GENET archive


POLICY & REGULATION: Update on GMO discussion in the EU

                                  PART 1

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SOURCE: FWF Austrian Science Fund, Austria

AUTHOR: Press Release


DATE:   20.08.2007

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National movements campaigning against genetic engineering are helping to democratise the EU. That was the result of a recently completed Austrian Science Fund FWF project led by an independent researcher. According to the study’s results, the almost simultaneous mobilisation of national populations reinforces public protest at a European level. The project therefore provides an optimistic outlook for the growing influence of the general population on EU decision-making processes.

The controversy surrounding genetic engineering has more to offer than simply arguments for and against the science. For example, it provides a model for the general public’s influence in the age of globalisation. This topic is particularly important for the EU. Although the EU is involved in all key decision-making areas, debate with the general population does not take place on a European level, but primarily on a national level.

Although the results of a project headed by Dr. Franz Seifert on the general public’s role in the global conflict on genetic engineering confirm this finding, they also indicate that - under certain circumstances - politically effective, pan-European protest is possible.

Simultaneous Protest?The project’s results show that debates on the introduction of genetic engineering in the EU are held independently and within a national framework. Dr. Seifert explains: ”Temporary situations occur such as in Austria, when one population resists the EU’s introduction of genetic engineering into agriculture, while populations in other European countries either don’t notice the protest or simply have other worries at the time. A protest coming from just one country’s population, however, will have little impact in the EU.”

Although national protests generally remain within closed units, a trend of ”synchronization” has been developing since the latter half of the 1990s. Due to their incorporation into the EU regulatory system, national debates are no longer carried out purely in parallel. It is in fact becoming much more common for national populations to mobilise almost simultaneously. As a result, the governments of these countries lodge protests with the EU that force it to implement fundamental policy reforms.

The Opponents’ Strategies ?Environmental organisations that are determined to oppose genetic engineering also play a key role. It is worth noting that, of the many groups involved, it is international organizations (e.g. Greenpeace) that have the greatest impact. However, they achieve this primarily through their local branches, which organise local campaigns. National governments also respond to this type of protest from their population, transferring it to a transnational level. This clearly indicates that protest which also has an international impact is supported first and foremost by the mobilisation of national populations.

These results originate from a project that Dr. Seifert carried out as an independent scientist, unaffiliated to any specific institute. Dr. Seifert comments on his approach: ”This way of doing research is unusual and not without its drawbacks. For example, having to carry out every individual stage yourself creates a huge amount of work. On the plus side though, you have a great deal of flexibility.” Flexibility was certainly a key requirement of this project, which saw this biologist and social scientist visit countries throughout Europe, North America and Asia and included a year spent at a prestigious United Nations research facility in Japan.

However, looking at the results, it is clear that this personal commitment has paid off. His work provides positive indications that the general population’s influence on EU decision-making processes is growing, even if it is only limited at present - and will probably remain as such for the time being - due to the absence of a united European general public. As the FWF project shows, although there are no indications that any such united public is currently taking shape, simultaneous national debates can form a functional equivalent.

Scientific Contact?Dr. Franz Seifert?Maxingstraße 22-24/2/7?1130 Wien, Austria?T +43 / 650 / 561 42 06?E

Austrian Science Fund FWF?Mag. Stefan Bernhardt?Haus der Forschung?Sensengasse 1?1090 Wien, Austria?T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111?E

Copy Editing and Distribution?PR&D - Public Relations for Research & Development?Campus Vienna Biocenter 2?1030 Wien, Austria?T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44?E

                                  PART 2

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SOURCE: Czech Business Weekly, Czech Republic

AUTHOR: Marcel Bodnár


DATE:   13.08.2007

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Genetic modification of agricultural products has sparked controversy ever since it was developed in the U.S. in the mid-1980s, with concerns from consumers, the scientific community and environmental groups. The Czech Republic and the European Union have both moved cautiously with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

According to current European Union regulations, only one type of genetically modified (GM) corn can be commercially grown within EU borders. ”This corn variety-Bt corn MON810-is resistant to vermin called European corn borer (ECB),” said Marie ?e?ovská, spokeswoman for the crop department at Ministry of Agriculture (MZ). Bt corn MON810 is made by U.S.-based agriculture company Monsanto Company.


