Science in Society Archive

Europe Holds the Key to a GM-Free World
5th Conference of GM-Free Regions, Food & Democracy

Important revelations at the Conference on how Europe determines the future of GMOs in the world market, and more Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Two hundred and fifty delegates from 28 countries (from Europe and elsewhere) converged to the lakeside culture and conference centre (KKL) in Lucerne , Switzerland , for the 5 th European Conference of GMO-free Regions on Food and Democracy [1]. The sun was shining on the scenic lake and the spring air charged with excitement and anticipation.

Germany 's move to ban the cultivation of MON810 GM maize barely ten days ago [2] ( Europe Firms Up Against GMOs & Patent on Life , SiS 43) had taken everyone by surprise. Germany , the most populous country in the European Union (EU) ranking fourth in land area, is also its most influential and economically powerful member nation. Monsanto has since taken the German government to court [3] saying its ban is arbitrary and goes against EU regulations.

The symbolic significance of German's ban on GM maize is a great boost to the campaign whose long-term goal is to get Europe GM-free, as Maya Graf, member of the Swiss National Council said in introducing the conference, which brought a constellation of star speakers from governments and non-government organisations.

Highlights from the opening session

Switzerland , the host country lost no time in hogging the limelight. The country has had a moratorium on GMOs since 2005, which has been extended to 2013.

Adrian Borgula , President of the Cantonal Parliament of Lucerne bid everyone a warm welcome to the beautiful city, and spoke of William Tell, the legendary 14 th century hero of the alpine Canton of Uri in Switzerland . An expert marksman with the crossbow, he was made to shoot an apple on top of the head of his son by the Hapsburg overlord seeking to dominate Uri, and became the symbol of democracy, and the Conference logo.

Chira Simoneschi-Cortes i, Speaker of the Swiss National Council, told the congregation that a big Swiss Insurance company has announced it will not insure against GMOs, because the risks are incalculable! She was “encouraged by the German rejection of MON810.”

“It is not up to scientists and the companies to decide what goes onto our plate. The principle of market economy also demands we should not have GMOs, there simply is no market demand for it,” she said. “ Switzerland has chosen a wise path, moratorium until the end of 2013. This offers great advantage for the small agricultural market of Switzerland .”

There is opposition in Parliament, she admitted; but it is for the people of Switzerland to decide. Furthermore, there must be proper labels for GMOs instead of just the small print.

This conference was the first official visit to Switzerland for Nikolaus Berlakovich , Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, Austria . GM crops are simply not for small countries; he said, they must produce high quality food to position themselves in the market. “Our position is organic agriculture. Austria is an ecocosocial economy, neither capitalist not communist. Britain has nationalised their banks. Isn't that strange? But we must integrate economic and social. We are backing GMO-free animal feed on all levels.”

He explained that organic farming needs protection; and Austria is very critical of EU's co-existence policy. “We have high percentage of organic farming in Austria , which also covers areas not cultivated. We have the support of consumers. GMOs are rejected by the majority of farmers who know that if they are contaminated, they have a problem.”

It is important for neighbours to join forces, Berlakovich said. “MON810 is authorized in EU, but we ban it, we have lots of scientists supporting that ban.”

He described how Austria won the majority vote against the European Commission's attempt to make Austria and Hungary lift their bans on GM maize. “We submitted several studies; our cultivation ban was discussed again. We were in a difficult situation. We needed 74 percent of the environment ministers to vote for us. Germany normally did not support us, but there was a real dynamic, we won over Germany and other countries that did not look likely to vote with us. We got 82 and 85 percent respectively for the two maize varieties! So it was great that a small country like Austria can win. Luxemborug also instituted the ban, very courageous.”

Austria wants liability clarified, he said; what if they are contaminated by neighbouring country? “My goal is to achieve GMO-Free farming in Austria . This should be our right, not to be denied by the EU. Every state should have the right to do so. We have to change the rules at the EU to allow for self-determination. And even within countries, GMO-free regions should be allowed. We are working with like-minded states. Many states support us in this approach, but we need the European Commission to actively change things.”

