Genetically modified foods invade Europe, but waters uncharted

New legislation by the European Union regarding genetically modified (GM) products is now in place. It seems certain that the moratorium that had blocked the approval of new varieties for a period of five years will be lifted, judging from statements by European Commissioner Franz Fischler. The European Union will soon be opening its gates to a new technology in agricultural production with unknown repercussions and of questionable necessity. Products containing genetically modified organisms will have to be marked as such, so in theory at least, customers will have a choice. However, once GM crops are cultivated, no one can guarantee the purity of conventional and organic crops. Even those who for whatever reason decide to grow GM crops will be bound to the firms who supply them, and if a problem arises, they will not be able to back out. So perhaps the very concept of choice is utopian. Pressure from the US might not have led to complete acceptance of GM products, but it has clearly had a great effect. The main purpose of the new EU legislation is allegedly to protect consumers, and ensure the right of choice, since food containing GM organisms must be labeled as such. However, the cultivation of GM varieties alongside conventional, and particularly organic, crops will be a problem and not merely a hypothetical one. In many areas of the US, where mainly GM crops are grown over huge areas, neighboring conventional crops have been contaminated. In fact, conventional producers have been sued by GM seed producers for «using» their property. Nevertheless, Fischler insists that this problem is not important and has said there is no justification for using it as an argument to create fresh obstacles to the approval of GM products. Fischler has even said that no member state will be able to reject GM crops, or make even part of its territory off-limits to them. Austria, which has declared certain zones free of GM crops, will no longer have the right to do so, according to Fischler. The EU, in submitting to the rules of a free market, has therefore given the go-ahead to GM products, obviously prompted by a desire to remove yet another prickly issue from its relations with the US, which had taken recourse to the World Trade Organization over the issue. Problems are sure to arise, however, when GM crops are grown alongside conventional and organic farmland, when pollen from GM plants is blown over the fence and contaminates conventional crops. The European Commission and Farm Commissioner Fischler suggest that the cost of protecting crops from contamination be met by the producer who is last on the scene. For example, if people decide to grow organic crops in an area where GM crops are already being grown, then they will have to assume the task of protecting their own crops. Austria, Belgium and Portugal have opposed the Commission’s suggestions, while Britain, Spain, Sweden and Ireland agree that it is time to give approval to new varieties of GM crops in the EU. In reality, the question of contamination could actually overturn the entire rationale of EU legislation, since if GM varieties are mixed with conventional or organic ones there will no longer be any point in making a distinction between them. According to Manolis Kambourakis, a researcher at the National Farming Research Foundation (ETHIAGE), there are no topical studies on the likelihood of contamination under the conditions that prevail in each separate member state. He said that if other crops are contaminated by GM seeds, the results are irreversible. «Genetically modified varieties are not a pesticide that we can decide to stop using if we don’t like its effects. Once these organisms are released into nature, they will stay there,» said Kambourakis. Seed contamination Another issue that is still pending but on which EU legislation is soon to be drafted is the possibility of GM seeds becoming mixed with conventional seeds. The issue is being studied by the EU’s Permanent Seed Committee and not at ministerial level, as is the rest of the legislation on GM organisms, meaning in effect that staff members of member states’ ministries are being called upon to decide on the issue. The Commission’s proposal is that accidental contamination of conventional seeds by GM seeds be considered legally acceptable for up to a total of 0.3-0.9 percent, according to the species, and for varieties of GM seeds that have not been approved by the European Union. Seeds are at the bottom of the food chain and it is clear that if they are mixed before they are sown, they will result in GM crops without the farmers even knowing about it. A survey by Greenpeace has shown that the slightest contamination of seed supplies means thousands of GM plants in the fields that no one knows exist. Obviously this also means that there can be no limit to the spread of GM crops that are not approved.