GM corn production in Czech Republic

According to Vít?zslav Navrátil, CEO of Rostžnice, one of the biggest growers of GM corn in Moravia, the advantage of this variety is that it is unnecessary to use a chemical pesticide against ECB, and therefore it’s more ecologically friendly. In addition, production levels are higher. However, using GM seeds has a downside for farmers. ”Increased administration and the need to follow specific measurements - for example, rules of co-existence especially with organic farmers - higher GM seed costs and problems with sales [are drawbacks],” ?e?ovská said. But despite these negatives, corn farmers agree that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. This year, some 5,000 hectares of GM corn were planted, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. And the production is likely to increase. ”GM corn seed has an 18 percent share in our production, and we’re planning on expansion of this share,” Navrátil said. GM corn has been grown in the Czech Republic since 1996.

More GM plant types are being dis cussed in the EU, such as a newly developed GM potato from leading German chemical producer BASF and another variety of corn (type NK603) developed by Monsanto. Before they’re approved for the EU market, they must be properly tested as to whether they could potentially be harmful to the environment or human health. This testing is done under the supervision of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which, on the basis of test results, will make a recommendation to the European Commission for approval of the GMO. If it is approved, the plant can be commercially produced in the EU. However, because public disagreement over GM crops could impact sales, some member states are still reluctant to allow farmers to grow GM plants. ”On the European market, it’s still lucrative to behave as a country opposed to GMOs,” said Jaromír Drobník, a professor in the microbiology and genetics department at Charles University in Prague. In Austria and Hungary it is forbidden to sow these types of crops, while other countries such as Germany and Slovakia are slowly conducting field trials.

While being GMO-free may offer a market advantage, some people in the field maintain the opposition has no solid basis. ”Arguments made by those [countries with] national prohibitions are not in line with scientific knowledge concerning risks of GM corn,” ?e?ovská said.

Others see it as inevitable progress. ”Genetic engineering is a science that belongs to plant breeding and is a part of societal development, which nobody can stop. Otherwise, we should consider returning to a primeval society,” Navrátil said.


Greenpeace strongly against GMO

Although GM corn is favored by some farmers, international environmental organization Greenpeace takes a strong stand against GMO production of any kind. It claims that GMO production markedly decreases biodiversity and threatens the existence of many plants and animals. GMOs also increase herbicide usage threefold, it says. According to France-based research group Committee for Independent Research and Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), testing of the new GM corn strain NK603 on rats showed that many rats exposed to the corn showed considerable differences in the size of organs including the brain, liver and heart.

But others in the scientific community stand behind GMOs. ”[GMO] plants are the most thoroughly tested raw materials used in the food-processing industry. New [nongenetically modified] varieties are practically untested for risks, although they may be more risky from an ecological or health perspective,” Drobník said. ”The toxin included in the GM corn genes [of Bt corn MON810] doesn’t destroy all types of insects. It affects only butterflies and moths. It isn’t harmful to other animals or human beings,” Drobnik said.

In addition, the possible risks of GMOs are examined in detail by many institutions, and permitted GMOs on the European market ”do not represent a bigger risk for the environment” than any unmodified plants, said Jarmila Krebsová, spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment (MŽP). ”GMOs have been grown and consumed for more than 10 years in the U.S., and during this period there haven’t been any registered cases of negative effects on human health,” she said.

But Greenpeace disputes that testing has been as thorough as many GMO supporters claim. The EFSA, according to Greenpeace, relied only on test results provided by the company that produced new GM corn strain NK603 and on results given by BASF concerning GM potatoes. It did not have another, independent institution conduct additional tests.

”This is hardly sufficient. EFSA should really have assigned somebody else like an independent expert to redo and evaluate those tests,” said Lenka Boráková, media assistant with Greenpeace.


Public concerns

The general public is deeply divided on the GMO question. There are those in favor and those against - with a large number of people who don’t have necessary information remaining undecided - and those who show no interest in the topic.

The number of those who would never buy or consume GM products increased from 19 percent in 2003 to 28 percent in 2005. And the rate of people who have insufficient information to decide still remains higher than 35 percent, according to research done by the National Institute of Public Health (SZÚ) in Brno, South Moravia.

