Ambientalisti adulti

30 Gen 2009
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La vicenda del coltivatore gallese Jonathon Harrington e’ di estermo interesse. Dalle sue dichiarazioni si vede come si e’ davanti ad una versione da terzo milllennio dell’ambientalismo, che non vende la Luna ma mira ad obbiettivi concreti e perseguibili, che non cerca di proteggere il proprio orticello scaricando su altri l’onere di produrre cibo per 6 miliardi di persone e che non tenta di fermare le lancette della storia nel momento in cui più conviene all’Europa ed è meno appetibile per i Paesi emergenti. Non a caso un ambientalista pro-OGM.

La disobbedienza di Jonathon Harrington e’ largamente motivata e la giurisdizione avra’ un compito non facile per venire a capo delle sue argomentazioni.

Gia’ in Francia l’anno scorso ed in varie zone della nostra Pianura Padana gli imprenditori agricoli progettano eventi di disobbedienza agricola come quella gallese, e pensano a piantare OGM in ossequio alle leggi europee ed in contrasto con quelle nazionali.

Questa soluzione potrebbe essere benvista da tanti (Governo, opposizione, associazioni ambientaliste illuminate, organizzazioni agricole, settori industriali, etc.) che non sanno piu’ come uscire dal vicolo cieco in cui si sono cacciate mettendo all’indice gli OGM. Una soluzione legislativa scaricherebbe su impersonali leggi europee delle scelte che tanti vorrebbero compiere ma in cui tutti attendono che altri facciano la prima mossa.

Why I Planted Genetically Modified Maize on My Welsh Farm
- Jonathon Harrington, Guardian (UK),  January 29, 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/‘The agronomist and farmer who has challenged the GM-free status of Wales by planting GM crops on his land explains why he chose to make a stand against what he sees as the Welsh assembly’s misguided policies’

I find myself accused of a number of heinous acts including “infecting” Wales with GM, acting irresponsibly and possibly of breaking the law. Not bad for a Welsh peasant who simply wishes to try - with the support of the scientific community - to facilitate the introduction of a new and valuable technology into Welsh agriculture.

So what is the precise nature of my supposedly “ill-informed”, “illegal” and “irresponsible” behaviour? The seeds I planted are maize varieties on the EU’s “common list” of approved crops. As such, my legal advice is that it is lawful to plant them within the EU. But according to some of my detractors those rules apparently do not apply in Wales.

Then there is the charge that I have “infected Wales with GM”. With what I ask? Genetic modification is a process as opposed to a product and as such cannot be bought or sold any more than “keyhole surgery”. The analogy of GM technology as a contagion is simply false.

It can of course be used for a variety of purposes: to give plants immunity from pest attack or resistance to disease or more recently the ability to withstand drought. There are a number of potential benefits the technology could offer Welsh farmers if the assembly government showed a more positive attitude towards it.

Of these, maize is possibly the crop with the most potential for us to exploit in that we could use a range of different herbicides which would, for example, not drain into our beautiful river systems. These would also allow us to establish grass leys during the growing season so absorbing the considerable amounts of nitrogen not taken up by the maize crop. This in turn would reduce the often excessive amounts of soil eroded onto our roads and rivers and thereby reduce pollution and conserve our valuable arable land for future production.

Have I removed consumer choice? Again, I believe not. That choice was taken away several decades ago - unless you choose to survive entirely on wild fruit and nuts. We are all either wearing or consuming plant products that have been bred using technology that involves artificially manipulating plant genes. I can’t think of a single crop plant in the UK that has not been bred by artificially mutating its genes using chemicals or radiation. The group of techniques that are commonly referred to as genetic manipulation are simply more precise and safer ways of doing the same thing.

What about the danger of my plants cross-pollinating with other plants and varieties? This is a potential outcome, but since nobody in the UK produces maize for seed and there are no other plants in the UK that are sufficiently closely related to maize to cross-pollinate with it this cannot be a justifiable accusation.

So what have I achieved by my actions? Well I have at last brought the issue to the minds of many people who sought to sweep it under the carpet. And I have done this without endangering anyone and without touching the public purse.

More importantly, the stance of the Welsh Assembly and others is helping to deny a valuable technology to millions. Like most new technologies, GM comes with some potential downsides but these are far outweighed by the enormous advantages it offers: the potential to increase dramatically both yields and the quality of crops harvested. In over 10 years of its use around the world millions of meals have been made from GM plants but no health problems have been reported.

Moreover, GM crops are still in their infancy and future potential gains are extremely exciting. Think of the many thousands of people in Asia who suffer blindness from a lack of vitamin A in their diet - rice, their primary source of carbohydrate, contains no vitamin A. Yet the insertion of genes into rice plants could help reduce this appalling condition dramatically, and this has been made available free of charge by its developers.

Then there are the many farmers who would prefer not to spray their crops with an insecticide when they could grow a variety - say of cotton - resistant to certain pests. We should not deny the millions of people who might benefit from this science by demanding that it be stopped.

If the politicians we employ wish to persist with their ostrich-like attitude then I am sure that the weight of scientific evidence will eventually show them for the luddites they are. For those of us who live in the real world we need to take advantage of every piece of technology we can find to develop our agriculture and help to feed the nearly 1bn of our fellow human beings who are short of food.

* Jonathon Harrington is chartered biologist working in the field on advanced crop technologies. He also has a small farm in the Black Mountains of Wales. He is a consultant for Cropgen, an organisation that promotes crop biotechnology.

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