Science in Society Archive

Keeping Europe GM-Free

Efforts to ensure Europe remains GM-free have been stepped up. Lim Li Ching reports on the European Social Forum.

The second European Social Forum, held in and around Paris from 12-15 November 2003, brought together some 50 000 from across Europe and beyond to articulate an alternative vision of the world based on international cooperation, human development and social justice.

Different initiatives and strategies to maintain the pressure for a GM-free Europe were discussed at a workshop, ‘How to Keep Europe GM-Free?’ Europe’s regulatory framework on GMOs is now in place, with stricter legislation on deliberate release into the environment (Directive 2001/18/EC), GM food and feed (Regulation 1829/2003) and traceability and labelling (Regulation 1830/2003); the latter two have to be applied by April 2004. But there is concern that this is not enough.

There are outstanding issues of seed purity, contamination or coexistence, and liability and redress, which have yet to be addressed satisfactorily. In the meantime, efforts by local authorities to establish GM-free zones have met with difficulties. Upper Austria’s attempt to declare itself GM-free in September 2003 was rejected by the European Commission (EC), on grounds that no new scientific evidence had emerged to support a ban, and that Upper Austria had failed to prove the existence of a problem specific to the region that justified such an approach. The Upper Austrian parliament will appeal this decision.

Nonetheless, Friends of the Earth is currently spearheading a campaign on GM-free zones. Activists are lobbying local authorities to declare their areas GM-free, using Article 19 of Directive 2001/18/EC, which allows authorities to specify conditions of consent including the protection of particular ecosystems/environments and/or geographical areas. This implies that such zones can be excluded from GM marketing consents if a scientific case is made demonstrating that the GM product in question poses a particular risk to the area. To date, more than 20 local authorities in the UK have adopted GM-free policies.

Recently, ten GM-free European regions formed a network, coordinated by Upper Austria and Tuscany; it includes Aquitaine, Basque Country, Limousin, Marche, Salzburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Thrace-Rodopi and Wales. The network produced a document asserting the right of regions to forbid GMOs within their territories, which was signed by the regions’ agriculture ministers. The need for strong local authorities and national legislation is evident in such efforts, stressed Antonio Onarati from Italy.

Velt - the federation of ecological living and producing – launched its ‘GMO-free communities’ campaign in Belgium last year. It has been urging all 308 Flemish local authorities to declare their territories GM-free. While the Federal Government has jurisdiction on this issue, it has assured Velt that the opinion of local communities who want to stay GM-free will be taken into account. Thanks to the campaign, public debates on GM have taken place in several villages and cities for the first time.

It is crucial that the terms of such public debates are defined in consultation with civil society. This is what CCC-OGM – the French Collective for a Citizens’ Conference – is demanding. CCC-OGM, consisting of fifteen French NGOs, was created in late 2002 to demand that the French government initiate a public debate on GM before any political decision is made, particularly with regard to lifting the de facto moratorium on GM. It recommends using citizens’ conferences, the results of which would be used to stimulate parliamentary debate. The collective hopes to mobilise European partners to organise similar debates throughout Europe.

CCC-OGM is producing a ‘dossier of charges’ against GMOs, which examines scientific, legal, economic and ethical dimensions of the debate. This complements the report of the Independent Science Panel (ISP), The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World, which is a complete dossier of evidence on the known hazards and problems with GM crops, and of the manifold benefits of sustainable agriculture. The ISP report has been the basis of the ISP’s call for a ban on environmental releases of GMOs.

I introduced the ISP report and called for independent science and research, and funding thereof. Particularly, we need independent biosafety research, which looks at the risks associated with genetic engineering, as many questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, scientific evidence of hazards to date has to be taken seriously. There are also areas of research that are severely under-funded, such as sustainable alternatives to GM agriculture, which would include learning from farming communities and indigenous peoples. Other kinds of western science (e.g. gene ecology, genome fluidity) that would greatly inform on biosafety should be supported. Yet the bulk of research funding is directed to reductionist technological options such as GM, that’s overwhelmingly rejected by the citizens of Europe.

