The return of Frankenstein Foods?
New Statesman, 25 February 2008
The EU might not regulate on straight bananas, but it does have a say when it comes to environmental and health concerns linked to the food we eat. In the coming weeks, the European Commission will be gearing up for one of its most wide-ranging discussions ever on the food that’s grown in our fields, fed to our animals and sold in our supermarkets.
After years of bitter disagreements between member states and European institutions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Commission has finally decided to hold an unprecedented debate on the future of GMOs in Europe. The president of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, has promised that the debate will be the first step before a public discussion involving all EU leaders.
But while the discussion might be public, the huge political and economic pressures applied behind the scenes will be very private indeed. The UK is likely to lead a small pack of pro-GMO countries and biotech industries who will push for markets to open up to these risky products. Over the crucial coming months, Greenpeace will keep a watchful eye to ensure that the GMO debate focuses on the interests of consumers, and not purely on the interests of a few multinational companies.
Claims by industry that GM products are good for the environment and a quick-fix solution to world hunger are extravagantly false. Recent studies have shown that growing GMOs actually increases the use of pesticides, contaminates wildlife and the environment, and has unpredictable and irreversible effects on animal and human health.
The causes of hunger and malnutrition are poverty and lack of access to food, not something that will be solved by pandering to the biotech industry. The world already feeds itself one-and-a-half times over; what we need is a fairer system where populations in developing countries don’t have to go hungry while millions of tons of GM crops are grown for export.
GMO producers do their best to distort the figures, but the truth is that genetic engineering is essentially an American technology, used mostly by US companies such as Monsanto, Dow and DuPont. The industry's own figures show that almost 90% of the world’s GM crops are produced by only four countries on the American continents, while over 92% of global land use is GMO-free. In fact, 172 countries don't grow GMOs at all. And independent polls consistently show that a majority of European citizens want to keep it that way.
In a telling case last week, EU farm ministers refused to authorise a GM potato known as Amflora. A significant majority of 15 member states opposed the product developed by German chemical company BASF. But because of EU rules, the ultimate decision which will affect half a billion European citizens now rests with the Commission.
The problem with the GM potato is that it contains a gene that confers resistance to certain antibiotics. The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed in an assessment that this could have serious implications for animal and human health, contradicting previous findings by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Greenpeace flagged this up to the Commission in 2006 and the European Medicines Agency in London was asked for a third opinion. The antibiotics affected by the gene were found to be of 'critical importance' for the treatment of illnesses. EFSA finally recognised its mistake in 2007, but failed to reach the logical conclusion and declare that the product was unsafe.
However, pressure on the Commission not to allow GMOs on the market is growing. The number of member states opposing the GM potato last week was up to 15, from 11 in a previous vote, although the UK has consistently been in favour. European media have also begun reporting the huge cracks that exist in the EU's EFSA-centred GMO authorisation process, while our team of policy experts is working closely with the Greenpeace Science Unit at Exeter University and putting pressure on decision-makers to turn headlines into meaningful policy.
Most people will know Greenpeace for its non-violent confrontations which expose threats to the environment and draw media attention the world over. But, whether we are dealing with the biotech industry or with Japanese whalers, our job is also to monitor the corridors and boardrooms where ships and climbers cannot reach, wiping away the sense of invulnerability felt by top officials and corporate lobbyists far from public view.
Greenpeace European Unit