[THS] GM-free Europe: how we could still ban GMOs
vignes at wanadoo.fr
Fri Oct 23 14:49:08 CEST 2009
GM-free Europe: how we could still ban GMOs
21st October, 2009
Re-nationalising decisions on growing GM crops would allow EU countries to declare
themselves GM-free, but could bring new dangers
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are back on the agenda.
In a report published by The Royal Society, the UKs premier science body, has called
for publicly funded research into GM crop technologies.
It says the investment would allow northern Europe to become one of the major
bread baskets of the world.
* Call for publicly funded research into GM crops
* 10 reasons why GM won't feed the world [below]
The Governments chief scientist John Beddington has also quickly come out in
support of growing GM crops in the UK. In addition, the Food Standards Agency
(FSA) is due to start a 'dialogue project to explore the subject of GM with consumers'.
Whether or not this is a coordinated push on the part of Government to gain public
acceptance of GM technology, there is already plenty of private sector and
The only legislative restriction left is the European Union, which at present controls
the approval process for any new GMOs.
The Dutch proposal
But under proposals being put forward by the Netherlands, the objections of other
member states to approving new varieties of GM may soon be bypassed.
Once a particular GM crop has received EU health and safety approval, the Dutch
want the final decision on whether to allow the crop to be cultivated to be left to
individual member states: effectively, a re-nationalisation of GM policy.
Member states can already block GM by invoking a so-called safeguard clause.
Under this rule they can ban the use and sale of a GMO if they have justifiable
reasons to consider that it poses a risk to human health or the environment.
Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, Germany and Luxembourg have all used the
clause in recent years.
On the face of it the Dutch proposals go further by allowing individual countries to
ban crops for social and economic reasons and not just health ones. It would allow a
country to declare itself GM-free and bring an end to the current EU regulatory
pressure to accept transgenic crops.
Many regions in Italy and Germany are already declaring themselves GM-free. Only
last week Ireland said it would ban all GM crop cultivation and the Welsh Assembly
has had a long-standing policy against GM.
Announcing new proposals on GM earlier this year, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones
said, the Welsh Assembly Governments long-standing position is to adopt the most
restrictive policy on GM crops that is compatible with European Union and UK
It is not legally possible to declare Wales GM-free, but we will continue our restrictive
approach, she said.
A fake solution
Although a number of member states, including Austria, Greece and Poland support
the Dutch proposals, anti-GM campaigners believe it could actually be a dangerous
Greenpeace agriculture policy director Marco Contiero says the only reason the Dutch
- one of the EUs strongest supporters of GM - put forward the proposals was to
break the political deadlock in Europe.
Its a fake solution. It means all the political debate member states currently show at
council level in Europe is going to finish. The Commission will be much more
politically free to ignore it and leave it up to individual member states.
Formally its not meant to make it easier for GM in Europe but it will, he said.
Other campaign groups including GM-free Ireland fear it would fragment the
opposition to GMOs in Europe and allow countries like the Netherlands and Spain to
It could also expose individual member states to legal action by the World Trade
Organisation (WTO) as countries such as the USA and Canada will be likely to
challenge any bans.
WTO has condemned the EU for not taking decisions on GMOs in the past but it has
never challenged the system used to make those decisions. If we now change the
system and allow member states to make decisions then these kind of bans could be
challenged under WTO rules, said Contiero.
Although newly re-elected European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso
included them on his recent manifesto, the Dutch proposals are not known to have
widespread support in Europe.
Plaid Cmyru MEP Gill Evans said the preferred option of many MEPs was to
strengthen the existing legislation on GM-free zones.
The excuse everyone gives against declaring themselves GM-free is that it is not
allowed at EU level. But thats not true. Under existing EU rules we can make a case
for restrictions in certain areas for reasons of nature conservation or biodiversity.
The UK Government could propose Wales to be GM-free today, said Evans.
