Albion Monitor /News

Growing Euro Blockade of U.S. Genetic Engineered Food

by Niccolo Sarno

and related article in this topic
(IPS) BRUSSELS -- A trio of European Union states are defying the will of officials in Brussels who want to clear the way for the arrival here of genetically modified foods, already packing supermarket shelves across the United States.

Austria, Luxembourg and Italy have all imposed unilateral bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The EU's executive Commission, which cleared the sale of GMOs in December, is now considering action to force the trio to comply.

The GMOs, which include maize sold by the Swiss-based transnational Novartis (formerly manufactured by Ciba-Geigy) and soya beans from the United States agro-chemical giant Monsanto, have been modified to include a gene that produces a natural pesticide.

Critics of the process fear that over time pests will become resistant to the effects of the natural pesticide, so-called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), and say the effects of adding the genes to the human food chain have not been suitably documented.

Others warn that beneficial insect life, such as bees, have been found to be harmed by eating pests that feed on the modified plants.

The overall effect could be devastating for organic farmers and all those who reject chemicals and use natural means to keep pests at bay. Bacillus thuringiensis is a microorganism that produces a toxin that deters pests naturally. Bt sprays leave no poisonous residue on crops and are safely degraded into the environment.

New French research found that plants which have been genetically engineered to ward off destructive insects could also harm beneficial ones
Bt sprays are the single most important natural pesticide on the market, because they can specifically target certain pests without having detrimental effects on mammals, birds or beneficial insect species and microorganisms, say environmentalists.

But now the chemical giants have separated the gene that produced the toxin and added it to maize, the fear is that pests that survive eating the modified maize will breed a generation of Bt resistant bugs that will devastate the organic farming community.

Genetic engineers have transferred parts of the Bt gene into a variety of plants such as corn, potato, rice, tomato, apple, walnut, and tobacco to make them resistant to insect pests.

"This short term strategy of the agrochemical industry will also render the biological Bt sprays useless within a short time and leave organic farmers with no biological alternative," says Benedikt Haerlin, Greenpeace's coordinator on genetic engineering.

"Large scale use of these plants is likely to create resistance within the populations of the targetted insects and thus create the need for new chemical or biotechnological pesticides."

The companies deny any risk. "These crops have been approved by various U.S. government agencies so we feel confident that they are safe technology," Dan Holman of Monsanto told IPS last week.

"In the United States, the area used to cultivate genetically modified varieties has increased from six million acres in 1996 to more than 30 million acres in 1997," says European Commissioner for agriculture Franz Fischler.

"We can expect about 40 percent of all soya beans to be grown in the next marketing year to be genetically modified, and company figures show that earnings from this sector are shooting up," he adds. Between 50 and 60 percent of processed foods produced in the United States and Europe contain soya.

Environmental activists say that is this high profit potential that is blinding people to the theoretical dangers. Greenpeace said that the Commission's stance on GMOs was based on inadequate tests.

"Despite increasing scientific evidence emerging of the dangers of these genetically engineered plants, the Commission continues to allow its own environmental policies to be decided by U.S. trade pressure," says Greenpeace spokeswoman Isabelle Meister.

After the Commission gave the go ahead to the GMOs last year, Austria, Italy and Luxembourg invoked Article 16 of the Union treaty rules which allow member states to opt out of EU regulations should they fear a threat to national health or security.

Earlier in September a committee of experts reviewed and rejected their case and say they must rescind the ban. The decision still needs to be cleared by the Regulatory Committee (representing the 15 member states) by November before being applied. Failing that the EU's council of ministers must rule unanimously, leaving the trio the right to appeal to the European Court if all else fails.

On Aug. 16, the British journal New Scientist reported new French research which found that plants which have been genetically engineered to ward off destructive insects could also harm beneficial ones, such as bees, shortening their lives and impairing their ability to recognise smells.

Scientists have found that the Bt toxin is also absorbed into pests like the corn borer insect. Thus beneficial predator insects that keep pests like the corn borer at bay are also hit. The Swiss journal Facts has reported that two out of three beneficial predator insects larvae died when they were fed with European corn borers that had eaten genetically modified maize.

The Commission recognises the possibility, but stands by its ruling that genetically-modified maize does not "constitute a risk to human health or the environment" -- acknowledging only that a gene contained in some genetically modified crops might develop a resistance in insects "that could cause problems afterwards."

Austria says it will fight the ruling in court if necessary; Luxembourg is mulling its options; Italy's health minister Rosi Bindi makes her decision next month, though its original ban on GMOs warns of the "absence of monitoring programmes and consequent risks of damaging the ecosystem".

Austria has gone over to traditional pesticide and GMO free farming in a big way; in 1996 alone 20,000 Austrian farms gave up intensive farming practices. Most are small tillers, working hilly fields, and producing expensive goods that can only compete with industrially farmed produce on the grounds of bio-purity.

The timing is sensitive. The annual harvest of genetically modified maize is now underway in the United States, and the first imports into Europe of this type of product since the maize was cleared will arrive in the European marketplace shortly.

This month a coalition of environmental, farming and scientific organisations filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleging gross negligence over its approval of GMOs.

Several major multinational chemical and genetic engineering companies including Novartis, Monsanto, AgrEvo and Pioneer have now started to commercialise Bt gene modified plants. The marketing of the maize has also been approved in Canada and Mexico.

The petitioners allege that "in approving transgenetic plants carrying the Bt toxin, the EPA is seriously threatening the future of organic agriculture and jeopardising the genetic variety of major food crops, such as corn, potatoes and tomatoes."

The 31 petitioners demanded that the EPA withdraw the approval of plants carrying the Bt genetic code and abstain from any new registration of such plants.

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Albion Monitor September 29, 1997 (

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