European elections: Resisting GMOs
EUROPEAN ELECTIONS: ORGANIC AUSTRIA RESISTS GMOS
EuroNews, 21 May 2009
Austrian voters want the next European Parliament to fight against genetically modified crops. Only about 20% of Austrians plan to cast European ballots, yet they want their national GMO ban left alone. EU authorisations continue to sow doubt.
Watch the EuroNews Reporter video clip "Towards a GM-free Europe? Austria resists GMOs":
Gerhard Zoubeck is driving us towards his organic farm, 40 minutes from Vienna. He's proud of his 70 acres: everything growing here is practically chemical-free. And you won't find any genetically modified organisms, because they are banned in Austria. Gerhard just wants it to stay that way. That's why he's looking forward to the European Parliamentary elections.
GMO policy is a national and a European challenge. Convinced that his voice will make a difference, Gerhard will use his vote on June 7th to support one of the political groups that's against having GMO crops in European soil. Zoubeck wants to keep his independence. He says GMOs are a noose around the farmer's neck.
Gerhard Zoubeck [Manager, Biohof Adamah]:
"We're witnessing a power play about money, influence, and patents. That's why I'm strictly against GMOs. What are the real interests in this power play? GMO technology exclusively serves the GMO mafia - the very very few companies who are involved in this business".
Austrians held a referendum in 1997 in which they rejected authorising GMO crops. But some years later, the European Food Safety Authority - EFSA - said they weren't a risk. Pressure built to allow GM cultivation EU-wide. Biotech firms mobilised lawyers to fight their case. The President of the European Commission set up a political Working Group to study how to make the approval process faster. The Environment, Agriculture and Health Commissioners, and Government Ministers, are not part of this group.
But, seeing the European elections coming up, the Environment Ministers rejected the Commission's proposals to force Austria and Hungary to lift their GM bans.
This anti-GMO author states some of the reasons why more and more farmers, consumers and politicians are having doubts about the recommendations of the European Food Safety Authority.
Klaus Faissner, analyst:
"The first point is that EFSA can't be trusted. It gets its studies directly from the genetic engineering companies, such as Monsanto. EFSA just takes a quick glance at them, and puts a checkmark in the box. It's just rubberstamping.
The second point is that EFSA doesn't even have its own laboratory."
Yet the head of the Department of Applied Genetics and Cell Biology at Vienna's University of Natural Resources warns against scare-mongering in a hungry world. He argues that GMO crops could feed the growing global population better. He is also convinced that biotechnology provides alternatives to oil as an energy source.
Josef Glössl, Professor, University of Natural Resources:
"The plant varieties on the market today were created artificially, through cross-breeding. Fundamentally, there's no difference between traditional plant hybridisation and genetic engineering. It's just that genetic engineering lets you act more specifically. We should not therefore listen to esoteric arguments pretending that nature in itself is good, and that all mankind's activity is bad. Freedom in decision-making should not consist of forbidding in one direction and being exclusively supportive in the other. No! We need plurality, multiple choices and options."
Voiceover as Minister arrives at Vienna airport in his car marked "BIO MOBIL: mit Superethanol":
We talked to Austria's Minister for Agriculture before he takes off for the United States. The conservative OVP [Austrian People's Party] he's a member of supports integrating European policies - but within limits.
Niki Berlakovich, Minister of Agriculture, Austria:
"Austria wants to stay GMO-free. I'm supporting Europe, it's our common project. But I don't see why all EU members should decide for Austria whether it stays GM-free or not. Austria has the right to make its own decisions. Being GMO-free grants us a higher food quality."
The GMO-free rallying call appears on the Austrian Green Party's campaign posters as well. In fact, all the country's political parties are clear on this in the fight for votes.
Here is the man who launched Austria's referendum on GMOs twelve years ago. His background is in biochemistry and physics. He now lectures on environmental ethics.
Peter Weish, Lecturer, University of Natural Resources:
"Today we know that small scale and fully varied agriculture is the best guarantor of a sustainable food supply for the world. Genetic engineering applied on a large scale destroys those structures. Everyone refers to the Subsidiarity Principle in the European Union: regions should have the authority to ban genetically engineered crops in order to opt out of an eventual pro-GMO switch at European level. If EU Regions were forced to lift their GMO bans, this would be a gross infringement of the Subsidiarity Principle."
Roughly 80% of Austrians, Germans and Greeks don't want GM food; In France and Hungary, some 70%. Austria is amongst Europe's organic top achievers. In Burgenland, one out of five farmers is certified organic. Local politics here are linked to European and global policy challenges.
Franz Stefan Hautzinger, President, Landwirtschaftkammer Burgenland (Burgenland Farmers Chamber]:
"In Austria, we focus towards agricultural production which is close to nature. We have a very high percentage of biological [i.e. organic] agriculture, and that can't co-exist with GMO crops. In future, it will be important for Europe to speak with one voice on this. To face the US and our WTO partners, we need one common position for the WTO negotiations. If Europe could make up its mind finally, and renounce genetically modified food crops, we Europeans would have a very real chance to achieve our WTO goals."
The outcome of the European Parliamentary elections will indirectly influence the make-up of the new European Commission as well, later this year. Austrian voters want the Parliament to fight against GM crops. They are adamant that the EU should not touch the national GM ban.
Business is good for organic producers. Gerhard has four-and-a-half-thousand customers who take regular weekly home delivery.
Gerhard Zoubeck [Manager, Biohof Adamah]:
"In my opinion, we don't need genetic engineering. Nature, for thousands and thousands of years, has given us already the gift of an incredibly extensive plant diversity. It would be very dangerous for mankind to try to replace God. We shouldn't touch the natural basis, because we don't have enough intelligence, reason or understanding to do this."
To fight parasites, Gerhard deploys Ladybird beetles. Against election absenteeism, the remedy is less straightforward. The predictions are that only around a third of EU voters will turn out for European Parliamentary polling. The forecast for Austrians is just one in five, but they do say they feel strongly about their food.