Le Monde diplomatique  [Printer-friendly version]
April 10, 2006


The European Commission and the GM seeds industry invented the idea of
coexistence between GM and conventional farming to get GM crops
accepted. So why are the GM companies backing a plan to set up a seed
bank near the North Pole where it can't be contaminated?

[Rachel's introduction: The Norwegian government is planning to build
a cave inside a frozen mountain in the Arctic to store seeds from all
the world's crops, to prevent them from becoming contaminated with
genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The plan "reflects compelling
evidence that conventional plants are being contaminated by
transgenic ones," which has sparked a movement of citizens taking
direct action against GMO crops.]

By Robert Ali Brac de La Perriere and Frederic Prat

The Norwegian government has revived plans to build an artificial cave
inside a frozen mountain on the island of Svalbard on the edge of the
Arctic Circle. The idea is that the genetic diversity currently found
in the crops we grow can be preserved by freezing their seeds in the
cave. Two million sets of seeds representing all currently known
varieties of crop would be put inside this end-of-the-world safe.
According to Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust,
which is promoting the idea: "Should the worst happen, this will allow
the world to restart agriculture on this planet." The project's donors
include Dupont and Syngenta, two multinational agrochemicals companies
which own a significant share of the world's biotechnology patents,
and produce large numbers of genetically modified crops.

So the companies that promote GM crops are among the keenest advocates
of the need to safeguard the world's plant life. This should provoke
concern, since it reflects compelling evidence that conventional
plants are being contaminated by transgenic ones. The Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research has also raised the
alarm. The group maintains a genebank containing more than half a
million samples of seeds and covering most major crops. In 2004 it
deemed that the probability of genebank collections becoming
contaminated was high for maize and rape, medium for rice and cotton.
Its report recommended immediate action (1)

Contamination also threatens sources of diversity within a single
species. These specific geographical locations are known as original
centres of domestication. Mexico is the original centre of
domestication and source of the diversity of maize. In 2001
researchers from Berkeley, California, revealed that local Mexican
maize varieties had been contaminated by commercial, transgenic
varieties from the United States, even though Mexico had a moratorium
on GM crops at the time (2).

Transylvania in Romania is a centre of domestication for Prunus
species (plum, peach and cherry trees). In 2005 it was discovered that
transgenic plum trees, resistant to the Sharka (plum pox) virus, were
being cultivated experimentally at a plantation near Bistrita. For 10
years the plantation had been receiving dozens of specimens of
transgenic plants from the Bordeaux branch of France's National
Institute of Agronomic Research, without official authorisation from
the Romanian government, as part of a programme supported by the
European Commission.

In Iraq, original centre of domestication for wheat, a USAid programme
created 54 sites to grow "improved" US wheat varieties, shortly after
the coalition had issued Order 81, setting out the circumstances under
which the re-use of seeds by farmers would constitute patent
infringement. This provided Monsanto with a readymade market for its
transgenic wheat. The agribusiness giant had a setback in 2004 when
pressure from US and Canadian farmers, fearful they would lose markets
in Europe and Japan, and from a highly mobilised Italian wheat
industry, blocked its plans to sell this worldwide.

Since they were first introduced on the world market 10 years ago, GM
crops have spread to cover some 90m hectares, 1.8% of all farmed land.
For some industrial-scale plantations, such as soya, GM varieties are
on the way to complete replacement of conventional varieties. More
than 90% of soya in the US and Argentina is now transgenic.
Contamination occurs at all stages of the production cycle. The
genebank can become contaminated, via samples from fields or during
outdoor breeding near a GM plantation. In fields, cross-pollination
spreads GM varieties into neighbouring plots. After the harvest, seeds
get mixed up in transit, in the warehouse, and while the crops are
being processed into food.

In some areas contamination has become endemic. Brazilian soya,
Canadian rape and maize in parts of Spain are examples. When it
penetrates breeders' seed stocks, and even the soil, this
contamination becomes permanent.

