» » Throw Genetic Engineering Overboard! – boat tour 2005 report

Throw Genetic Engineering Overboard! – boat tour 2005 report

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Why more GMO-free regions?
The tour was organised by A SEED Europe and XminY Solidarity Fund and was inspired by developments in the rest of Europe whereby large regions have declared themselves gm-free. Unfortunately, only one municipality in the Netherlands, Culumborg, has taken this step.  A GM free zone is a way to resist EU decisions. Local and regional authorities have the right to refuse to allow gm crops within their boundaries. After all, local authorities are responsible for maintaining food safety standards and a healthy living environment. Various large regions throughout Europe have already rallied behind  this unequivocal anti-gm statement. The movement is growing so fast that almost all of France and Italy are now gm-free. The use of genetic engineering in agriculture has been a controversial subject for years and this is why gm crops are still not being grown commercially. This could change in the near future in the Netherlands, now that the so-called co-existence covenant has been signed. Conventional and organic farmers have made certain agreements in this covenant about the cultivation of gm crops alongside conventional and organic crops. The covenant has been heavily criticised by environmental and consumer organisations because of the minimal isolation distances it allows for between fields growing gm and non-gm crops. If commercial cultivation goes ahead, massive genetic contamination will be inevitable. Gmo's are under the control of natural factors, not  legislation. The genetic code of plants is found in pollen and is spread by the wind and insects and no amount of legislation can alter this.

The Tour

In Den Helder, the group presented the petition to the alderman responsible for economic affairs and asked for his support. Although only flowers are grown in this region, it is also in the far north of Holland's interests to bar gm crops. Cultivating flowers requires large quantities of pesticides and this tendency would be strengthened if gm crops were also grown here. Despite the promises made by the biotechnology companies, growing gm crops leads to more, not less, insecticides and herbicides being used in the long term. The activists held a consumer test in the centre of Den Helder, accompanied by the
gm-free Samba band. Passers-by were offered the choice of a gm or non-gm
tomato and most people chose for the normal tomato.

On Texel, the activists had a meeting with with the chairman of the regional branch of the Dutch Organisation for Agriculture and Horticulture. This organisation is not totally opposed to the application of genetic engineering in the region. During the meeting with the chairman it became clear that the organisation's members are not well informed on this technology, even though it could be in use within a reasonably short space of time. The farmers seem to trust the policies that are decided from above, without receiving adequate information about the possible consequences for their business and the environment. The only information available comes from the business sector and is therefore devoid of any criticism of gm crops. Meetings like this are vitally important because they initiate discussions about genetic engineering amongst farmers. This is even more necessary now that it seems that scientists from Waginingen University have been calling upon the farmers of this Wadden Island with the offer of a potato that can be modified to be more resistant to the (sea) salt in the ground. The farmers are interested in it because the scientists have promised them better yields. At the same time, however, they admit that the development of a gm salt-resistant potato would take 15 years, while normal breeding methods would only take 5 years longer. The activists asked the farmers to chose a sustainable solution above a short term solution that could possibly turn agriculture on the island upside-down. In Den Burg and the harbour the activists discussed the issue with the public by means of street theatre and handing out information.

On Terschelling, they met an alderman who was prepared to accept the petition. Terschelling is famous for its great ecological diversity. The activists asked the alderman to keep it this way by not allowing any gm crops on the island because of their potential impact on the environment and biodiversity. Research in England has shown that there has been a great decrease in biodiversity in and around fields growing gm crops. This is because gm crops are cultivated as monocultures and require large amounts of pesticides. This causes sources of food for birds and insects to disappear and has an impact on all sorts of wildlife. As well as this, recently done research has confirmed the existence of so-called "superweeds" that overrun other plants. Once more, the gm-free parade took to the streets to tell the public about genetic engineering. There has been so little public information on this topic the last few years that people have the impression that it is no longer a relevant issue,
despite the fact that it is actually more relevant now than ever.

In Harlingen, the mayor had already made it known that he did not want to accept the petition for a gm-free zone. The action group was informed by the press that the mayor thought that there was no need for such an initiative because no gm crops are  being grown within the municipality. This is perfectly true, because gm crops are not yet being commercially grown in the Netherlands. The action group advocate adhering to the precautionary principle as prevention is always better than cure, and so they presented the petition at the town hall anyway. In this region the group also had several meetings with farmers and representatives from farmers' organisations. It became increasingly clear that these primary players in  the food production system knew  practically nothing about how genetic engineering works and even less about its possible consequences. One argument which came up time and time again was that farmers have other, more pressing problems to worry over, like the extremely low prices for their produce and their lack of self determination over production. Often, farmers are dependent upon the same company that decides what they grow and how much they will get paid for it. Nowadays, farmers are no longer the owners of self-sufficient businesses but the employees of agribusiness corporations. Hereby, their connection with what they produce and the ethics of food production are eroded, because the only important factor is a high yield . In general, the farmers were shocked when told about the impact that gm crops have had in other parts of the world. They do not have access to information that would allow them to deliberate over possible consequences. It is, therefore, of vital importance that farmers are made aware of these facts before biotechnology companies contaminate agriculture and the environment without anyone noticing before it is too late.

At first, the doors to Mr. Nijpels, the Queen's Commissioner for the province Friesland in Leeuwarden remained closed to the activists for "agenda and technical reasons". The activists didn't give up and after spreading information to the public with some street theatre, they went back to the town hall and nailed their petition to the front door. If genetic engineering can't be stopped, then neither can resistance to it.  The tour continued along the north-eastern polder.  We spoke to more farmers and  discovered the same thing: they are totally unaware of the approaching gm threat and its potentially harmful consequences.

After a quick stop in Enkhuizen, the tour drew to an end in Lelystad, where a petition was handed over to the Queen's Commissioner in Flevoland. This province is one of the Netherlands' top food producing regions. The Netherlands north-eastern polder was created in order to achieve self sufficiency in agriculture and therefore this is a mainly agricultural region. This is reason enough to be careful when admitting a new technology which has
caused huge economic, financial and health problems in other parts of the world. A few days before the gmo-free boat tour reached Lelystad, we learned that the plans for the Bio Science park in Lelystad, a centre for biotechnology companies, had been scrapped. For a long time, these plans had stood in the way of earlier attempts to establish a gmo free zone in  that region. Now there is nothing more in the way of such an initiative.

Not the end of the campaign!
The tour is not the end of the campaign. While it did not result in the establishment of any gm free zones, it did get a lot of people thinking about this issue. Later in the autumn we will organise more meetings with farmers' organisations to discuss how genetic engineering in the Netherlands can be thrown overboard for good.