We must remain vigilant over GM crops
Europe's new GM laws offer hope but we must remain vigilant
The Guardian, Wednesday 14 July 2010
*Devolving GM policy to member states away from centralised European control are steps in the right direction - but we need objective science, transparency and tough new laws
[A protester tearing up GM crops Since 2000 almost all of the 54 GM crop trials attempted in Britain have been vandalised to some extent. Photograph: Barry Batchelor/PA]
GM food remains a hugely contentious issue. Despite more than 12 years of public resistance to GM, knowledge of its drawbacks from the rampant growth of herbicide-resistant "superweeds," to the loss of insects vital to the food chain and unknown long-term risks to humans, the debate keeps returning.
Yesterday, the European commission (EC) approved changes to how GM food and organisms are regulated. The EC proposals aim to keep the current authorisation system for GM at EU-level, but would give member states the right to ban GM cultivation at a national level. This is something that the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European parliament has campaigned in favour of for a long while, as it brings greater democratic control of GM cultivation. Once countries can decide for themselves whether or not to grow GM, it will be much easier for GM critics to make national politicians directly accountable for those decisions.
The changes would also require that any deliberate release of GM organisms into the environment would have to be adopted in co-decision between member states and the commission. This is the normal legislative procedure in Europe, and it would be in contrast to the commission being able to make decisions purely through regulations.
The flip side is that in countries with weak or non-existent legislation on GM, such as the Czech Republic, Spain and the
Netherlands, seed and feed that is contaminated with GM will be able to spread around those countries more easily. Farmers that want to remain organic or farm conventionally, will find it harder to do so. It may also present a green-light to the rest of the world, including the US, and South America, to loosen GM regulation in their own jurisdictions. The explicit intent of the commission to bypass the "widespread opposition to the authorisation of [genetically modified organisms] for cultivation both at member states and citizen's level." In its "roadmap" for the legislation, and also in public, the EC wants to achieve quicker authorisations of GM trials, in exchange for member states being allowed to ban specific GM varieties afterwards.
Some aspects of the commission's proposals are still not clear. Would the UK be permitted to declare itself GMO-free? Will member states be able to reject GM that is authorised at the commission level, and not justify it to the EC?
Currently, we have no GM crops commercially grown in the UK. However, Britain has consistently lobbied in favour of lifting GM bans, despite the safety concerns raised by other member states. It tried to end the EU moratorium on growing GM; it was the only EU state to oppose a plan to label food containing minute traces of GM material, and last year it battled to prevent Germany banning a Monsanto maize crop.
We need a government that has a zero-tolerance for GM contamination, as well for unauthorised GMOs. One of the coalition government's first acts, however, was to approve a trial of GM potatoes in Norfolk. Now that the UK will have more control over GM, we need to use the precautionary principle in our assessment of the potential risks posted by GM crops.
To do so, we need a series of measures:
”¢ Access to information currently being kept secret by biotechnology companies;
”¢ Independent scientific research on GM organisms;
”¢ Pesticide-producing GM crops should be treated in the same way as
”¢ Strict liability needs to be enforced, so that GM polluters pay for
any damage; and,
”¢ Any food produced from GMOs (animals fed with GM-feed; ingredients with GM content) must be clearly labelled (the Co-Op is already doing this).
Opposition to GM crops is hardening in many European governments. Germany banned all GM crops last year, and Austria, France, Greece, Hungary and others invoked a "safeguard clause" in EU legislation allowing them to ban them. The UK needs to join this growing trend.