GM and biological food. An unsolvable riddle?

By Evi Qorri and Silvia Ellena

From the local perspective offered by Groningen, the Netherlands seems to be the land of bikes, tulips and Gouda. However, there is certainly more than meets the eye in this flat country.

The Netherlands, 41 thousand km a quarter of which is below sea level, is second in the world for agricultural exports. As reported by National Geographic, “more than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands.”

But what is the secret of this success?

Everything relies on the combination of agriculture and technology.

Technologies applied to agriculture include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GM means that organisms have their DNA modified through the use of genetic engineering techniques. GM products have been the subject of much debate in terms of safety for the consumer and sustainability.

As explained by Marc van der Maarel, an expert in Food and Science Technology, “GM food is as safe to eat as any food that is sold in Europe [that] needs to pass the review of the European Food and Safety Authorities,” adding that “in Europe we are not consuming GM food. However, the cotton used for band notes and your jeans is GM.”

As confusion still persists around the topic of GM foods, consumers look for alternatives. As a result, organic and biological food, which doesn’t contain synthetic additives, has enjoyed a rise, as the demand of a healthy lifestyle increases.

How well informed are everyday people about GM and biological food?

Everyone we interviewed clearly shared confusion and the belief that GM food is something dangerous for their health and for the environment, and perhaps this ignorance proves that the average consumer may not be as well informed about it as they initially believed.

The citizens of Groningen are not exceptions to this wider trend. Next, The Scoop visited Ekoplaza and De Nieuwe Weg to hear their thoughts on the topic.

Ekoplaza started as a small group of passionate volunteers that later evolved into a chain of biological stores. Meanwhile, De Nieuwe Weg, which roughly means ‘the new way’, was an initiative of the owner Jacob de Vries, who has always been promoting biological food.

Both stores offer a wide range of products that can rarely be found on the supermarket’s shelves.

 

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The unique products they offer are a direct result of the strict policies on what can and cannot be labeled as biological in Europe.

The products that make it to the shelves have to abide by European regulations, and need to be officially controlled and stamped as biological. During the winter most of the products are imported by other European countries as the temperature doesn’t allow them to grow naturally. In the summer the stores and the local market prefer to get their products from local farmers.

Frauke, who works at Ekoplaza, told The Scoop that the difference between their products and the supermarket’s products is that everything “is made in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. They use better things to improve the soil and the animals.”

Anna, who works at De Nieuwe Weg, added that the products in other stores contain “ingredients that you don’t know what they are. Additives or weird E numbers and stuff. In our products, you can see the ingredients.”

According to her, biological food doesn’t have to look perfect, it just has to taste better. Also, biological vegetables require more time and effort. “When you grow vegetables and you poison the garden [with fertilizer] they don’t need a lot of time to grow,” Anna explained.

What’s the relation between GM and organic food?

Due to safety reasons, regulations on GM products, such as crops, are particularly strict and GMOs must be approved by the EU before being introduced in the country.

Technologies in agriculture are not limited to modifying DNA in labs. Technological appliances allow the Netherlands to produce 10 % of its national electricity by using the excess of heat from greenhouses. Agriculture technologies enhance productivity and aim for a sustainable production model.

However, according to a report by CBS on the sustainable goals of the Netherlands, “the share of organic agriculture is relatively low compared to other countries in Europe.” While the number of agriculture companies in the Netherlands has decreased overall, the number of organic farms from 2011 to 2016 has slightly increased. 23 more farms have joined the 1400 already established seven years ago.

European law establishes that “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products produced from or by GMOs are incompatible with the concept of organic production and consumers’ perception of organic products. They should therefore not be used in organic farming or in the processing of organic products.”

“Did you ever consider that GM food can be grown/ planted in a biological way?” asks Carsten Pohl, a PhD student in microbiology. “Leaving out the pesticides in cotton farming due to resistant GM cotton plants makes it actually far more biological.”

In terms of sustainability, van der Maarel believes that GM can positively affect the economy of food production. “It can be very sustainable, but there is concern about the effect of GM food on the food chain, other plants, animals. There is concern that foreign DNA is transferred to other species and thus spreads in the environment.”

At the same time, consumers admit to not knowing enough about the topic. Perhaps better communication on GM and biological food should be the next goal of producers, companies, EU legislation and experts.

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