Paternalism at its worst

posted in: Commentary | 6

Greenpeace has a campaign to convince Nestlé to ban genetically modified crops from their products in India. They have an auto-letter set up that has been sent 25,808 times (as of 2:40pm Central time). That includes my letter which I sent through their site urging Nestlé to stand up against fearmongering.

I’ve since sent a second letter thanking them for being strong through the Nestlé India contact form. I’m guessing that Greenpeace opted to create their own letter instead of using the standard form so that they could interject their own statements – but I’ve always found this method of “letter writing” rather disingenuous. If a person feels so strongly about an issue that they would send a letter, shouldn’t they be able to come up with their own reasons and actually write the letter?

Greenpeace also has a poll on their site asking you to choose “NO, I don’t want genetically modified food.” or “YES, I would like to eat genetically modified food if it becomes available.” I don’t think this is a very good question – there need to be more information, such as “NO, I don’t want genetically modified food even if it reduces the amount of pesticides used.” or “YES, I would eat genetically modified food if was engineered for higher nutritional content.” All biotech traits are not the same! Of course, that would require an understanding of biotechnology that is a bit too nuanced for Greenpeace. As of 2pm Central, the vote is 909 votes NO and 10 votes YES.

I have no problem with people exercising their rights as consumers to contact companies. They are welcome to encourage companies to change their policies. Obviously, I’m a pretty big fan of letter writing, considering I just wrote a post about it.

The problem I have with Greenpeace’s actions here is that Americans and Europeans are attempting to dictate what Indians should and should not eat. Don’t believe me? They convienently have this map on their website showing exactly where people who visited the letter campaign pages are located. There are some in India, to be sure, but is it significantly more than those in other places?

Who is Greenpeace to tell people how they should think? I respect their free speech, and I respect viewpoints that differ from mine, but when people twist science in order to scare people, I simply have to react. Greenpeace India lists all of the same old stories – can’t they find anything more recent? At least they haven’t started using the infamous Austrian study yet. They conclude their FAQs with “You cannot become a lab rat for these experiments in food!” Which, ironically, is correct. There have been enough studies on each trait on actual lab rats to ensure safety (as well as studies on cows, chickens, and zebra fish, just to name a few*).

Sigh. As I’ve said many times before, there are certain risks to consider before a particular biotech trait should be deregualated. Why do these groups feel the need to lie to embellish the risks? Do they feel that the actual risks are not compelling enough? Do they fear that people might actually see some benefits of biotech if given all of the evidence? Do they fear that people might realize that risk benefit analysis makes far more sense than straight precautionary principle?

Nestlé India, impressively, has so far stood up against the letter campaign. They’ve responded to Greenpece:

Thanks for your letter dated 15th September, 2009 addressed to Mr. Waszyk with a copy to me, referring to your telephonic conversation with him.

At the outset, would like to mention that Mr. Waszyk has confirmed that he has not spoken to you. There seems to be some confusion.

Our response to the queries raised by you is as under.

The safety of our products and the integrity of the ingredients from which they are manufactured are paramount to Nestlé. All raw materials used by Nestlé comply with strict regulatory and safety evaluations.

Our products sold in India are non-Genetically Modified (GM. The Indian authorities do not authorize the commercial cultivation of crops used for food which are GM. The local supplies used by Nestlé are from conventional crops and it imports only raw materials which are non-GM. This is duly supported by supplier’s declarations. We follow an internal monitoring procedure for verification.

As a global food manufacturer Nestlé takes into consideration local needs, cultural differences and consumer preferences as well as attitudes concerning the use of ingredients derived from genetically modified crops. Nestlé Group recognizes the potential that gene technology has in the long term to improve the quality, availability, sustainability, and nutritional value of the food. In particular, gene technology has the potential to meet the wold population’s growing demand for food.

We expect that you would, as a responsible organization, communicate this to your team as also publish our position on your website so that the correct picture is known to interested people.

* These are the just the most recent relevant studies found on PubMed for the search terms “transgenic feeding study animal” where animal is replaced with rat, cow, chicken, and fish.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!