Le Monde diplomatique, April 10, 2006
EUROPE: NOT IN OUR FIELDS
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.
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 2004.
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 laboratories.
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 countries.
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
(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 controversy.
(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.
(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