Statement in support of Dutch proposal
Regulations on GM in UK
GM crops approved in EU
10 reasons why GM won't feed the world
1st March, 2008
Genetic modification can't deliver a safe, secure future food supply. Here's why...
1. Failure to deliver
Despite the hype, genetic modification consistently fails to live up to industry claims.
Only two GM traits have ever made it to market: herbicide resistance and BT toxin
expression (see below). Other promises of genetic modification have failed to
materialise. The much vaunted GM golden rice hailed as a cure to vitamin A
deficiency has never made it out of the laboratory, partly because in order to meet
recommended levels of vitamin A intake, consumers would need to eat 12 bowls of
the rice every day.1 In 2004, the Kenyan government admitted that Monsantos GM
sweet potatoes were no more resistant to feathery mottle virus than ordinary strains,
and in fact produced lower yields.2 And in January 2008, news that scientists had
modified a carrot to cure osteoporosis by providing calcium had to be weighed
against the fact that you would need to eat 1.6 kilograms of these vegetables each
day to meet your recommended calcium intake.3
2. Costing the Earth
GM crops are costing farmers and governments more money than they are making.
In 2003, a report by the Soil Association estimated the cost to the US economy of GM
crops at around $12 billion (£6 billion) since 1999, on account of inflated farm
subsidies, loss of export orders and various seed recalls.4 A study in Iowa found that
GM soybeans required all the same costs as conventional farming but, because they
produced lower yields (see below), the farmers ended up making no profit at all.5 In
India, an independent study found that BT cotton crops were costing farmers 10 per
cent more than non-BT variants and bringing in 40 per cent lower profits.6 Between
2001 and 2005, more than 32,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, most as a result
of mounting debts caused by inadequate crops.7
3. Contamination and gene escape
No matter how hard you try, you can never be sure that what you are eating is GM-
free. In a recent article, the New Scientist admitted that contamination and cross-
fertilisation between GM and non-GM crops has happened on many occasions
already.8 In late 2007, US company Scotts Miracle-Gro was fined $500,000 by the US
Department of Agriculture when genetic material from a new golf-course grass Scotts
had been testing was found in native grasses as far as 13 miles away from the test
sites, apparently released when freshly cut grass was caught and blown by the
wind.9 In 2006, an analysis of 40 Spanish conventional and organic farms found that
eight were contaminated with GM corn varieties, including one farmer whose crop
contained 12.6 per cent GM plants.
4. Reliance on pesticides
Far from reducing dependency on pesticides and fertilisers, GM crops frequently
increase farmers reliance on these products. Herbicide-resistant crops can be
sprayed indiscriminately with weed killers such as Monsantos Roundup because they
are engineered to withstand the effect of the chemical. This means that significantly
higher levels of herbicide are found in the final food product, however, and often a
second herbicide is used in the late stages of the crop to promote desiccation or
drying, meaning these crops receive a double dose of harmful chemicals.10 BT
maize, engineered to produce an insecticidal toxin, has never eliminated the use of
pesticides,11 and because the BT gene cannot be switched off the crops continue to
produce the toxin right up until harvest, reaching the consumer at its highest
Despite the best efforts of the biotech industry, consumers remain staunchly opposed
to GM food. In 2007, the vast majority of 11,700 responses to the Governments
consultation on whether contamination of organic food with traces of GM crops
should be allowed were strongly negative. The Governments own GM Nation debate
in 2003 discovered that half of its participants never want to see GM crops grown in
the United Kingdom under any circumstances, and 96 per cent thought that society
knew too little about the health impacts of genetic modification. In India, farmers
experience of BT cotton has been so disastrous that the Maharashtra government
now advises that farmers grow soybeans instead. And in Australia, over 250 food
companies lodged appeals with the state governments of New South Wales and
Victoria over the lifting of bans against growing GM canola crops.13
6. Breeding resistance
Nature is smart, and there are already reports of species resistant to GM crops
emerging. This is seen in the emergence of new superweeds on farms in North
America plants that have evolved the ability to withstand the industrys chemicals. A
report by then UK conservation body English Nature (now Natural England), in 2002,
revealed that oilseed rape plants that had developed resistance to three or more
herbicides were not uncommon in Canada.14 The superweeds had been created
through random crosses between neighbouring GM crops. In order to tackle these
superweeds, Canadian farmers were forced to resort to even stronger, more toxic
herbicides.15 Similarly, pests (notably the diamondback moth) have been quick to
develop resistance to BT toxin, and in 2007 swarms of mealy bugs began attacking
supposedly pest-resistant Indian cotton.