EU regulations

In 1990 the European Union introduced regulations to govern the
marketing of GM crops. The risk involved in each initiative had to be
evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but the assessed risks did not
include the crops' wider impact on the diversity of farm produce and
on ecosystems in general. In 1999 a strong popular movement against GM
crops, combined with resistance from local and regional governments,
won an official EU moratorium on new permits for GM crops. A new
directive, 2001/18 CE, based on the precautionary principle, was
issued in 2001 but the moratorium effectively remained in place until

During this period the main exporters of GM plants, the US, Canada and
Argentina, lodged a complaint against the EU at the World Trade
Organisation. But to widespread surprise, the WTO's expert panel did
not rule against Europe in its interim report (3).

The precautionary measures in directive 2001/18 CE are limited to
certain environmental and health risks, and the procedure for
evaluating those risks is opaque and of questionable effectiveness. In
theory, it is up to the European Council (the relevant ministers from
each member state) to decide. But the council has to achieve a
qualified majority decision. As that rarely happens, the European
Commission deals with the cases. The commission bases its decisions on
reports by experts who base their decisions on risk assessment studies
produced by the GM crop companies themselves, not by independent

The authorisation of Monsanto's 863 variety of maize is one case.
Compulsory toxicity tests showed that rats fed 863 developed
abnormalities in their internal organs (their kidneys got smaller) and
changes in the composition of their blood. Monsanto's report said
these anomalies were of no concern: they were typical of variations
observed in rats, and probably due to chance. But when experts from
Germany's biosecurity authority looked at the study, they noted "a
long list of significant differences" between different groups of
rats, and criticised the methodology. This has not prevented 863 from
being authorised.

The European Parliament is not consulted when the EU deliberates the
authorisation of new varieties of GM crops. Nor is the Committee of
the Regions, nor the European Economic and Social Committee. So the
strongest democratic opposition to transgenic produce has come from
local and regional authorities that have declared themselves GM-free.
It is a burgeoning movement: 172 regions and more than 4,500 local
authorities have signed the Florence Charter, drawn up in February
2005, which demands "the activation of procedures to identify areas
left out from growing GMO produce... so as to ensure that the
result of such procedures are not regarded by the EU as a hindrance or
barrier to the operation of the internal market at Community level"
(4). The charter also stipulates that GM produce should only be
marketed if it is demonstrably useful to the consumer and to society
at large.

On 23 July 2003 the European Commission asked its member states to
organise the coexistence of transgenic, conventional and organic
farming. Regulation no 1829/2003, saying how GM food and feed should
be labelled, appeared in the EU's official journal. According to these
rules, a product would only have to be labelled as GM when the amount
of transgenic material in it topped a tolerable level. The idea of
tolerable levels is essential in labelling: without it, contaminations
would lead to the declassification of products containing only a trace
of the unwanted ingredient. For conventional produce, the tolerable
level of GM matter is 0.9% of each ingredient, as long as this is
"adventitious or technically unavoidable". Under the new rules, the
same level would also apply to food labelled as organic. Until then,
only entirely GM-free products could call themselves organic.

The commission backed its recommendations on coexistence with
substantial financial support for research programmes that could help
legitimise it. Yet opinion poll data has continued to show that a
large majority of European citizens are against GM food (5). A recent
report by the EU's Institute for Prospective Technological Studies is
aimed at reassuring them: "If GM presence in seeds does not exceed
0.5%, coexistence in crop production is technically feasible for the
target threshold of 0.9%. For maize, additional measures are needed
for some specific situations" (6).

Plans for co-existence

Europe is developing sophisticated systems for farming regulation.
Germany has drawn up public registers that note the precise location
of GM crops. This allows local authorities to provide accurate
information to residents and to mediate in compensation cases when
farmers claim to have suffered economically as a result of
contamination. At the European level, the Institute for the Protection
and Security of the Citizen (a subsidiary of the European Commission's
joint research centre) is working on a database listing all GM plots
and their surroundings.

