GMO Vigilantes

The world of GM foods is apparently reinventing the spaghetti western. In Italy these days, the debate over GM has turned into a wild-west-style battle between vigilantes.

Here’s the story, from Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in the NYT: In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn.
Here are some key bits:

Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.

The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop — and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes.

On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: “Danger — Contaminated — G.M.O.”

It’s interesting to see pro-GM farmers getting in on the vigilanteism. Historically, GM-related-lawlessness has mostly been the domain of anti-GM protestors. (See, e.g., this 2008 story about vandalism of GM crops in the UK.) Of course, neither pro- nor anti-GM vigilanteism can be ethically justified very easily. Disagreement with the law doesn’t license you to take matters into your own hands. Nor does passionate belief in your cause. Certainly, under certain circumstances, civil disobedience can be justified. But on any reasonable view, and in any nation generally subject to the rule of law, the conditions under which vigilante action is justified are relatively narrow. And the onus is on the law-breakers to make their case. (For a useful philosophical discussion of the issues, see this article: Civil Disobedience.)

(And here’s a version of the story, from last week, that focuses a bit more on Mr. Fidenato. By Colleen Barry, writing for The Associated Press: Italian farmer pushes genetically modified crops.)

(Thanks to Sheldon for suggesting I blog about this.)

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in activism, agriculture, biotechnology, ecosystems, environment, farmers, genetic modification, international, regulation. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to GMO Vigilantes

  1. Anastasia says:

    I know he’s breaking the law, and that’s wrong, of course. But my first reaction when I heard this story was very positive. I can’t help it. There’s so many incidents of destruction by anti-GM activists, and this man is simply growing food. The symbolism is entirely appropriate, I think.

  2. You can’t help your first reaction, but you can make sure your considered opinion is well thought out! :-)
    I admit to a degree of sympathy, too, especially given that planting GM crops is actually legal (per the E.U.). But in a civilized country, we should work to change laws (broadly understood) that we don’t agree with, rather than just breaking them.

  3. Sam Vance says:

    This is essentially a function of a general lack of science literacy in the world. GMO’s are not contaminants and Italy’s ignorance/rank populism is a bigger issue that led to that ridiculous law even existing.

    Also, what’s to stop farmers with a grudge to claim they are planting GMO’s in a field that may not be theirs? Then, the activist will tear up the field of the farmer’s rival.

    We must increase yields to feed the world. GMO’s are a huge part of that. We must educate the public on the truth and safety of GMO seeds. Unfortunately, people believe a lot of crazy things thanks to the internet.

  4. ishtarmuz says:

    And what do you call what Monsanto and Dupont have been doing for over a century? It is not vigilantism only because they have been allowed to write the rules of the game.

    Why Monsanto, An Ex-Chemical Company, Now A BioTech Company, Is Evil
    by Ishtarmuz

    http://ishtarmuz.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/why-monsanto-an-ex-chemical-company-now-a-biotech-company-is-evil/

    • Ishtarmuz:

      The behaviour of Monsanto and Dupont is another matter entirely. I’m not sure how it’s relevant, unless you think that two wrongs make a right.

      Here’s one of my own blog entries on Monsanto:
      http://www.biotechethics.ca/blog/2009/12/monsantos-business-model.html

      Chris.

    • Anastasia says:

      The crops destroyed by activists doesn’t actually affect Monsanto or DuPont at all. They claim a great victory over the evil corporations, but what they’re really doing is destroying either a farmer’s livelihood or destroying research that is being conducted with public funds. Does crop insurance cover random acts of violence? When research is destroyed there’s often no way to bring it back, wasting years of public money. Even worse, the activists have the audacity to ask why GMO crops aren’t tested more extensively, when they’ve destroyed crops that were involved in tests! At least if they were targeting experimental crops under cultivation by a corporation, or seed production fields, they’d have some sort of ethical leg to stand on (maybe, if we throw out the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right) but they can’t be bothered to check these things out ahead of time, apparently.

  5. Sam Vance says:

    Exactly. Developing new crop varieties is an R&D juggernaut of time and money. Millions of dollars to develop, test, and re-test. Average of about 10-15 years to bring to market. What people fail to understand is that some evil man in a suit didn’t just push a button on a machine and stamp out a seed. The corporation pays plant biologists, plant geneticists, crop scientists, staff & research assistants to provide support, and soil and water quality experts plus all the expensive analytical equipment needed to test the crops. This is why companies like Monsanto put patents on their varieties and protects that intellectual property as much as possible. If that product makes it to market, it takes years to see a return, and that’s if a competitor doesn’t figure out what they’ve done and replicates it within a few years.

  6. That Guy says:

    I’m glad there is someone out there fighting for the rights of natural plants. I just don’t understand why we have to spend so much money funding these programs to build, on a genetic level, new plants. Is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the way we view the world. Nature has perfected its genome through millions of years of evolution, and within 200,000 years of Homo sapiens existence, we attempt to mess with something that is already perfect. I really don’t get it. If we spent half the money and knowledge put into GMO’s on improving agricultural practices, wouldn’t we have the same results? Not to mention, we have no idea the extent to which eating GMO’s can affect our health. There have been no real studies done about the consumption of large quantities of GMO’s on our own health. I feel like it might be a good idea to test these freakish products before the general public can consume them. On top of that, the audacity these companies have to try and get their products to be sold without any kind of label. Outrage. I feel like it is my right as a consumer to know what I am putting in body, and I don’t want to eat an orange that was grown in a lab, when I have the opportunity to eat an orange from the tree. I don’t get our obsession with GMO’s and again, I’m glad there’s someone else out there that dislikes them as much as I do.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      There’s a lot to reply to here, and I’m sure others will join in to do that.

      I’ll only point out this:
      1) We eat almost nothing the genome of which was “perfected” by nature, as you suggest. Almost all the fruit, vegetables, and meats we eat (including the organic stuff) are the result of extensive experimentation and cross-breeding.
      2) The idea that “we have no idea the extent to which eating GMO’s can affect our health” is something of an exaggeration. Our knowledge isn’t perfect, but we do know a lot. (For example, we do know that most North Americans living right now have been eating GM foods for a couple of decades, apparently without catastrophic problems.)
      3) The question of a “right to know” is a hard one. I blogged about it recently here: The Right to Know What I’m Eating

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