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Debate erupts over GMOs

August 8th, 2011

The Hungarian government has ordered the destruction of hundreds of hectares of corn grown from genetically modified seeds, in order to retain Hungary’s GMO-free image. Although an unusual consensus reigns among political parties on the importance of  GMO-free agriculture, the press debates the economic and health related issues at stake.

The Central Agricultural Office has ordered the maize crop on approximately 7,000 hectares of fields to be ploughed into the ground, in order to prevent contamination from  the allegedly GMO crops manufactured by Monsanto and Pioneer. Hungarian laws, including the new Basic Law, ban the distribution and use of GMO seeds. In case of violation of the regulations, producers are to be held responsible. The reason behind the late decision on the seeds is that the Hungarian authorities had to check all the seed planted in Hungary, and this procedure took months.

The Hungarian government plans to sue the producers and meanwhile to fully compensate farmers who bought the seeds which, according to the Hungarian authorities, were “GMO infected”. Monsanto and Pioneer claim that their products were checked in accredited laboratories and meet the EU standards for GMO free products, because of the negligible quantity of GMO seeds in the samples.  Compensation could reach as high as 10 billion HUF. Whether the producers or the government will pay will most likely be decided by the court.

Our country in the nineteen-eighties was a seed producing superpower. … today the market is dominated by multinational companies, and most farmers cannot resist their pushy agents,” Gergely Huth writes in the right-wing Magyar Hírlap.

Huth contends that international seed producers intend to contaminate Hungarian fields with GMO seeds so that they can later sell the chemicals designed especially for growing their genetically modified crops.

Losing GMO-free status could have severe economic consequences, Huth suggests. “Hungarian food products are valued by Western consumers because they are made of GMO-free crops.” Hungarian agriculture has a lot to lose if it turns out that Hungarian products are not GMO-free.

“[GMO seed producers] play God. Their aim, however, is not to serve the public interest, but to increase their profits,” notes Balázs Ágoston in the right-wing Magyar Demokrata. He calls the situation an “economic war” and says that if multinational GMO seed producers succeed in contaminating the Hungarian fields, they will enjoy a complete monopoly in the country.

Balázs notes that the introduction of genetically modified plants may compromise biodiversity and the ecological balance. There are health considerations as well, since pest-resistant GMOs produce poisons internally that keep insects away. Some research also suggests that GMO-feed weakens the immune systems of animals and harms their internal organs.

The farmers involved, nonetheless, have mixed feeling about the government’s decision,  Balázs Iványi reports in the pro-government Heti Válasz. They say that instead of ploughing the crop into the soil, the corn could be used to feed livestock or to produce biogas.

It is also contentious to claim that Hungary is entirely free of genetically modified products, Iványi notes. “From 80 to 90 percent of livestock fodder used in Hungary contains genetically modified soy flour.”

Iványi notes that while many believe that Monsanto and Pioneer want to infiltrate the country with GMO products in order to gain markets, this would not be rational, since both companies also produce GMO-free seeds in Hungary, which can be sold at a higher price than their GMO counterparts – both in Hungary and abroad. As for Hungary’s market advantage, it is not entirely clear whether being GMO-free entails more benefits than producing crops that yield more and require less care, Iványi concludes.

The case is further complicated by the fact that the seed companies involved had their products checked and approved by an EU-accredited French institution, while the Hungarian laboratory that claims to have discovered the presence of GMOs in the seeds lacks official accreditation, notes Gábor Tamás in the left-wing Magyar Narancs.

Tamás adds that however harshly the government steps in, GMO seeds may find their ways onto Hungarian fields anyway. As GMO crops are allowed in some EU countries, it can be taken for granted that many farmers purchase GMO seeds abroad, circumventing the Hungarian ban.

Instead of fighting the multinational seed producers, Hungary should follow a more thoughtful strategy, Tamás recommends. Clear rules should be worked out in cooperation with the seed producers to avoid such controversies and keep up Hungary’s currently shaken GMO free image.

The Hungarian political elites are … unanimously and unconditionally against GMOs, though they supposedly have no professional knowledge whatsoever in this field,” writes Máté Varga in the liberal conservative Hírszerző.

Despite the broad political consensus, Varga does not find either health related, nor economic arguments against GMOs convincing.

Changes in the genetic code are not only man-made, Varga notes. Genetic mutations quite often occur naturally. Moreover, the traditional ionizing radiation methods produce more significant mutations than genetic improvements with pinpoint accuracy. Traditionally improved species may be sold as organic products without any further monitoring of possible health related consequences. There is no evidence that GMO products are any more dangerous than species emerging as a result of spontaneous mutations, Varga writes.

Economic fears about GMOs are also unfounded, he adds. If specific kinds of GMOs were allowed, not only could yields increase, but Hungarian biotechnology firms could also benefit from the opening up of Hungarian agriculture.

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