In developing countries where research capacity is limited and pulled in many directions to meet basic needs, there is pressure to invest in GM. Yet any inappropriate choice would result in devastating consequences, economically, socially and ecologically, as well as for public health. This has already happened in Argentina, as Jorge Rulli from Grupo Reflexion Rural testified. Argentina’s experience of GM crops has been largely negative and is linked to the neo-liberal economic paradigm adopted by the country. Hence, the science policies of a nation also need to be addressed. Technology assessment, which includes good science as well as environmental, health, social and economic assessment, should precede technology transfer.

Keeping Europe GM-free will be no easy task, as exemplified by the realities in Central-Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Iza Kruszewska from Clean Production Action and the Northern Alliance for Sustainability, ANPED talked in particular about the situation in Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Some progress has been made in these countries, with Slovenia part of an initiative to create a GM-free transboundary bioregion that includes parts of Austria and Italy.

Previous attempts by Croatia to ban production of GMOs and restrict the import of GM food were met with threats of a WTO complaint from the US government. Nonetheless, new legislation has recently come into force requiring authorisation and labelling for all GM food and feed placed on the market, and banning the release of GMOs in protected areas and their buffer zones, and in areas of organic farming and of importance to ecotourism.

Serbia and Montenegro has a policy of keeping its agriculture GM-free, with a comprehensive law regulating the conditions for deliberate release and placing on the market. However, its potential GM-free status is threatened by smuggling of GM soybeans, field trials and US food aid donations to Kosovo.

Contamination in the region is a pressing issue, as Romania and Bulgaria grow GM crops commercially, and smuggling of GM seeds allegedly occurs from these two countries. Furthermore, the chances for successful GM-free initiatives in pro-US countries - Poland and Czech Republic - are unfortunately slim, for this is where the biotech industry has most influence. NGOs there are valiantly struggling to stop the commercialisation of GM crops.

NGOs in Albania are also facing challenges, according to Skelzen Marku from the Centre for Rural Studies. Twenty-four organisations had sent a letter to the Albanian Parliament demanding a 5-year moratorium on GMOs (seeds, food aid and experimentations), working via the Socialist Parliamentary Group. The proposal has however been postponed due to resignations within the Socialist government. In the meantime, 16 000 tonnes of maize and soya (for animal feed) arrived in Albania from the US in October 2003. Demonstrations were held to protest these aid shipments, which, protesters suspect, is genetically engineered.

Citizen and consumer action can turn the tide. Gerard Vuffray from Stop OGM/Uniterre, Switzerland spoke on the Swiss referendum initiative, where 120 000 signatures were collected to demand a 5-year moratorium on GM crops. Friends of the Earth’s ‘Bite Back’ campaign urges citizens’ to protest the US government’s complaint against the EU in the WTO regarding the EU’s biosafety regulations. The US complaint, if successful, will take away the right of Europeans to decide what they can eat.

Euro Coop, a consumers’ group in Brussels, is also trying to ensure consumers’ right to refuse GMOs. The new labelling and traceability regulations might be a good start, but Euro Coop is concerned that lifting the moratorium without stringent measures on co-existence, or addressing contamination (especially in seeds) and liability, would be disastrous. If these issues are not addressed satisfactorily, consumers could enforce a ‘commercial moratorium’ (i.e. boycott).

The lifting of the de facto moratorium in Europe seems imminent, and groups throughout the region are thus employing various strategies to ensure Europe is GM-free, both in name and in practice. It will be a difficult battle, as there is already commercial GM plantings in Spain, Romania and Bulgaria, with numerous field trials in different countries.

All the more reason for us to step up our efforts - strategies include calling for the moratorium to remain until all scientific questions on biosafety are answered and until a proper public debate is held; declaring GM-free zones both via local authorities and lobbying the EU to allow regions and countries to declare themselves GM-free; getting the public to say ‘no’ to GMOs, including by effecting a ‘commercial moratorium’; and lobbying for satisfactory and adequate EU legislation on co-existence, liability and seed purity.

And if all else fails, there is direct action advocated by the Green Gloves Pledge in the UK to pull up GM crops if commercial growing is approved.

Article first published 05/12/03

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