GM debate in the Land of Gladiators

In Italy, farmers take a stand for science with polenta made from biotech corn

Verona, Italy - In this hotbed of food culture, genetically engineered food is a hot topic right now. Slowly but surely, the Europeans are beginning to question their long-held fears of GM food.

I only know this because I happen to be here for Fieragricola, Italy's leading farm show. During opening ceremonies yesterday, Agricultural Minister Luca Zaia repeated his stance against biotech seed: "We will oppose … and reject transgenic fields in Italy. Not the least because where GMO crops are grown, farmers do not earn more, since people with higher incomes buy organic and non-gmo produce, and everything depends on the multinationals because these seeds do not generate other seeds."

Yet, not all Italian farmers agree with that position, namely Confagricoltura, Italy's main farm organization. At a press conference, the group revealed a survey showing that more than 40% of Italians do not know the meaning of GMOs. Among young people (18-24), the share rose to 70%.

Confagricoltura president Frederico Vecchioni (left) served himself a dish of polenta made with genetically modified corn, "resistant to aflatoxins and inasmuch, irreproachable from a food safety profile," he said. "The added value of GM corn in Italy is valued at around 280 million euros a year. For those who grow corn, the choice of GMOs could be a breath of fresh air."

Vecchioni says a 2009 survey showed 67% of Italian farmers showed interest in the production of GM corn. Above all, 75% say they should be free to choose what to produce, he adds. Game on!

Friendly debate I had not been in Verona more than four hours before I got into a discussion over GM food. This was a pretty friendly chat actually, not like some of the more tense deliberations I've had with many Europeans who apparently believe GM is some kind of Frankfood. What do you expect, really, in a society that believes Greenpeace over its own scientists?

It was at my meeting with the President, Vice President and Secretary for the Italian agricultural journalists association. In my activities with International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, I'm lucky enough to meet many other journalists who do the same kinds of jobs as I do, in other countries.

We had a very good meeting, which ended up with the vice president, Carlo Morandini, asking questions for an article he was writing on GM foods. Carlo offered to give me a ride back to my hotel with his family after the meeting, which I gladly accepted. With his wife as translator, he wanted more quotes on GM crops.

"In my country we have been growing and eating GM foods for 15 years and no one has complained of so much as a headache," I said, trying to sound lighthearted. I mean, after all, these people were saving me cab fare. "Of course, the consumer is king no matter what, and Italy has such a wonderful, traditional food culture, so maybe there is no need to change things here. If consumers don't want it, then I think that's the way it should be. But I would hope that if GM crops can help solve hunger in places like Africa, especially in light of climate change, then we would embrace it."

Carlo, his wife and I exchanged a few more pleasantries before dropping me before the old Roman Amphitheatre, a few blocks from my hotel. "Grazie, nice to meet you," I said, hopping out of the car.

Here I was in front of this ancient Roman Arena, the third largest in Italy, built around 30 A.D., where gladiators had taken on wild animals and condemned criminals in fights to the death. Would we do such things today? Of course not. But people in those days had certain beliefs and convictions, just as they do today.

Changing how we do things, whether it's a gladiator in combat or a culture accepting new technology, takes a long, long time.

Above: Carlo Morandini, yours truly, Mimmo Vita and Efram Tassinato talk about agricultural journalism...and GM food.

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