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7-Misc: Spain - GMO refuge in Europe?

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TITLE:  EU-Biotech Food
SOURCE: American Press, by Ciaran Giles
DATE:   July 22, 1999

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EU-Biotech Food

MADRID, Spain (AP) - As the European Union agonizes over the possible dangers of genetically modified foods -- long considered normal in the United States -- Spain quietly produces and imports high-tech corn. Genetically altered foods will be discussed at Friday's EU environmental ministers' meeting in Finland, but one member nation has shown no qualms about the modified foodstuffs. Spain first approved the cultivation of two genetically manipulated corn seeds in 1997. Two years later, 49,500 acres are devoted to the crop -- roughly 5 percent of the country's total corn production.

The nation also tops the list of European importers of corn and ranks second in U.S. soybeans, much of which are genetically altered. Ecologists, farmers and consumer groups in Spain are struggling to create awareness. The virtual absence of a debate over genetically modified farming in Spain contrasts sharply with the rest of Europe. Those countries that have dabbled in what critics call 'Frankenstein Food,' like France, have since suspended nearly all cultivation, while others, like England, at least boast a lively public debate. "There's no public interest in Spain," said Maria Rodriguez of the Consumers Union, which also backs a moratorium. "The government has never encouraged debate and people are poorly or totally misinformed."

Genetic manipulation of food goes back generations, but traditionally has been restricted to similar or closely related plants. The latest foods or crops, however, come from seeds often genetically mixed with totally different organisms. Most manipulated corn -- the most common genetically altered crop -- is used for animal fodder, but it is also used in foods ranging from biscuits to beer. Other altered crops include rice, soybeans, cotton, rapeseed and beets.

Surveys show that Europeans, unlike Americans, were deeply suspicious of genetically modified foods and their possible threat to the environment two years ago, before the crops were introduced, the London School of Economics reported this month. But that wariness, reinforced by recent food-safety scares over tainted Belgian food and funny-tasting Coca-Cola, has made little impression in Spain.

Opponents blame Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government, which they accuse of pandering to business interests. "Spain is taking a soft line because it doesn't want to upset the multinationals or the United States," said Diego Herranz of Ecologists in Action, a coalition of 300 environmental associations that demands a moratorium. Herranz backs a demand by the London-based International Consumers Federation for clear and informative labeling of all food derived from altered crops, an issue which he says Spain, like the United States, opposes. Agricultural Ministry sources, who declined to be identified, admit the country's stance has been ambiguous. But they say environmentalists have blurred the real point of the debate. "This is basically an economic issue between the United States and the European Union and not merely whether anything is right or wrong with (modified) foods," one official said. The United States, the world's biggest producer of modified cro!
ps, has repeatedly complained about European foot-dragging in approving the foods. It claims the genes are manipulated purely to make them more resistant to disease.

The EU recently stepped up its campaign and tightened rules on trading and selling new genetically modified seeds in the 15-nation bloc, although it rejected a proposed French moratorium on sales. Much of the EU's reluctance followed U.S. university research that showed pollen from a genetically modified corn can kill butterfly larvae, confirming for some that the crops threaten the ecosystem. Yet Spanish officials argue there hasn't been sufficient evidence against altered foods to warrant the European protests. "It's not that Spain is less interested in environmental or health issues," the official said, "but rather that green parties have had greater success with their campaigns elsewhere." 

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