Article in Te WAHA NUI
By Craig Robertson
Spreading the word about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the focus of Stop GMO Pacific, a New Caledonian organisation on tour in the Pacific this month.
Frederic Guerin, president of Stop GMO, and Claire Chauvet, its vice president, travelled to New Zealand last week and are in Samoa this week, meeting with other organisations and stakeholders to talk about GMO regulation in the Pacific.
“The idea is to meet a lot of people, try to show them how they can be connected and give advice if we can about how to regulate GMOs,” says Ms Chauvet.
She is concerned many people in the Pacific region are not aware of issues around genetic modification. “What is important for these small island countries is to be aware of the situation, is to be aware that they are not protected, so they can make choices. If they want to grow GMOs, that is all right. But they should know about it because the situation at the moment is nobody knows if the seeds coming into countries are GM or not.”
The two volunteers say they are opposed to the use of GMOs but the focus of their trip is to connect and collaborate.
Mr Guerin says he wants to arm Pacific farmers with the information they need to make informed choices about GMOs. “Nobody knows anything about the situation [in the Pacific]. “The seeds, are they GMO or not? Nobody knows. The food, is it GMO or not? Nobody knows. What we want is to give information.” He says he is okay if people want to grow GMOs but says farmers should learn about them first before making a decision.
The pair travelled to New Zealand learn about the situation here.
GM crops cannot be commercially grown in New Zealand, although applications can be made to test GMOs on a small scale.
A number of approvals for research have been granted to the University of Auckland, although there are currently no GM crop sites.
The importing of GM food is restricted but there are exemptions.
The Food Standards Authority Australia New Zealand has approved the importation of GM canola, corn, potatoes, soybeans and other products into New Zealand.
These products can be sold if labelled correctly.
The authority, a cross-national body that sets food standards for Australia and New Zealand, updated its GMO regulations on October 30.
Mr Guerin and Ms Chauvet are in Samoa this week, seeking to meet with similar organisations, as well as farmers and members of the Government. The threat that GMOs pose to Pacific Islands is more acute, Ms Chauvet says, because of their small size.
“In these small countries, you can’t avoid contamination.” The spreading of GM seeds threatens biodiversity as modified crops start to replace natural plant varieties, she says.
“The main problem is if you have only one or two varieties, then if there is a problem like climate change or a new disease that attacks one variety then you will [run out of food].” She says the spread of GM crops could prevent cultural exchanges of food, disrupting island communities.
Mr Guerin says it is a human right to grow crops, but large companies are threatening the autonomy of local producers in places such as India by selling patented seeds. “Monsanto and big companies, they say, ‘Use my seeds and you will become rich’. [Farmers] go into debt to buy seeds and pesticides and can pay back the money after they sell the crops. The problem is, they have a bad crop and they can’t give the money back and they are in debt. They [have to] sell their land.” The inability to repay debts has caused some Indian cotton producers to resort to suicide.
Mr Guerin says patents can also lead to other problems. “There is a patent. And when you buy GMO seeds, you sign a contract. For example, you can’t give seeds to your neighbour.” Alleged breaches of contract can lead to lawsuits. Monsanto, one of the leading producers of GM seeds, has caused headlines, with GM seed contaminations leading to disputes.
Mr Guerin wants to help farmers in the Pacific avoid similar fates.
But part of the issue is that the legal status of GMOs in many Pacific countries is unclear.
Part of Stop GMO Pacific’s mission is to create a regional GMO database that collects together information about GMOs in the Pacific.
Travelling to Samoa, Ms Chauvet and Mr Guerin hope to gather data about GMOs in the small island nation. They will return to New Zealand next week to meet with organisations here, including GE Free New Zealand.
More information about Stop GMO Pacific can be found on its website.
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