GENET archive


SCIENCE & POLICY: Fencing in Europe’s farmers

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal, USA

AUTHOR: Gregory Conko & Julian Morris


DATE:   02.12.2008

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Mr. Conko is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. Mr. Morris is executive director of International Policy Network in London.

Genetically modified crops have been in commercial production in the U.S. for a dozen years now, and so far there are no signs of killer tomatoes rampaging through California. Europeans have been eating GM foods for most of that time, and not a sniffle, sneeze or other ailment has been linked to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Yet some environmentalists still so oppose modern agricultural biotechnology that they insist on creating GMO-free zones. This week, EU environment ministers will decide whether Europe should have such zones.

How did we get here? Beginning in the mid-1990s, environmentalists saw BSE, or mad cow disease, as an opportunity to blame modern agricultural methods, even though the practice of feeding animal byproducts to livestock is centuries old. They raised the fear that the disease might have been transmitted to humans and could result in a catastrophic death toll. Some ?experts? claimed that up to 10% of Britain?s population might die; in the event, there were 160 BSE-related deaths in the U.K.

Today, radical environmental and consumer groups are taking advantage of public fear of modern agriculture, which they helped create, to oppose GM crops and products as dangerous ?Frankenfoods.? For more than a decade, they have blocked the planting of most genetically modified crops in Europe. Imports of GM foods have been hampered by the small number of approved products, expensive and complex requirements to track GM ingredients throughout the food chain and to label products containing such ingredients, and threatened boycotts of major producers and retailers selling such labeled products.

Things have recently begun to change, with farmers across Europe increasingly turning to GM crops to increase yields and reduce costs. Meanwhile, Brussels is now seriously entertaining proposals to speed up the authorization procedures for new GM varieties and to raise the threshold level that triggers mandatory GM labeling.

Yet this apparent progress masks a deep division. The governments of several EU countries -- most vocally Austria, France, Italy and Greece -- have repeatedly claimed the right to ban the cultivation and sale even of those GM crops that have been granted EU-wide authorization. In October, several member states demanded that the Commission permit them to create ?GMO-free zones? in which the production of GM crops would be permanently forbidden.

The alleged justification for GMO-free zones is to protect sensitive ecological areas containing wild plant, animal and bird species. But EU rules already empower governments to restrict the planting of GM crops where there are identifiable risks to consumers or the environment. They can also require precautionary ?isolation? distances between GM crops and sensitive areas.

So why the demand for GMO-free zones? EU legislation and various treaty obligations require such restrictions to be based on science. Furthermore, the remedial effect of any restrictions must be proportionate to any identified risk. Since the new EU-wide rules were implemented in 2004, not a single such risk has been identified.

Unsurprisingly, the antitechnology environmental minority objects to the requirement that restrictions be based on science, since it prevents governments from banning GM crop cultivation altogether. Under a proposal put forward by the French EU Presidency, and due to be voted on during the Environment Council meeting on Thursday and Friday, GMO-free zones could be created without providing a specific scientific justification. While the proposal itself is not available to the public, the most vocal GM opponents, such as Austria, France and Italy, clearly want an amorphous policy that would give them maximum flexibility to create zones as big or small as they choose. If successful, they could effectively make all or nearly all of their cropland GMO-free.

There is no good reason to believe a GMO-free zone could ever be justified scientifically. Protected ecological areas face little threat from new crop varieties, whether developed with GM or any other breeding technique. Numerous publicly funded studies, including a review of 81 research projects conducted over 15 years and funded by the EU, found that GM crops and foods are as safe for the environment as conventional crops.

GM crops are arguably safer for the environment because the genetic changes in the plants are much more precise. Conventional plant breeding relies on random genetic mutations, so breeders often cannot predict or identify potentially harmful effects easily. Because GM breeding involves the introduction of just one or two well-understood genes, it is much easier to identify unintended effects.

The EU?s hyper-precautionary regulatory review and authorization process for GM plants already seeks to ensure that GM crops won?t become invasive or weedy, that novel genes won?t spread to wild plants, and that such novel traits as pest resistance and herbicide tolerance won?t adversely affect insects, birds or animals that are not targeted. The very ecological concerns that allegedly necessitate the creation of GMO-free zones are considered many times before a GM variety is ever approved.

Similarly, published EU guidelines and evolving measures by member states to ensure coexistence between GM and conventional crops provide a whole range of possible restrictions. By relying on such methods as isolation distances, buffer zones, pollen barriers such as hedgerows, and even varied sowing and maturation times, neighboring farmers can ensure a high degree of segregation between GM and non-GM varieties.

Environmental activists and sympathetic politicians have failed to scuttle GM technology with wholesale bans and scare campaigns. Farmers in such GM-skeptical countries as Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Germany have slowly begun to take up GM varieties. And, despite a high degree of public skepticism about GM technology, consumers have shown the viability of GM foods where it counts most, by purchasing labeled GM products in grocery stores.

So GM opponents must now rely on seemingly innocuous measures that will, in practice, have the effect of making it impractical or impossible for farmers to grow GM crops. We feel that the only appropriate response to such hubris is to call for our own GM-free zone: a zone free of the Green Minority.



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