Thursday, June 16, 2005

Europe's GMO Trap

Neither Europe's people nor its bureaucrats have ever liked the idea of introducing genetically modified crops into their agricultural and food system. Food in Europe is almost a religion. Anything that threatens to disrupt the continent's time-honored traditions of cuisine is looked upon with skepticism.

That's why the moratorium on approving new genetically modified crops (often called GMOs or genetically modified organisms) which began in 1998 looked like it might drag on indefinitely until the United States challenged the moratorium at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U. S. contended that the moratorium was merely a ruse, a so-called non-tariff barrier to trade. The WTO has shown itself particularly adept at throwing national safety and health regulations overboard when they interfere with the desire of some international corporation to sell something.

In 2001 the European Union adopted strict rules governing the labeling and traceability of biotech foods. The EU knew that a U. S. challenge in the WTO was inevitable and so began to set a trap for the companies seeking to peddle their biotech seeds. Individual EU countries have also passed laws such as an Italian law which allows individual provinces to ban the planting of GMO seeds and which includes strict regulations to prevent contamination of non-GMO crops. A new German law makes farmers using genetically modified seeds liable for contamination of non-GMO crops. The two laws could lead to a flurry of expensive lawsuits that make it unprofitable to sell GMO seeds in those countries.

The EU-wide labeling rules have kept food companies from including GMO ingredients in their foods because they know that European consumers won't buy GMO foods. Adding to the negatives for GMO seed makers are overreactions against those who openly protest genetically modified foods. Such moves only infuriate Europeans all the more as in the case of a Danish prosecutor who has charged Greenpeace under the country's antiterrorism laws for hanging an anti-GMO banner on the headquarters of a Danish agricultural organization.

With regulations in place and a public dead set against genetically modified foods, Europe began a gradual re-opening of its borders to GMO crops last year. Earlier this year a biotech seed purveyor was the first to walk into Europe's GMO trap. The company revealed it had sold unapproved GMO corn seed which ended up in the human food chain. On top of this the U. S. government had been informed of the mistake as early as December 2004, but didn't say anything to European regulators who found out about it from a magazine article in March. That led to a ban on GMO corn gluten products until matters could be clarified.

Now, the world's largest maker of genetically engineered crops, Monsanto, is faced with scrutiny over a feeding study it performed using its own GMO corn. The study showed kidney and immune system abnormalities in guinea pigs fed on the grain. Apparently, the company did not release the entire results of the study when seeking approval for the new corn strain. Of course, Monsanto claimed that it didn't provide the entire report because it contains confidential business information, and it dismissed the problems revealed by the study as "not biologically meaningful." Recently, it was revealed that the German government commissioned a review of the Monsanto study by researcher known for his independence. The company has tried to suppress release of that review until now though the report has yet to be made available to the public.

Intentionally or not, the EU and its member countries have woven a web of GMO regulation that is likely to entangle the biotech seed makers again and again in the months and years ahead. The EU is already known for proposing the toughest rules concerning the safety of chemicals, insisting on review of all chemicals not previously tested to prove their safety over the next several years. Without proof, chemicals will be presumed unsafe and banned. There is every reason to believe the EU will move in this direction with genetically modified foods if it can justify doing so in a way that does not subject it to enforcement actions by the WTO.

The appearance that Monsanto withheld vital safety data may be just the beginning of a campaign that will demonstrate that the so-called precautionary principle must be applied to GMO crops, that is, they must be proven safe before they can be planted and marketed. That would all but kill the industry in Europe. If safety studies are forced on the industry and those studies show health and environmental risks for GMO crops, the results would surely be disseminated worldwide. That means Europe may find itself playing the role of the grim reaper for the entire biotech farming industry.

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