Agriculture: GM, the field is open

Greenpeace protest against GM at an agricultural show in Berlin, January 2008

In a bid to overcome deadlock on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO), the European Commission has proposed that member states rule on their cultivation on their national territories. However the European press remains convinced that Brussels is still planning to push for the introduction of a wide range of new products.

“Truce to end battle over GMO in Europe,” announces the Vanguardia headline. On 13 July, the European Commission proposed to confer to member states the right to allow, restrict or ban the cultivation of GMO on all or part of their territories. The Barcelona daily notes that “the new proposals, will allow member states to impose GMO bans for agricultural and scientific reasons — a practice that has often been criticised in Brussels — and also pave the way for bans citing ethical and social concerns.” La Vanguardia adds that the European Commission is hoping that “member states whose long-standing opposition has prevented the introduction of GMO will now allow genetically modified crops to be grown in Europe.” Spain, which produces 80% of Europe’s Monsato corn, “is in favour of a common set of regulations for the EU,” while countries like the Netherlands, which is one of the leaders in the field, “want agreement on a solution to put an end to the current deadlock.” The daily emphasises that “the current system of authorisation [by an experts’ committee of experts appointed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)] will not change, nor will the rules on the coexistence of GMO with other crops” — a point that was “one of the environmentalists’ hobby horses and a controversial issue in border regions.”

Austria, where one in seven farmers is an organic producer and organic products generate sales of one billion euros per year, has every interest in lobbying for a ban on GMO, remarks Die Presse. But politicians and lobbyists with a taste for anti-scientific rhetoric prefer to ignore “this very legitimate concern,” which has been forgotten in the face-off between those who wax lyrical about “evil agribusiness conglomerates,” and those who are delighted that “that every country will now have an opportunity to determine what kind of food it wants to produce: tasteless industrial food, or diverse natural produce.” As if “the argument were that simple,” remarks Die Presse. “In Europe, agriculture has long been an industry, and organic farming cannot produce enough food for everyone. That is why it is so worrying to see the Commission hand over responsibility for decisions to member states. Instead of attempting to engage the public in enlightened debate about genetic engineering, the politicians […] have been swayed by crude lobbying and alarmist speeches — and short-term advantage has taken precedence over good politics.”

If the Commission’s proposals are accepted by the European Parliament, and EU member states, “European fields will soon be laden with genetically modified pollen and seed,” complains Thijs Etty, a professor of law at the Free University of Amsterdam. Writing in the columns of De Volkskrant, he warns that the proposals “will mean that the EU will no longer be the world’s largest GMO-free zone” — a change “that will not take into account the divergent opinions of member states and the opposition of a majority of Europe’s citizens.” Etty argues that the proposals, which have been presented as a “bid to seek a compromise with countries that are reluctant to allow GMO like Austria, Italy, Greece and Luxembourg, […] are in fact a manoeuvre to force member states who are critical of the Commission’s policy to manifest themselves.” In the long term these countries “will have virtually no hope of remaining GMO free. […] In reality, they will be forced to accept a diminishment of their autonomy, and a transfer of power to Brussels.” Over the next few months, Etty warns that “at least four new strains of GM soya and corn will be introduced in European fields.”

Food safety and moral issues aside, the deregulation of GMO does not make economic sense, points out Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. The daily insists that “Brussels’ decision will likely result in major upheavals on the markets for European agricultural produce, and guarantee a dominant position for GMO superpowers like the US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and China.” Countries like Poland, which continue to outlaw the cultivation and importing GMO, will be at a competitive disadvantage and will lose out on export revenues. And for the EU, “this will mean yet more subsidies and development grants for farmers.”

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