Research in 2005 by EU statistical arm Eurobarometer showed a high level of acceptance of GMOs. ”According to this survey, the Czech Republic is first among the EU-25 in general public support of modern technologies. In trust of the biotechnological industry only Cyprus stands better,” Drobník said, adding, that this positive approach to modern technologies hasn’t changed recently. In the survey, the Czech Republic scored 233 points out of a possible 400 points, far above the EU average of 184 points in trust of modern technology. The point system measure combined trust in nanotechnology, pharmocogenetics, gene therapy and GM foods. Some 77 percent of those polled in the Eurobarometer survey in the Czech Republic said they trusted biotechnology, trailing only Cyprus at 82 percent.

However, there still is significant group of people who would never buy a GM product. To accommodate those who are opposed and concerned, the EU law on marking GM products is being applied in all EU countries. ”GMOs and groceries and fodders made from GMOs must be labeled, using words ’contains genetically modified [ingredients]’ or ’made of genetically modified [ingredients].’ This obligation also regards imports from [non-EU] countries,” the MŽP’s Krebsová said. ”Only products containing less than 0.9 percent of admixtures of a permitted GMO don’t have to carry those marks, and only if those admixtures are coincidental and technically unavoidable,” she said.

                                  PART 3

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SOURCE: The Sofia Echo, Bulgaria

AUTHOR: Bennett Tohara


DATE:   06.08.2007

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It must be a carnival, an amusement attraction, thought casual strollers as they approached the entrance of Primorski Park (Sea Garden) in Varna on July 18.

Closer inspection revealed a bunch of clowns dithering about in front of a giant, inflatable red sphere. But something about it was amiss. Instead of the usual, children-friendly, zany smile, it took on a menacing, threatening countenance – like a monster.

With everyone’s curiosity piqued, the clowns (teenagers and adults dressed in fluorescent wigs and amorphous costumes) began a skit.

One girl decked in green stepped forward: ”Some mad scientists have injected something from an ostrich into me without previously informing me or obtaining my permission,” she announced to the gathering. ”They just said I would become big, and strong, very quickly, and be full of protein and nutrients. Well, I have grown 10 times bigger than my friend,” she said gesturing towards a cabbage head in her left hand.

”But I have also developed feathers, wings, a beak and talons, and...I...feel...very strange.” The others, ostensibly portrayed as a carrot, corn, aubergine, onion, pumpkin, potato, tomato and watermelon, rushed to her aid-then began what appeared to be the latest dance craze. ”Oh no! We’ve contracted bird flu!” cried the onion.

Several more acts followed. It finished off with a free for all. ”Look! We are all talking and dancing fruits and vegetables! Nobody will ever eat us now!” The audience, not sure of what to make of all this, began applauding.

The performers then handed out leaflets, while one of them, a young woman in the aubergine costume, addressed the crowd, saying that we must never let genetically modified crops grow on our farms, nor allow ”Franken-foods” to sneak onto our plates. ”These will poison and destroy our children, the environment and civilisation,” she extolled.

All those who cared for the aforementioned were invited to come to a small table and sign a petition to be presented to Parliament calling for Bulgaria and Europe to be declared genetically modified organism (GMO) free.

Prominently displayed on the table was a large book with a picture of a casino wheel, entitled Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods by Jeffrey M Smith. The group said that anyone harbouring any doubts as to the perils of GMO (or the mendacity of biotech corporations) was free to browse through it.


Why the monster?

The person who brought the event into fruition, Dr Svetla Nikolova, a polymer chemist and chairperson of Agrolink, an establishment that champions sustainable and organic agriculture, said that the Tomato Monster had come from the Belgian branch of the Friends of the Earth, an environmental organisation. This summer it is on tour of the Balkans. In Bulgaria, the Monster visited seven cities in late July, and was hosted by a network of local NGOs including the Za Zemiata (For the Earth) Environmental Association, and the Organic Beekeepers’ Association. The actors came from the Kids of the Balkans Foundation, which is akin to Boy and Girl Scouts.