Berkovich re-iterated the need to incorporate socioeconomic values in assessing GMOs, not just the negative impacts. What value is there for the people? That was why Austria banned MON810, which has no socioeconomic value whatsoever. He also called for proper label for GMOs, not just in the fine print that we need our glasses to read.

“Conferences like this one are important. We need to join forces to create a movement for GMO-free agriculture.” He concluded

“They've tried everything including threat and blackmail to get GM into the market, but they failed.” Simonetta Sommaruga , Member of the Council of States (Small Chamber of the Swiss Parliament), began her speech.

“Agriculture should fit the market, the needs of the consumer, sustainability means good for the environment, and animal rights.” She said.

Switzerland has had a GMO moratorium since 2005, and it worked. She pointed out that there were no GM plants, no complications for consumers when they are buying; and no need to separate goods. “Our government can hardly do anything else but extend it for another three years. The argument that Switzerland stands alone must be put to one side because of this conference. GM monopolizes the right to food, it is not a democracy.”

Roseanna Cunningham , Scottish Environment Minister, unable to appear in person, sent a video instead. She said: “Scottish citizens are not clamouring for GM produce. We know little of long term effects of GMOs. To take that risk is indefensible. Short range effects are already devastating.” She pointed out that in Scotland , 85 percent of land in food production is ‘marginal'; therefore Scotland must compete on quality, in which Scotland has excelled. And there is also a great deal of wild life, because it is remote, including alpine, artic environments. Half of species in Europe are found in Scotland .

Scotland is a GMO-Free region, and supports Austria 's socioeconomic factors to be taken into account. “We do not need GM, because we have so many excellent conventional crops.” One prime example is Scottish Crop Research Institute's blackcurrents, which account for half of all the varieties grown in the world.

An important issue is GM-free animal feed. Switzerland , Austria and Germany already have GMO-free fed label. “Big business doesn't want us to learn from one another.”

Renate Künast Chair of the parliamentary group Bundnis 90/Die Grunen , Germany , began: “Great to hear of the Swiss moratorium; very good indication for the future! We would like to hear something similar from Germany,” She then reminded her audience that people in other parts of the world may not even have access to food, let alone the food they choose. The South is cultivating food for the North. People there still suffer from hunger while working for large monocultures of the north. They have no right to food, and cannot have their traditional food.

Künast said people should be free of patents on life. “Food and democracy belong together. We have less freedom and less democracy, less and less seed companies for traditional plants.”

The basic foods of around 50 percent of people in the world are affected by patents, which include those on manioc, rice, and corn. This is neo-colonialism taking over our fields and plates in both developing and industrialised countries. How do we defend ourselves? By creating GM-free regions and letting them grow. The South produce food fed to animals in the North. Europe has a central task and duty to be answerable for this international divide, to look at the patents, and to build a new type of agriculture.

There is strong lobby pressure in Europe from the industry, they use every tool possible. But as citizens we all have the power through our shopping basket to remain GM free and to organise GM free movements. The German farmers association used to laugh at every organic farmer, called them old-fashioned. But we have purchasing power to change that. Parents who care for their children, nearly 98 percent of them feed their children on GM-free products. Today, the demand for organic food in kindergartens and schools is growing. Our German agricultural minister is very brave to ban MON810. There is debate still in the German Parliament. We must create a movement for GM-free food. We need to highlight the fact that it is always the same old scientists that decide on GM. We must prevent entrance gate through animal feed. In Germany the municipalities have made their own decisions. Throughout Europe , we have the right to GM-free feed-troughs and plates.

Karel Blaha , Czech First deputy Minister of the Environment, took the podium, speaking for the Czech Republic that has taken over the presidency of the EU. He said the legislation for GMOs in his country will be revised in order to strengthen environment assessment and monitoring arrangements, to support systematic and independent research on potential risks, and collection and exchange of information.