7. Creating problems for solutions
Many of the so-called problems for which the biotechnology industry develops
solutions seem to be notions of PR rather than science. Herbicide-resistance was
sold under the claim that because crops could be doused in chemicals, there would
be much less need to weed mechanically or plough the soil, keeping more carbon
and nitrates under the surface. But a new long-term study by the US Agricultural
Research Service has shown that organic farming, even with ploughing, stores more
carbon than the GM crops save.16 BT cotton was claimed to increase resistance to
pests, but farmers in East Africa discovered that by planting a local weed amid their
corn crop, they could lure pests to lay their eggs on the weed and not the crop.17
8. Health risks
The results of tests on animals exposed to GM crops give serious cause for concern
over their safety. In 1998, Scottish scientists found damage to every single internal
organ in rats fed blight resistant GM potatoes. In a 2006 experiment, female rats fed
on herbicide-resistant soybeans gave birth to severely stunted pups, of which half
died within three weeks. The survivors were sterile. In the same year, Indian news
agencies reported that thousands of sheep allowed to graze on BT cotton crop
residues had died suddenly. Further cases of livestock deaths followed in 2007. There
have also been reports of allergy-like symptoms among Indian labourers in BT cotton
fields. In 2002, the only trial ever to involve human beings appeared to show that
altered genetic material from GM soybeans not only survives in the human gut, but
may even pass its genetic material to bacteria within the digestive system.18
9. Left hungry
GM crops have always come with promises of increased yields for farmers, but this
has rarely been the case. A three-year study of 87 villages in India found that non-BT
cotton consistently produced 30 per cent higher yields than the (more expensive) GM
alternative.19 It is now widely accepted that GM soybeans produce consistently lower
yields than conventional varieties. In 1992, Monsantos own trials showed that the
companys Roundup Ready soybeans yield 11.5 per cent less on harvest. Later
Monsanto studies went on to reveal that some trials of GM canola crops in Australia
actually produced yields 16 per cent below the non-GM national average.20
10. Wedded to fertilisers and fossil fuels
No genetically modified crop has yet eliminated the need for chemical fertilisers in
order to achieve expected yields. Although the industry has made much of the
possibility of splicing nitrogen-fixing genes into commercial food crops in order to
boost yields, there has so far been little success. This means that GM crops are just
as dependent on fossil fuels to make fertilisers as conventional agriculture. In addition
to this, GM traits are often specifically designed to fit with large-scale industrial
agriculture. Herbicide resistance is of no real benefit unless your farm is too vast to
weed mechanically, and it presumes that the farmers already farm in a way that
involves the chemical spraying of their crops. Similarly, BT toxin expression is
designed to counteract the problem of pest control in vast monocultures, which
encourage infestations. In a world that will soon have to change its view of farming
facing as it does the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil GM crops will
soon come to look like a relic of bygone practices.
Mark Anslow is the Ecologists senior reporter
3 Telegraph, 14th January 2008, http://tinyurl.com/38e2rp
4 Soil Association, 2007, http://tinyurl.com/33bfuh
7 Indian Muslims, 20th November 2007, http://tinyurl.com/2u7wy7
8 New Scientist, Genes for Greens, 5th January 2007, Issue 2637, Vol 197
15 Innovations Report, 20th June 2005, http://tinyurl.com/3axmln
18 All references from GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham, Mae-
Wan Ho, Joe Cummins, Peter Saunders, ISIS report.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008
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