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ISIS Report 06/08/08

Exposed: Europe’s GM-Hype in Times of Food and Fuel Crisis

Claire Robinson

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Pro-GM brigade at large in the food and fuel crisis

The pro-GM brigade has been losing no time in exploiting the current global food and fuel crisis and the high price of animal feed to promote GM as the solution in the mainstream media. An offensive was launched on the European Union (EU) to relax its policy on GM imports and cultivation. At present only one GM crop, a GM maize, is approved for cultivation in Europe. The European Commission department of agriculture has joined forces with the biotech industry and the animal feed industry in claiming that it is the EU’s GM policy that is harming Europe’s livestock industry.

Leading the charge of the pro-GM brigade in Europe is Britain, in its role as chief ally of the largest GM exporter the United States. The UK Independent reported that [1], “Ministers are preparing to open the way for genetically modified crops to be grown in Britain on the grounds that they could help combat the global food crisis.” The main source quoted in the article is environment minister Phil Woolas. The night before promoting the GM agenda, the article said, Woolas held talks with the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a biotech industry PR group representing Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Dow, Pioneer (DuPont), and Syngenta. This industry lobby group is run by Lexington Communications, a PR agency intimately connected to the New Labour government [2]. The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has fallen in line, calling on the EU to relax its rules on importing GM animal feed in order to cut spiralling food prices [3]. In addition, a new report by the UK Cabinet Office on the food and feed crises focuses almost exclusively on the role of the EU's GMO regulations in creating delays for GM feed crop approvals [4].

Critics say that such scaremongering is a cynical attempt to force the EU to drop its “zero tolerance” approach to GM and GM-contaminated imports. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said at UK's National Farmers Union (NFU) conference [5], "I think the debate about higher prices and being able to meet the demand of people in the world for food is a perfect opportunity to make the case [for GMO crops]... We may have a window of opportunity here and I would encourage you to exploit that."

President of European Commission at the heart of EU’s pro-GM lobby

Industry lobbyists hoping to convince Europe to go down the GM route face an uphill battle, at least, as far as democracy prevails. Most EU member states and their elected representatives in the EU Parliament remain sceptical of GM crops. Votes by ministers from the member states on applications for their import or cultivation regularly oppose GM applications, but not with a sufficient majority to finally block the approval. The technical name for this type of majority decision in Eurospeak is an ‘unqualified majority’. In such cases, the decision reverts to the unelected European Commission.

The Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, is at the heart of the EU's pro-GM lobby. Reports have emerged that Barroso is trying to get member states to agree on GMOs behind closed doors, so that there are no more unqualified majorities [6]. Barroso is also trying to find a way to lift Europe’s “zero tolerance” policy and smooth the way for the entry of GMOs into Europe [7, 8]. The Commission has already announced that a decision on animal feed imports and EU GM approvals and laws will be reached this summer. A group of MEPs on the agriculture and environment, public health and food safety committees has written a letter to Barroso expressing concern at [9] “reports that the Commission is deliberately trying to find ways to avoid a co-decision process, thus excluding MEPs, the elected representatives of European citizens, from any decisions on this issue.”

The pro-GM lobby, including influential people within the European Commission, claims that Europe must open the doors to GMOs in order to solve the food and feed crisis; but there is little basis to the claim.

No evidence that GM crops will solve the food and fuel crisis

Most of the EU’s animal feed comes from Brazil and Argentina, which are careful to grow only those varieties of feed, both GM and non-GM, that are approved in the EU, so as not to harm their export markets [10]. An article in the Financial Times quotes a Brazilian diplomatic source saying, “We produce to satisfy our clients. We are not going to produce something they are not going to buy.” The article goes on to say that neither Argentina nor Brazil share the “apocalyptic” scenario currently being put forward by the biotech and livestock industries and intensive farmers [11].

Such scaremongering ignores the well-known fact that GM crops have at best, variable impacts on yields and are therefore not a solution to the food crisis, as was confirmed by the recent IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report on the future of agriculture [12].

More importantly, it ignores the fact that the major cause of the food and feed crisis is not European GM policy, but the rush to biofuels. Even the World Bank has now confirmed what NGOs have been saying ever since the notion of a food crisis was first mooted, that the Bush-subsidised ethanol boom (with the EU's agrofuel boom following in its wake) is by far the single most important factor in creating the food crisis that is driving 100m people worldwide below the poverty line. The report, which has not been published but was leaked to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, says biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75 percent. The figure emphatically contradicts the US government's claims that plant-derived fuels contribute less than 3 percent to food-price rises. Senior development sources believe the report, completed in April, has not been published to avoid embarrassing President George W. Bush [13].

The irony is that exactly the same people who created this disaster by promoting the rush into agrofuels are now promoting a rush for GMOs as the solution. It is this hype that the European Commission and British politicians appear to be swallowing, without being honest about the vested interests at stake.

Monsanto does a complete about-turn on GMOs being needed to feed the world

And here’s another irony. The truth about GMOs as the solution to the global food crisis is not coming from politicians but from industry itself. Previously, in the face of growing global opposition, Monsanto has long proclaimed that GM crops are vital for feeding a hungry world, while critics countered that the food is there and that distribution is the key to tackling hunger. But as opposition to biofuels is rising in Europe and even in the US on the grounds that they are not a solution to climate change and are contributing to the food crisis, Monsanto is now keen to defend the biofuels gravy-train that sent food prices sky-rocketing, and the company's spin has suddenly gone into complete reverse.

The ethanol boom may be pushing millions towards starvation and hundreds of millions deeper into poverty, but, says Monsanto's chief technology officer Rob Fraley [14], "From a production perspective, we have abundance [of food]". Fraley now says the "challenges" are in distribution and access to food because of wealth distribution, in other words, poverty.

Fraley made his pitch at the launch of a new multi-million dollar lobby group for ethanol, the Alliance for Abundant Food and Energy, that Monsanto has helped set up. There could be no clearer demonstration that Monsanto's concern has never been feeding the hungry; its leading role in the ethanol lobby shows that the hungry can happily starve, just so long as it's good for the company's bottom line.

Given that industry has revealed the truth behind its biofuels agenda, is it too much to ask of Europe’s politicians that they should be equally honest about the vested interests behind the hyping of GM crops?
Claire Robinson is an editor of GMWatch www.GMWatch.org


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