The new legislation will take full account of specific regional agronomical and environmental characters; it will allow restrictive measures on GMOs, up to the creation of GMO-free zones. The Czech Republic supports national bans on the ‘Principle of Subsidiarity' that takes account of various national environmental and agronomical conditions, and member states should decide for themselves. The Czech Republic has supported national bans since 2006, and in March 2008, the German government has changed its mind, voting to reject the EC proposal to lift Austria and Hungary 's bans on GM maize. “This deserves the clapping of hands.” He said.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf , MEP from Germany , gave an impassioned uncompromising speech. “GMO friendly laws have been passed in Europe ,” he said; “Co-existence is a Trojan Horse to contaminate farming so much that there is no more sense to become GMO-free.” He was at pains to point out that EU legislation does not recognize contamination . The 0.9 percent is not a contamination threshold. There is no right to contamination. For organic agriculture, GMO is banned, and that is very important. “It means contamination must not take place. You can declare your country GM-free. You don't have any other reason than sufficient organic farmers to say we must be GM free. Do what the Austrians did. No need to change legislation in Europe .”

In labelling legislation, there is a loophole, animal products, meat, milk, etc. can be fed GM, if you cannot find any trace. But in plants, the end product must be labelled. “We try positive labelling in Germany : GM-free feed. That is not sufficient. We must demand label of GM-fed animals. The threshold must be 0.1 percent. Dimas (Environment Commissioner) is in favour. We need regulation on this. That's another signal that we don't want GMOs.”

Apart from being an organic farmer, Graefe zu Baringdorf also chairs an organisation of small scale and peasant agriculture that coordinate the movement for GMO-free regions “Just because a small minority want GMOs, we should not give in,” he concluded.

Hansjorg Walter , Member of the Swiss National Council and president of the Swiss farmer association, is in no doubt that it is consumers that decide. “We have no results from research. In the summer, there will be interim report on the pollination problem. It is not possible for Swiss authority to decree for small farmers. We need high quality food that is why GMO is perceived as a threat. No one has found a benefit for consumers. That is why it is so important for 5-years pause, and to prolong the moratorium for three more years.” Walter stressed that they want research, but not release into nature. Also, research must respect market demand! If the market does not demand, why do the research? GMOs will not solve the problem for small farmers, he said. Swiss Farmers Association is working to produce high quality food. They support all labels for suppliers. GM-free production, GM-free feed, ecological factors, also, for farming in the natural way.

Carol Bogliottie , speaking for the Slow Food movement in Italy , expresses special concerns over food being sold as commodity rather than being eaten. In the traditional gift society, seed exchange was the basic act. But this has come under attack from GM. Agriculture used to feed people wild life and nature at the same time; the ancient wisdom was working with and not against nature. The Terra Madre (Slow Food) movement gives voice to local food producer to sustain their ability to work under the best conditions for the food of people and planet. It was launched in. 2003 with 5 000 producers from more than 100 countries, 400 researchers and academics. In 2008, this increased to 7 000 producers from 153 countries.

GM still a minor produce after 13 years and failing

Helen Holder from Friends of the Earth reminded people that only two traits account for practically all the GM crops grown globally herbicide tolerance (HT, 81 percent, mainly Monsanto's Roundup Ready) and insect resistance (IR, 19 percent). Of the 81 percent HT, 68 percent are HT alone, and 13 percent HT and IR. Three crops, soybean, maize and cotton make up 95 percent of the global GM acreage, with the rest being GM oilseed rape. They are confined to 5 countries in America : US, Canada , Argenina , Brazil and Paraguay . And the total area comprises less than 2.4 percent of global agricultural land. Europe has just 0.06 percent of its agricultural land planted with GM crop, and 75 percent of that is located in one country, Spain .