Nikolova then brought a small group to the Varna Youth Centre, where she showed a documentary film entitled Life Running Out of Control. Ten people had showed up, including the head of the Public Environmental Centre for Sustainable Development, which is involved with recycling, global warming and Natura 2000, Ilyan Iliev and his family.

It featured interviews with rapeseed farmers in Saskatchewan, Canada, who lamented about how pollen and even entire plants from genetically engineered fields nearby had blown over into their organic fields, and cross-contaminated it.

To the other side of the world, activist Vandana Shiva explained how some 3000 Indian farmers have committed suicide out of despair because they had become trapped in a downward spiral brought about by globalisation. She also raised fears of how agricultural technology would reduce the thousands of traditional rice and lentil varieties to a few monocrops.

After the film, Nikolova told the audience that farmers in Bulgaria faced similar prospects of falling into the clutches of big business. ”If GM crops become widespread here, agronomics would compel small, independent farmers to purchase seeds and their accessory herbicides from multinational corporations, tow their agenda and become indebted to them.”


GMOs in Bulgaria...

Dimitar Yanev, a scientist from SGS, a chemical analysis company, explained how he analyses food, soils, water and crops for their molecular components, including the presence of GMOs. ”We have discovered some chocolate wafers imported from Romania containing hidden GM soy,” he said. Romania along with Spain has sizable fields under GM cultivation. Reports of unlabelled GMOs in maize flour, popcorn, soy flour, sauces, sausages and frankfurters in Bulgaria have also surfaced.

Nikolova said that Bulgaria has stringent rules governing GMOs. ”If someone wants to import GMO products, they must first obtain approval from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. To cultivate GM crops, they have to apply to the Ministry of Environment and Water Affairs, and agree to strict requirements such as informing the public, undertaking environmental and human impact assessments and containing pollen spread.” However, she believes the latter is not possible, and rogue farmers have smuggled GM seeds in from unknown sources.


...and elsewhere

The European Union had approved a number of GM produce, such as puree made from GM tomatoes from 1996 till 1998, when a sudden public backlash led to a moratorium on them in 1999. The year 2004 though, under threat of litigation from the World Trade Organisation, at the behest of GMO exporters Argentina, Canada and the United States, saw the moratorium replaced by a GMO labelling and tracking system.

Chinks in the door have further widened by a trickle of new GMO approvals starting with corn genetically engineered by Syngenta, a Swiss seed company, by way of a legal default process whereby the European Commission has final say when member states fail to reach a consensus over an issue after a certain period. This usually pitted Britain, the Netherlands, sometimes Finland, and now Spain and Romania, against Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg and generally everyone else.?Currently, soybeans, maize, rapeseed and cotton form the bulk of GM crops grown commercially, the first three serving mostly for livestock fodder and industrial uses, though in the case of the US, some 75 per cent of processed foods contain some GMO. Monsanto, a giant, gene-manipulation company has shelved plans to market GM wheat.


There’s what in my soup?

The most common method of genetic modification essentially involves ”cutting” DNA with the trait in question for which it encodes from plants, animals or even humans, then ”pasting” it into the host organism’s genome with the intent of manifesting that feature, such as resistance to decomposition, drought or frost.

The activist group Scientists for Global Responsibility, though, argues that the real world is seldom that straightforward, and GM foods could pose as yet unknown, long-term health risks, like cancer, birth defects or sterility. Arpad Pusztai, a protein scientist, discovered that rats fed an experimental GM potato developed immune system damage and other physiological problems. However, subsequent reinterpretations and analysis of the data have led researchers to bipolar conclusions.

Currently, two broad types of transgenic traits account for 99 per cent of commercially grown GM crops. One, Bt, takes a gene from a bacterium, and confers upon host crops resistance to targeted insects. The other exploits a trait also from bacteria that gives plants tolerance to particular herbicides. In the scheme of things, hungry bugs leave Bt crops alone, while glyphosate resistance means that the beneficiary plant emerges largely unscathed from a dousing, while its weed competitors do not.

Nikolova points out that farmers would be induced to apply herbicides more liberally, leading to more collateral damage on innocent wild plants and animals, as well as contaminating water tables and the produce itself with additional residue. A Soil Association policy document showed increased use of herbicides on GM maize in the US.


