Greece: Beware of biotech companies bearing GMOs

Don't mess with the descendants of Spartan warriors: The land of Homer digs in its heels against genetically modified corn

Published April 19, 2007 7:20PM (EDT)

The first we hear about "the woodland island" of Zakynthos is from Homer. The Ionian isle paid fealty to Odysseus, but while the king was away, the natives became restless. As Penelope complains to an unknown stranger:

As it is, I am oppressed with care, and with the afflictions which heaven has seen fit to heap upon me. The chiefs from all our islands -- Dulichium, Same, and Zakynthos, as also from Ithaca itself, are wooing me against my will and are wasting my estate. I can therefore show no attention to strangers, nor suppliants, nor to people who say that they are skilled artisans, but am all the time broken-hearted about Odysseus.

Fast forward three millennia or so, to the fall of 2003, when a Zakynthian local council voted to make the island a "GM-free zone." Zakynthos' action kicked off a brush fire of anti-genetic modification sentiment in Greece. In short order, every single one of Greece's 54 prefectures declared itself GM-free.

The widespread popular antipathy to GM products in Greece provides some context for the Greek government's decision on April 13 to continue and extend its ban on 47 varieties of genetically modified corn. In Greece, the general public and farmers are united -- they don't want GM crops or products containing GM ingredients in their country. Politicians, naturally, are listening. As the International Herald Tribune reported in May, 2006:

"The environment minister who gives in and allows GMOs into this country will never be minister again," said Nikos Lappas, head of Greece's largest farmers' union. "For farmers, forcing GMOs would be economic suicide, since our market doesn't want them."

To justify its decision, the Greek government cited "scientific" evidence purporting to show safety risks from GM crops. Since the European Union has declared the crops in question as safe, and the World Trade Organization has ruled that individual E.U. members have no basis for blocking GM goods on scientific grounds, a showdown on this issue continues to loom.

Monsanto and its biotech brethren say health issues are a smoke-screen: They are convinced the real motivation is throw up an (illegal) trade barrier to their products. There is some truth to their suspicion; again, from the IHT:

Indeed, in many areas that have blocked GMOs, such as Tuscany, small farmers survive by producing niche food, like high quality vegetables and grain; there is a premium for food that is GM free. "This is a cutthroat global market and if all we do is cultivate mass-produced GM corn, we're finished, since other nations will be able to provide that cheaper," Lappas said.

Should there be such a non-GM premium? Defenders of genetically modified products are often scornful of consumer antipathy to GM products because they are convinced that there is no reliable evidence of health risks. But so what? Widespread introduction of GM crops will lead to contamination of non-GM crops: there is no doubt about that fact whatsoever. If consumers, for whatever reasons, logical or illogical, based in fact or based in fantasy, prefer non-GM crops, then pity the poor Greek organic farmer who finds the market value of his carefully tended corn destroyed by cross-pollination from Monsanto's triple-stack hybrids.

A consumer decision doesn't have to be based on verifiable science. It can be based on anything, including esthetics, price, or even, perhaps especially, a personal vision of how the world should be structured. A decision to purchase the organically grown tomato from the family farm up the road could be a statement in support of a lifestyle perceived as sustainable and community-based. In a free society, it is hard to see how consumers could be denied the right to make that decision. But that's exactly what the introduction of crops whose genes cannot be contained implies. Which means there is something quite unseemly about the spectacle of a U.S. ambassador telling a Greek government minister that he or she must allow GM products into the country.

Zakynthos is famous for its olive oil, harvested from trees reputed to be a thousand years old, possibly descended from orchards tended by the families of Penelope's unwanted suitors. As far as I know, there are no plans to flood Greece with transgenic olive trees, but who can tell what's brewing in the lab? The Zakynthians, who have been about their business for quite some time now, seem to be worried about what's next.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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