After 13 years of commercial growing, pesticide use has gone way up, yields remain static or decreased (yield drags), and no beneficial traits commercialised, despite the hype. Pesticide use has increased due to weeds developing resistance. Glyphosate use on soybean, maize and cotton in the US shot up 15-fold. Other deadly herbicides such as 2,4D more than doubled, while atrazine (banned in the EU) on corn and maize increased by 12 percent. In Brazil , similarly, glyphosate use increased 76.9 percent from 2000 to 2005 as resistant weeds emerged

There are signs that farmers in the US are turning away from planting GM, but they can't access GM free seeds.

Non-GM soybean is available in abundance for feed and food

Jochen Koester from TraceConsult exploded the myth that there is no GM-free animal feed in Europe . There is indeed GM-free maize for compound feed that comes from within the EU, also GM-free rapeseed and lupines, and not to forget, plenty of grass. Actually GM-free soy meal is in abundant supply as well.

Commodity and feed industries have been calling for EU to approve new GM varieties and raise thresholds from 0 to 0.5 percent. Otherwise, they say, feed prices will rise by 600 percent. The ulterior motive behind these scare stories is to maintain flexibility in purchasing and quality management, and keep doors open for North American and Argentina imports.

Most maize and soybean end up in animal feed, especially soybean; 75 percent of which end up as soymeal in animal feed. Animal feed, therefore, determines the GM fate of food.

It is indeed possible to get GM-free soybean. More than 50 percent of all soy lecithin used in Europe is from conventional GM-free beans. Almost all EU-made chocolate uses GM-free lecithin.

GM-free soybean is supplied essentially by only 3 countries, Brazil , India and China . So far, only Brazil has exported larger volumes of GM-free soy meal to Europe . The total soybean crop in 2009 is 60 million tonnes, 45 percent of which is conventional crop, and has remained nearly unchanged over 2008. Of the 27 million tonnes GM-free bean available, only 10 million tonnes end up in the identity preserving (IP) system, of which only 6.3 million tonnes are certified. The volume after conversion to soy meal is 4.75 million tonnes.

Thus, a higher European demand will cause more soybean to enter the IP system! Any reasonable demand for GM-free soy meal can be covered. Soon after harvest the remainder is commingled and contaminated with GM bean for lack of demand. So EU determines the future of GM . Demand must be communicated, clearly specified, and originate from the right sources.

There is no reason to put up with GM soybean in human food either.

Wolfgang Heck, of Life-Food , Germany , has been growing soybeans organically in South Germany since 1997, which he processes into tofu. He started after hearing about GM soybean, and is now the biggest tofu producer in Europe .

Health and environmental hazards of GMOs

Daniel Ammann of the Swiss Working Group in Gene Technology began his review

on the health risks of GMOs with the work of Arpad Pusztai, who sounded the first warning to the public [4] (see Pusztai Publishes Amidst Fresh Storm of Attack , ISISNews #3), suffering great personal sacrifice as a result. (I paid special tribute to Arpad in my talk and the conference participants sent him their best wishes in the closing speech.)

Ammann concurred with Arpad that there are too few studies, and the safety tests are inadequate to assess potential harm. Furthermore, feedings studies are beset with problems. They place high demand on the researchers, are expensive, unrepeatable, and difficult to interpret due to chronic and unexpected toxicities. Consequently, the best solution is to have GM-free organic food.

An entire day was devoted to the workshop on the health and environmental impacts of GMOs. I used the ‘clinical trials' of experimental GM Golden Rice on children [5] ( The Golden Rice Scandal Unfolds , SiS 42) as an example of a GMO that has more than the usual share of hazards, including the assumption that it is ‘nutritionally enhanced' and harmless (see the full lecture [6] Golden Rice and Hazards of GMOs ( ).