But plans for "coexistence" between GM and non-GM crops are
unrealistic, not least because nearly 60% of farms in the 25-member EU
cover less than five hectares. The commission claims that it wants
ensure freedom of choice and democracy. But the systems it is setting
up can only lead to authoritarian regulations that impose crop and
seed varieties on farmers according to what the seed companies' lobby
wants, where and when it wants it. The totalitarian farming that the
French Peasants' Confederation denounced 10 years ago, when it
attacked the first patented GM crop plantations in France, is becoming
a reality.

The commission and the GM industry conjured coexistence to calm
opposition to GM crops. But contamination of seeds and crops is
inevitable and rising. Contamination affects all crops, but it
particularly threatens landraces (an early, cultivated form of a crop
species, evolved from a wild population) and to products sold and
labelled according to their specific origin. The damage is
immeasurable. For organic and biodynamic farming, contamination
ultimately means doom. It makes it impossible to use only seeds that
are wholly GM-free, removing the right to choose, today and for future
generations. The title of the European Commission's conference this
month, "Freedom of choice, coexistence of GM, conventional and organic
crops", is hypocritical.

Contamination occurs as much via the sale of contaminated seeds as by
cross-pollination between fields, so responsibility for all
contamination should be laid at the door of the procurers and
importers of GM products, who should have to bear the costs of
effective separation of the different forms of agriculture, from seed
to field to sale. Some regions, in Italy in particular, have
introduced laws whereby GM crops can only be introduced once a full
study into their impact on local farming and quality products,
including organics, has been carried out. These procedures should be
mandatory in evaluating all requests for authorisation to market GM
products in the EU.

It was unsurprising that GM products, foisted on Europe by a coalition
of private interests supported by the commission and most member-state
governments, would be resisted by European citizens. Local government
GM-free zones are one example. Another is the movement known in France
as the Faucheurs Volontaires (volunteer reapers) whose supporters take
direct action, destroying GM plantations. This has led to judicial
proceedings against several people, including the Peasants'
Confederation's former spokesman, Jose Bove. The movement (founded as
a civil disobedience movement in 2003 at the counter-globalisation
gathering in France's Massif Centrale) works on the principle that
every participant bears responsibility for his or her own actions,
without implicating any organisation. Today the Faucheurs have more
than 5,000 campaigners in France and are spreading to other European

Some of the Faucheurs have received heavy fines, backed by threats
from bailiffs. But two recent decisions suggest that things may be
changing: in December 2005 an Orleans court ruled that the
destructions were legal, because of a state of necessity clause in the
Environmental Charter adopted by the French government in February
2005, which enshrines the precautionary principle in the constitution.
In January 2006 a Versailles court followed suit. When representative
democracy no longer works and the fate of biodiversity lies with
frozen seeds in a cave near the North Pole, resistance makes the law.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg

Robert Ali Brac de la Perriere is a phytogenetics specialist and
administrator of Inf'OGM, a non-profit-making watchdog on the GM issue
in France. Frederic Prat is an agronomist, also with Inf'OGM

(1) http://www.ipgri.cgiar.org/

(2) David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, "Transgenic DNA introgressed into
traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico", in Nature, no 414,
2001. The biotech lobby hotly contested this article, sparking a major

(3) According to Le Monde, 2 March 2006, media reports that the WTO
had ruled against the EU were wrong: the WTO is critical of some EU's
countries' decisions and of procedural delays in the issue of permits,
but concludes that there is "no need to rule". The WTO will issue a
final report this month.

(4) http://www.gmofree-europe.org/

(5) A BVA survey in January 2006 found that 75% of French people were
opposed to GM food. For Britain in 2003, the figure stood at 56%,
according to Mori.

(6) "New case studies on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops in
European agriculture," http://www.jrc.es/home/index.htm

Copyright GM Watch