Today’s Opinion: Potato cannon

POSTED: 05/5/11 12:28 PM

How do you object to something you absolutely don’t want? Activists in Lelystad, in the soon to be dismantled province of Flevoland deployed a potato cannon and catapults to fire organically grown potatoes at a field where the University of Wageningen operates a test farm for genetically modified crops.

The potato cannon is a unique weapon, or so it seems to us, but the catapult has an even larger symbolic meaning. After all, this is the fight of David versus Goliath – seventy activists against the interests of the genetically modified crop industry.

One of the activists explained to a reporter who was on the spot that gen-technology makes people and farmers dependent on large companies. She added, rather mysteriously we thought, that the government wants to offer consumers choices, but that mass productions takes those choices away from them.

The activists reason that gen-technology will lead to growing less potato varieties, because farmers will choose for the easy varieties.

Activists are also concerned about the effect of genetically modified crop on public health. As long as those effects remain obscure, they argue, gen-technology ought to be banned.

But there are plenty of farmers who disagree. They say that the world population is growing and that all people need to eat. Gen-technology is an easy way to meet those needs in a cost-effective way.

Well, we’re not too sure about all that. Nature and mankind have a history together, and there are many examples of human intervention that resulted in natural disasters. The genetically modified potato could be just one of those time bombs nobody worries about today but that comes to haunt our grandchildren. Who knows?

But the battle gen-technology opposing activists are waging has another side. The experiment of the University with genetically modified potatoes is designed to battle phytophtora infestans – the so-called potato-disease.

Traditional farmers have to spray their potato-field on average fifteen times per season with chemicals to keep this disease at bay. Small wonder that there are no activists protesting against that attack on Mother Nature.

Growing potatoes organically is a tricky enterprise: one year the yield is reasonable, because the weather cooperates, the next year the farmer could be left empty-handed because his crop falls victim the potato-disease.

In the meantime, people need to eat. While there is a strong market trend towards organic food products (just look at the shelves in most supermarkets even here in St. Maarten) the reality is that there is not enough organic food to feed the world population.

That does not mean that organic growers are keeping themselves busy with a pointless exercise – not at all. But they do serve the top segment of the market that is, those consumers who are willing and able to pay more for their products.

Less affluent consumers will probably end up eating genetically modified potatoes and other crops. When the price is the issue – and it is, certainly right now when the cost of living is going up – principles and troubling thoughts about what a genetically modified potato might do to your grandchildren will probably have to take a backseat in many households.

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