Touted benefits

But advocates of GMOs cite a study by the US-based National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy showing a reduction of pesticide use in GM crops and spill-over into the environment.

This is one of the reasons many farmers in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India and US like bioenigeered crops. In a BBC documentary, an Iowa farmer said switching over to GM corn meant he no longer had to store and handle toxic pesticides on his farm. ”It’s a big relief for me, my family and the community,” he said. However, Bruce Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, notes that insects do overcome resistance – as they eventually have to every other pest control.

Fewer inputs overall combined with higher yields translates to higher profits for GM crop farmers, and savings for consumers, Leonard Gianessi of the National Centre for Food and Agriculture Policy in Washington, DC, claims. In addition, more available food would help feed starving people in the world, says the Nuffield Council of Bioethics. Oxfam, a charitable organisation, on the other hand maintains that the cause of hunger is not scarcity of food but the uneven distribution of grain.

At any rate, demand for food is expected to mushroom, following the UN’s projected world population increase from the current six billion to nine billion by 2050, mostly outside the First World. With virtually all the world’s arable land under cultivation, and decreasing due to urbanisation and industrialisation, the only viable option, contend GMO proponents, is to increase yield per acre, something only revolutionary, breakthrough measures can deliver.

Moreover, since GM crops can boost productivity on existing cultivated lands, says Monsanto, pressure to convert forests and natural habitats and ecosystems into agricultural fields would ease up, perhaps even reversing itself with redundant croplands reverting ”back to wilderness”.

Good news for agribusinesses have come from reports by ISAAA, a research body partly funded by the biotech industry, which showed that the acreage devoted to GM crops worldwide has increased by double digit percentages annually since 1995. But not for Amilum. Nikolova says the Razgrad-based company posted huge looses when it dabbled with GM crops from 1999 to 2003. European markets refused to deal with them.

And on the most contentious issue of all, little evidence has emerged of health risks from eating GM foods, the British Medical Association announced in a 2003 statement. Opponents say that the results are inconclusive, and found flaws in experimental designs. They in turn highlighted cases such as that among 20 farms in the US where cattle and pigs fed GM corn experienced false pregnancies, stillbirths and sterility. The BMA has called for more research into the matter, and longer-term studies.

But with advancing technology, GMO could even promote good health. That is according to The Royal Society, the UK’s science academy, underscoring the potential for wheat, rice and corn and other sources of empty-calorie, starchy foods to be enriched with fibre and phytonutrients inherent in dark-green vegetables.

On the whole Nikolova say genetics has infinite complexities, and that at present not enough is known about what the millions of possible DNA sequencing, recombining and splicing can unlock, suppress or synergise. ”It is much too early to be jumping into the commercialising of genetic engineered crops and foods. We need to be 100 per cent certain regarding all the aspects, of short and long-term consequences,” she says.

                                  PART 4

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SOURCE: Cordis News, Belgium



DATE:   09.08.2007

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The cabinet ministers within the German Government have adopted amendments to national regulations on gene technology. The amendments include an increase in the obligatory distance between fields containing genetically modified (GM) crops, and those with non-GM crops. The amendments will be considered by the government and parliament after the summer break.

Farmers wishing to grow GM maize must, if the amendments come into force, ensure that there is a distance of at least 300 metres between their fields and those of neighbouring fields containing organic crops. The gap between fields of GM crops and fields containing ordinary crops should be at least 150 metres.

Critics have called for this distance to be increased further, with the German Coalition for the Environment and Conservation (BUND) claiming that the regulation would turn Germany’s fields into an open air laboratory for GM experiments.

Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer defended the regulation, saying that it offers a high level of protection. He added that the law respects the interests of the consumer, and also improves conditions for research.

Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan has spoke out in favour of gene technology, saying that it offers solutions to important challenges of the future.

’We want to use and research the potential of gene technology,’ said the minister on 8 August. The technology could be used to develop plants that can be used to produce energy, and for the production of renewable primary resources, or plants that prevent drought or salinisation, she said.

In the past year genetically modified plants have been grown on 947 hectares of German land. To date, only one GM crop is grown in the country: the MON810 variety of maize.



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