Yesterday, April 14th, 2009, German Minister Ilse Aigner made a controversial announcement that plunged all of Europe, the US, and some parts of the developing world into a tense frenzy of hot-headed bickering. Which area of the German government did this tiny little kernel of war come from? Not Defence. Not Finanice. Not Justice. No, Ilse Aigner is Germany’s Minister of Agriculture.
Yesterday she announced that genetically modified (GM) corn crops can no longer be grown commercially in Germany. Specifically, the MON 810 strain of corn, which was the only GM crop previously allowed in Germany, anyway. This strain is manufactured by Monsanto, a multinational agricultural technology company based in the US. MON 810 is special because it’s incredibly resistant to a particular type of hungry caterpillar that loves gorging on the corn plants before turning into a pretty butterfly. Aigner explained that the reason for the ban is a serious concern that this strain may be dangerous to the environment.
Evidence for this is present, but spotty. Many scientists have cautioned that there’s a possibility that the pollen from these GM plants will carry cross-boundaries and destroy the native crops in other areas. Greenpeace launched a campaign in January 2009 to get GM crops banned in India, citing studies that showed the biologically damaging effects of this food. Apparently, mice fed on GM corn had fewer and lighter babies than those fed on normal corn. Translated into human terms, I suppose we can consider this a yummier form of birth control. Considering the current birth rate in India, perhaps they shouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth.
Ok, maybe I went too far with that one.
Environmental/biological uncertainties are not the only issues mucking up the world’s metaphorical cornfield. Germany is not the first country to ban GM corn. In fact, it is the 6th. France, Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg, and Greece all paved the way for yesterday’s announcement. This conflict has been brewing within the European Union for years, actually. The EU Commission determined the crop to be safe, and has tried numerous times to force these countries to lift their bans. But they have clung to a rule that says they may institute their own bans based on scientific research they conduct that says the crop is not safe. During the last vote over this matter, 9 of the EU countries supported a forced lifting of the bans, while 16 of them voted to leave the countries alone. This GM corn is metaphorically husking the European Union.
Coming from an American perspective, the New York Times reported the troubles that this announcement could cause in terms of trade relations between Germany and the US. Monsanto and other large companies depend on European markets for many of their products. These markets are quickly becoming the toughest in the world.
Finally, we go back to basics, and what this is really all about after all- food. Another reason the EU Commission wants to lift these bans is that many of these GM crops are lower cost, and the growing of lower cost foods and animal feeds in European countries will help a population that is quickly sinking into new depths of poverty and needs food to survive. I wonder if the millions of people not getting enough to eat would care whether their corn is GM or not.
So what is the basis for all of this chaotic controversy? Are these bans the result of intelligent caution, or stubborn resistance to change? Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous that, with all of the political, economic, and military problems Europe and the rest of the world are dealing with right now, the straw that is breaking this camel’s back seems to actually be an ear of corn?