Thu, Jul 10, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Holding out on GMO

Why does Europe hate GM food and is it about to change its mind?

By Eric Randolph  /  PARIS, AFP

A file photo taken in October, 2008 shows an ultralight helicopter hovering above a field where activists from Greenpeace and Austrian organic farming association BIO AUSTRIA wrote the message “NO GMO” (Genetically Modified Organism) in Breitenfurt, some 60 Kilometers south east from Vienna.

Photo: AFP

While the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and China and many other countries have warmly embraced genetically modified crops, Europe remains the world’s big holdout.

Could this be about to change? New European Union rules now seek to clear up years of internal deadlock that could, in theory, lead to widespread cultivation of GM foods. But the fight is far from over.

The EU’s great GM debate pits two powerful forces against each other: green campaigners concerned about the effect of the crops on health and the environment, and the agri-business lobby, which argues that Europe, by resisting a technology that boosts yields and rural incomes, is losing its place at the forefront of agricultural innovation.

Only five EU countries grow GM crops at all — Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia — and in such tiny quantities that they accounted for less than 0.1 percent of global GM cultivation last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, which monitors the industry.

Europe’s fragmented politics, diverse landscapes and smaller scale farming traditions have made it less compatible with the mass-farming techniques in the Americas and China. Only one type of modified crop — a pest-resistant maize — is approved for cultivation in the EU, compared to 96 commercial licenses granted in the United States since 1990, although Europe does import more than 30 million tonnes of GM grain for animal feed each year.

“Europe has perversely condemned itself to importing crops which its farmers could grow locally and banished thousands of bright scientists to other shores for reasons that are scientifically bogus,” claims Brandon Mitchener, a Brussels spokesman for Monsanto, one of the US agribusinesses leading the push for GM crops.

Hoping to find a way out of the deadlock, EU environment ministers last month approved new rules that would permit individual countries to make their own decisions on GM — allowing them to use “ethical” or “public order” rationales to ban crops even when scientific advisors have ruled that these strains are safe.

The compromise was the result of a fraught battle, says Frederic Vincent, health spokesman for the European Commission: “Everyone was blocking the agreement for different reasons. The UK said not enough was left to science, France said too much was left to science, Germany was a mix of both thanks to its complex coalition.”

MAD COW IMPACT

Genetic modification technology was not always so controversial in Europe. Even France, now one of its staunchest opponents, grew GM maize well into the 2000s until green protesters pressured the government into a ban.

But Mitchener says the seeds of Europe’s aversion to GM were sown in the 1990s, thanks to two factors in particular: the strength of the Green party in Germany at the crucial moment when the technology was first emerging, and then the scare over mad cow disease in Britain.

“Mad cow disease caused a loss of public confidence in science. You had the British government saying beef was safe, while the EU said the opposite,” he says.

Unlike the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which commands widespread respect in the US, equivalent bodies in Europe are often treated as pawns of industry or simply ignored, Mitchener adds.

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