GMO: The Banana Test
January 2007
The GMO debate is creating quite a stir in France. Last spring, the Senate passed a bill aimed at structuring GMO cultivation, which caused renewed fervour among the different lobby groups. On the one side were seed growers, representing the industry as a whole and on the other side were citizens, represented by the flamboyant José Bové and other defenders of “good causes”. If the former have much to gain, the latter have nothing to lose.

Those who are fighting against GMO are doing so based on the precautionary principle. By the way, this principle was actually written into the French Constitution. And since scientists will not guarantee that GMO represent no serious risk to human health, such products should not be marketed. In fact, French insurance companies have denied farmers insurance coverage for their GMO crops since they could not predict the risks and/or eventual indemnifications to be paid out. Thus, the controversial bill aimed at creating a Compensation Fund.

As for the other camp, those who are fighting to make GMO widely available allege that not a single study of the many scientific studies conducted revealed any dangers linked to GMO. So why live without them? If we always waited to be 100% sure we would be missing out on so many opportunities. Let’s not forget that modern medicine evolved through trial and error, with daring experiments that sometimes failed, but often resulted in amazing advances in the field of human health.

Two belief systems facing off against each other, two types of reasoning based on implacable logic. How can we decide? It is a very complex issue that cannot easily be divided into black or white, yes or no. To clear up the impending debate, the case of the GMO-banana will be particularly interesting to follow. Let me summarize the facts. In 2003, New Scientist, a British magazine, predicted the imminent disappearance of bananas. For example, the Panama disease that attacks the banana tree’s roots has already reached Asia, South Africa and Australia and is threatening to devastate the great banana plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. The industry is reasonably concerned. The enemy must be stopped. However, it is impossible to even consider genetic cross-breeding to make bananas more resistant: this much loved fruit contains absolutely no seeds, they are in fact sterile. There is only one solution, which is to force a resistant gene by creating a GMO-banana. Brazil has already started working on this project.

Okay. No need to panic. The horrible threat hanging over the banana is relative of course. Truth be told, Panama disease only attacks the Cavendish variety, the type available on European and North American markets which is primarily under the control of multi-national corporations. The disease does not affect local species, which constitute a key food source in developing countries and represent, for all accounts and purposes, 90% of world banana production. The banana is far from being an endangered species!

Nonetheless, this whole affair will be a good market test for GMO. Recently, a BVA survey conducted in France revealed that 78% of French people were against GMO. Easy to say. Let’s see what they do. It seems that, in the not so distant future, they will be able to choose between their beloved and genetically modified and other bananas that will no longer have the same colour, the same texture or the same taste as the Cavendish… but all-natural bananas. Will French consumers be able to make a choice that meets their moral standards? In fact, each one of us will be facing that same choice sooner or later. We may say that we are for or against GMO, but in the end, our choices will settle this debate. Obviously, for the test to be conclusive and for our purchases to be the decisive verdict, clear and unambiguous labelling is no longer an option.

One last thought. To make the Cavendish resistant to Panama disease, scientists are thinking about retrieving the resistance gene from local banana species. Which means that large corporations will be indebted to small farmers who, through the biodiversity they are able to maintain, ensure the preservation of genetic heritage. So in this regard, will they be entitled to some sort of compensation?
 

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Email: colette.lebel@lacoop.coop
Fax: (514) 858-2025
 



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