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GMO potato fight sparks hot debate in Belgium

By Nick Meynen. 

On May 29, 2011, some 400 mothers with children, biological farmers, environmentalists and scientists gathered around a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) potato field. In a symbolic and announced public action they ‘replaced’ some GMO potatoes with real ones. For the around twenty potatoes they managed to ‘replace’, the court is now asking eleven of the activists to pay 191.000 euro in damages. The public prosecutors made charges of conspiracy by a criminal organisation, theft and vandalism, which could lead to prison sentences of up to 8 months. This has caused much anger and a heated debate on the scope of activism and the role of science in society.

Mainstream media in Belgium are focusing on what they call a violent action by a few ‘vandals’ to interrupt scientific progress, hardly paying any attention to the GMO debate that the hundreds of activists wanted to make. National television just neglected the well-attended start of the process. The Flemish Green Party was quick to distance the party from the ‘violence’ – even though the only ‘victim’ was a policeman that got hurt … on one finger. A scientist that gave a television interview during the action was temporary suspended from her university. The Flemish Minister-President, Kris Peeters, made a point of reacting fast and hard, skipping the normal procedures and without appointing an independent investigation judge.

The responses to an announced action of civil disobedience from the law, mainstream media, political parties and scientific institutions have now sparked a heated debate. But much too often, the original intentions of the action are neglected. That is why MEP Bart Staes summed up some key problems with the GMO debate that he sees, concerns that we share:

Ethical-philosophical objections: How far can humanity go in adapting nature?

Risks to health and environment: only short-term risks are estimated, like we did with DDT, dioxins and asbestos.

The choice autonomy of the (European) consumer: 70 percent of European citizens are against GMOs.

Worse yields on the long term: for creating herbicide resistance there is a negative effect in the long-term.

GMOs makes dependent farmers: GMO giants couple deals on seeds and herbicides with a contractual prohibition to use other seeds. Therefore, farmers should pay every year to the food giants. In countries like India farmers are first lured by cheap seed but over time they have to pay high royalties.

GMO agriculture is not compatible with organic agriculture. There is no possible coexistence between organic farmers and the presence of GMOs. Organic farmers cannot grow their crops near GMO crops.

Finally, GMO agriculture is not sustainable agriculture. It makes for a strengthening of industrial agriculture, which is heavily dependent on fertilizers and chemical pesticides and leads to a decrease in biodiversity.

This said, the trial that started here in Belgium is about more than GMOs. When the 11 activists – that for some mysterious reason were picked out from the 100s that participated in the action – had to go to court on January 15, 91 others joined them and asked to be charged as well, which the judge refused. Among them: professors and MEPs that wanted to show the total at randomness of accusing just 11 people, while the action was done by hundreds of people. When the judge also refused to listen to people called as witness by the defense, the 11 accused left the court during the so-called ‘hearings’. Why they are asked so much money? Because the Flemish Institute for biotechnology, University of Ghent, Ghent HogeSchool and the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research want them to pay not only for six months of private security for the site, but also for the pro GMO rally, the time the biotech industry spent dealing with the press, and the many hours that the lecturers spent spreading pro-GMO propaganda by e-mail and Facebook. If they succeed to make protestors pay for that, this would be a very dangerous precedent for activism in Belgium.

Meanwhile, people from various walks of life are expressing solidarity with the accused in the case of the GMO potatoes in Wetteren. See for example Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo’s video speech in support of the “Wetteren 11”. It can only be hoped that when a verdict falls (expected on February 12), not only GMO food, but the role of science in society and the power structures behind them will be part of a more balanced and informed mainstream debate in and beyond this small country. As to the accused: they will most likely need to appeal, with as much public support behind them as possible. See below for more info and on how you can express your support.

Here’s a video by the 11 accused