Giles-Eric Seralini from CRIIGEN (Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetics , France ), highlighted the hazards of glyphosate herbicide and Monsanto's formulation Roundup, used on more than 80 percent of all GM crops grown globally. Research carried out in his laboratory showed that the herbicide killed human placental and embryonic cells at concentrations well below those recommended for agricultural use. More importantly, ‘inert' ingredients in Roundup formulations, most of which kept secret, act synergistically with the herbicide, increasing its toxicity further (see [7] Death by Multiple Poisoning, Glyphosate and Roundup , SiS 42). Seralini also showed how reanalysing raw data on Monsanto's feeding trials with MON 863 maize revealed significant effects indicating liver and kidney toxicity (see [8] ( GM Maize MON 863 Toxic , SiS 34), which are still being dismissed by Monsanto and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as being not ‘biologically meaningul'.

Seralini was at pains to stress the importance of transparency. At the moment, companies used ‘commercial confidentiality' to deny public access to sensitive data that are crucial for safety. The raw data on MON 863 were obtained only after a court order. Seralini has sat on different biosafety committees for his government and on the EFSA. He said, “If there had been transparency on the 15 GMOs [that were approved], there would not have been any GMOs in the world, not even in the States.”

Schmeiser meets Herren

Percy Schmeiser was invited over by German campaigners who had planned to hold a conference in Germany to protest the planting of GM maize. But as Germany has banned the planting, Schmeiser was taken to Lucerne instead.

Schmeiser is without doubt the most popular farmer in the world, after having taken on Monsanto and won. He told the congregation in no uncertain terms that Monsanto means to control the world's food supply. It is the biggest seed company in the world, and is now buying up organic seed companies. “It will be the end of organic farming if you introduce GMOs. Canadian soybean and canola have completely lost their organic status, and can no longer export to the EU.” He warned. Read Schmeiser's inspiring story in [9] Who Owns Life, Not Monsanto? ( SiS 42).

Hans Herren was co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) [10] (see GM - Free Organic Agriculture to Feed the World , SiS 38). IAASTD was the first, unprecedented multi-stakeholder assessment, involving multiple UN agencies, scientists, farmers, and NGOs, from North and South.

“GMO food is devoid of nutrients, and entails huge costs, to the environment, soil, water and biodiversity, and is also a driver of climate change, responsible for some 32 percent of global ghg emissions.” Herren said.

The major finding of the IAASTD is that small farmers practicing agroecology are the way forward to feed the world, eradicate poverty and save the climate.

And this must now be implemented by concrete support for small family farmers. “They are the real stewards of our food, air, land and water, they provide invaluable ecosystem services, and should be paid for that.” Herren asserted. “It is for responsible governments to implement the recommendations of the IAASTD, not following what Monsanto is telling them.”

Agriculture is at the centre of society, economy and environment. Not only food production. Hundreds of different plant species should be recovered for food. It is not just a matter of productivity of a few major crops. “We need to change the paradigm in agriculture, build in resilence, fulfil the needs of local people. We cannot continue to eat our natural capital. Nor have the North eating the South.” He said. “People, animals, plants, and environment fit and thrive together.”

GMO-Free regions in Europe

A total of 196 regions, 93 intermediate regions, 4567 local governments, and 30 370 individuals (landowners and farmers) in 38 countries in Europe have declared themselves GMO-Free [11]; the corresponding 2007 figures were 167, 53, 4276, 27 100, and 29. The figures represent remarkable increases over the past two years. Although in many cases, the declaration has no legal status and cannot be enforced, it does send a strong message to central governments and to the European Commission that farmers and consumers of Europe are still overwhelmingly opposed to GMOs 13 years after they were introduced; if anything, more firmly so. We are poised for rapid phase transition to a fully GM-free, possibly also organic Europe ; particularly as there is a move afoot to overhaul European GMO legislation.

