Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Koeppel Interview Part 5

Back in early October, I had the opportunity to interview Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed Our World. Over the next few days, I'll be posting the interview in digestible chunks, but if you want to read the piece in its entirety, it is available in both the print, and online versions of the current Wheatsville Breeze.

I’ve learned from several years of experience working in a natural foods grocery, that many people are concerned, and sometimes fearful of GMO foods, yet it seems clear that in the case of the banana that that route may be the only way to save this food. Do you feel that consumers will set aside their distrust or fears of GM products in order to continue to eat bananas, or will they willingly let them go away?

I don’t think that consumer’s will set aside their fears of GMO products. I think there’s good reason that consumers are not setting aside their fear of GMO. But, I don’t think the proper reason is the product. I think the reason is, let’s call it GMO tactics. I think the issue is not the product necessarily; the issue is the way that GMO has been used as a tactic throughout the world by the big corporations that manufacture GMO seeds, GMO potatoes, and GMO corn. Clearly they have behaved in ways that have made many people rightfully suspicious of GMO, [laughs] of what GMO is as an institution. GMO has been exploitative; GMO has been poorly tested; and GMO has caused damaged, for example with the corn crop and possibly potatoes.

But, you have to separate the idea of the technology from the way it has been executed. There are people who say you can’t, and, you know, I respectfully say that – you need to. You can’t condemn the science. It’s wrong to do that. And in the case of bananas especially, it’s wrong to do that. There are a lot of reasons that bananas are a safe product to genetically modify. Actually, there’s one reason, and I can say it very easily – bananas are sterile. They do not have seeds. They do not have pollen.

The issues that we worry about with GMO, is that seeds and pollen will come out and contaminate other non-GMO products. Without seeds and without pollen, that is impossible. Um, so that won’t happen with bananas. People also talk about allergenicity, and things like that. I personally believe that that is not an issue, and that that is a scare tactic. People will disagree, and I’ll probably get a lot of notes saying that, but I don’t think that’s a big problem. I think there’s a lot of superstition.

Now, is GMO going to save the Cavendish? I don’t think that’s the issue. I’m willing to say that if consumers feel that it’s better to sacrifice the Cavendish because they don’t want GMO, so be it. That’s a consumer product, and that’s fine, they can vote with their pocket book. No problem.

However, there are a lot of other threatened bananas out there, especially those African subsistence bananas that we’re talking about that really, really require GMO. They are equally susceptible to even worse disease. And, they need at least genetic modification to test resistance. Genetic modification is one of the tools, in other words. Scientists, not corporate scientists, but scientists working in the public sector, need to try and find ways to get these subsistence bananas to resist dozens of diseases, that if they spread, people will starve.

I just want people to think about, if they have blanket objections to GMO, and this especially true in the European Union, where objections to GMO prevent research of all kinds, then they are preventing research into GMO being made on subsistence products as well.So, sometimes being against GMO research in a commercial product actually provides legal barriers to research on genetic modification of subsistence bananas. It provides legal barriers against that.

And so, again, if were going to think about the choice we make in our foods, in how it affects the people who pick them, and grow them, then we need to think about those choices in a big sense as well. Genetic modification can be scary, we need to think of that, we need to worry about it, but, it’s not that cut and dry. By issuing a blanket objection without knowing all the issues, we may actually condemn some people who really need genetically modified bananas to not have any opportunity to get them, or at least learn about them.


TexasDeb said...

This is reminiscent of the No Stem Cell Research posture of the US. The research does happen only it happens somewhere else and without the funding and attention it rightfully deserves. Same can be said for the GMO stuff.

If we relegate GMO research to the major agricorp sector then it will be the bottom line (rather than saving the food source for millions) driving the research.

Thanks for taking to time to do this Flapper.

aa said...

I just downloaded the Breeze and got all kinds of homesick. Oh to be stocking bananas on a Sunday morning. Nice interview.

Flapjacks said...

good points Deb. i like koeppel's point about dogmatism, and the subsistence banana position. two more questions to go.

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