Article published on TCS on September 27, 2005.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a notoriously bad reputation in France. In such a hostile environment, some people have not hesitated to destroy the few authorized fields of genetically modified plants in the name of the precautionary principle. This summer, three attacks occurred in the Puy-de-Dôme department, and responsibility for some of them claimed by the Collectif des faucheurs volontaires (or, “the volunteer reapers”). The company Meristem, French leader in the development of medicines made from genetically modified plants, was the target of this last wave of anti-GMO violence, without much media coverage.
But one group that did object to the anti-GMO vandalism was the organization Defeating Cystic Fibrosis. It turns out that the plants destroyed were meant to be used to develop drugs to relieve secondary effects of cystic fibrosis and to produce anti-cancer antibodies.
First of all, this is an obvious illustration of the dangers of the precautionary principle. By focusing only on the possible risks of GMO production, this principle also forces us to ignore the costs of abandoning it. Every choice has a cost, even if it is guided by this principle. In this case it is the availability of such medicines and the income they would represent for their producers — which have to be abandoned if the naysayers have their way. This is what “precaution” means for patients and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Obviously, GMO opponents refuse to be seen as neglecting the interests of patients. They claim that such interests do not require the production of genetically modified plants. They claim that alternative techniques exist and that the only reason why GMOs are chosen is for greater profit. They are probably right: most of the time there are various technologies available for reaching a same result, and the choice of one or the other is generally not based on humanitarian reasons. So what? What is so sinister about financial considerations?
When a cheaper technique is found for using the soil more productively, as is typically the case with GMOs, it is good news for consumers because competition, if we let it do its job, will bring the prices down. Producing more by spending less means a more profitable investment. When investors come to understand such an opportunity for making money, they tend to turn towards the sector concerned by choosing this technique, thus increasing the production and lowering the price of the product. The choice of technique is thus not unconnected to the well being of patients. As long as free competition works, it is such financial considerations that guarantee patients wider access to treatments.
What about risks linked to GMOs? Perhaps we might agree with a statement made by the “voluntary reapers” claiming that “no scientific or therapeutic reason can justify the use of farmers’ fields as laboratory fodder”. Then the group referred to the risk of genetically modified cornfields “contaminating” the neighboring crops. According to Meristem, their plants are sterile and do not expose the neighboring properties to a change in the nature of their production. Even if we imagine that such deterioration is possible, this does not lead directly to the conclusion that GMOs should be banned, contrary to critics’ claims. In reality this argument has nothing to do with GMOs, but rather with trespassing on other people’s property. Owners of genetically modified plants “contaminated” by neighboring fields could just as well use it. And it would have to be proved that such trespassing had occurred, unlike self-appointed “reapers” who do not wait before acting.
In fact, it is not necessary to ban GMOs to prevent farmers’ fields being turned into laboratory fodder. Instead of resorting to vandalism, these reapers could fight for the government to take more seriously article 2 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, enshrining the right to own property. If acts of pollution like “contamination” of fields were considered by lawyers as what they really are, trespassing on private property, GMO producers would tend to settle far away from possible plaintiffs or would invest in means of protection, such as greenhouses. In any case, the possibility of legal proceedings would push investors to better estimate the real risk of GMOs. Defending farmers does not call for banning GMOs, and destroying plants can only put a halt to the process of discovery about the risks linked to them.
Xavier Méra is an associate researcher at the Molinari Economic Institute.