that the conference did not accord with the then Irish Government's pro-GM policy. But seven Irish agenies happily backed the pro-GM ABIC conference even though the current Government's policy is to work for a GM-free island of Ireland.

And the Irish Green Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, has expressed its displeasure in no uncertain terms. Green Party Chairman, Senator Dan Boyle, declared that the involvement of state agencies in "an event that is unbalanced is wrong. The Programme for Government states quite emphatically that an all-island GM free zone is to be negotiated. This should inform the thinking of State agencies."

Senator Boyle also described the conference as "far from... intellectually honest" [3] while Green Party Senator Deirdre de Burca was still more blunt, declaring the conference the state agencies were backing to be "just a propoganda exercise for the biotech multi-nationals" [4].

Notes:

1. "ABIC conference: Science needs to meet growing food demand", by Darragh Mullin, Irish Farmers Journal, 30 August 2008.

2. "Chef's attitude to State funding of biotech conference is hard to swallow", Irish Examiner (Letters), 29 August 2008

3. Irish Green Party press release, 26 August 2008.

4. Unpublished letter from Senator Deirdre de Burca to the Editor of The Irish Times, 26 August 2008.
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GM PROMOTER BARKING UP THE WRONG TREE

Letter to the Editor of the Irish Examiner, 28 August 2008.

Shane Morris's letter [Chef's attitude to state funding of biotech conference is hard to swallow, August 29, 2008] is misleading and ill-founded.

Firstly, neither Lorcan Cribbin nor any other member of Euro-toques Ireland was invited to speak at the UCC debate mentioned (which Shane Morris should be well aware of as he organised it), nor did Euro-toques take part any so-called 'political' press conference.

In relation to the 'Green Ireland' conference in Kilkenny in June 2006 to promote a green branding for Irish food, farming and tourism (which I can only assume is the conference referred to), the only sponsorship from the state I am aware of is €1,000 pledged by Bord Bía and then pulled under pressure from Mr. Morris himself, and the venue which was provided to An Taisce for the event.

But if the government wishes to fund something which the majority of Irish consumers support, why would we have any concerns about that?

What Euro-toques Ireland is calling for is open and transparent public debate on this issue, and a clear policy from the government which reflects the wishes of the Irish people. Mr. Morris is barking up the wrong tree.

What is certainly of concern though is why Mr. Morris sees fit to pressurise Irish state bodies to withdraw funding for an event and why that body would bow to the pressure? How many Irish citizens does he represent?

If he felt it was inappropriate for Bord Bía (the promoters of Irish Food and creators of the brand 'Ireland-The Food Island') to put a paltry €1,000 towards a 'Green Ireland' conference, why has he no issue with tens of thousands in state sponsorship for a biotechnology conference?

A severe case of the pot calling the kettle black, I think.

Ruth Hegarty
Secretary-General, Euro-toques Ireland
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A GM-FREE ZONE

Evening Echo, 28 August 2008.

The Green Party chairman, Senator Dan Boyle, has said State agencies must take part in a balanced debate on the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods. At a conference on biotechnology in UCC he said: "The Programme for Government states that an all-island GM-free zone is to be negotiated. This should inform the thinking of State agencies".

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Michael O'Callaghan
Co-ordinator
GM-FREE IRELAND NETWORK
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website:   www.gmfreeireland.org