Current GMO legislation requires a thorough revision

In his concluding speech, Benny Haerlin of Save Our Seeds, Germany , pointed out that in December 2008, the EU Council of Ministers had unanimously agreed that the present legislation on GMOs requires a thorough revision with respect to risk assessment, and should take into account socio-economic aspects. There was also agreement that the present procedure of imposing the cultivation of GMOs on regions and nations is untenable. The Commission so far, has not taken any steps to react to the Council's unanimous demands. On behalf of the participants at the 5 th European Conference of GMO Free Regions, he called for a moratorium on any future approval to cultivate GMOs until new regulations are established that resolve the present contradictions and respect the will of the people.

He also called on the EU member States to rethink their legislation and policy on the use of GMOs in agriculture.

Article first published 05/10/09


  1. Conference 2009,
  2. Ho MW. Europe firms up against GMOs and patents on life. Science in Society 43.
  3. “Monsanto sues Germany over GM corn ban”, DW-World.DE, 22 April 2009,,,4196705,00.html?maca=en-rss-en-all-1573-rdf
  4. Ho MW. Pusztai publishes amidst fresh storm of attack. i-sis news3 , December 1999.
  5. Ho MW. The Golden Rice scandal unfolds. Science in Society 42.
  6. Ho MW. Golden Rice & hazards of GMOs. I-SIS lecture, Workshop on health and environmental impacts of GMOs. 5 th European Conference on GM Free Regions, Food & Democracy, KKL, Lucerne, Switzerland, 25 April 2009.
  7. Ho MW and Cherry B. Death by multiple poisoning, glyphosate and Roundup. Science in Society 42.
  8. Ho MW. GM maize MON 863 toxic. Science in Society 34 , 26, 2007.
  9. Burcher S. Who owns life, not Monsanto? Science in Society 42.
  10. Ho MW. “GM-free organic agriculture to feed the world”. Science in Society 38 , 14-15, 2008.
  11. List of GMO-Free Regions, 1 May 2009,

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There are 4 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Irina Maia Comment left 7th May 2009 18:06:20
A great article from ISIS, as always! I linked to it on GENET website:

Prince Pieray C. P Odor Comment left 7th May 2009 21:09:10
The news about the moratorium is a very greatly pleasing and encouraging news. But the real thing is to ban the production, distribution, advertising, and sale of G.M.Fs. I must give approbation, appreciation, praise, and thanks to the indefatigable Dr. M.W. Ho, the woman of great intellectual height and capacity and a trusted fighter for food safety in the so-called third world. For the excellent and consistently intimidating contributions -- intimidating to the opposite and evil side -- of Prof. P. Saunders and Prof. Emeritus J. Cummins, I give them my utmost appreciation and gratitude. Most people in Nigeria are still ignorant and the people at the moral and humanitarian side are very few. Many of the mass information media refuse us opportunity to present our case. I have been having a very hard time getting to the public in view of this and because those in government behave as if Monsanto has, in its characteristic way of dealing with the people in government, bribed them so that they do not to hear or see the other side of the argument and know about Monsanto's crimes. It is absolutely necessary and important to reveal to you that Nigeria is the target country in Africa. Your paper contributions to the fight are absolutely necessary and solicited. Please consider sending the papers to our local newspapers. KEEP THE VERY SATISFACTORY WORK ON. VICTORY WILL COME TO ALL MORAL BIO-SCIENTISTS AND HUMANITY Prince Pieray C. P. Odor Lagos, Nigeria

mae-Wan Ho Comment left 8th May 2009 07:07:09
Prince Pieray, please send our report to as many of your papers as possible!

Sharon Medway Comment left 12th May 2009 14:02:47
This is amazing. Why are Americans not doing anything about this? Our media and government do not even tell us about this. There has been no relevant reporting on this in the US at all. In fact the only reason I know about it is because I tend to get my news from international sources. It is not complacency but ignorance that stops us from changing anything. We are kept in the dark on purpose. I had never even heard of the Monsanto company until a few weeks ago. Saying educate yourselves is not enough. There needs to be an International cry out to the American populous to inform them of what is happening.