WEDNESDAY, MAY 24, 2006
In EU, front lines in food war
By Elisabeth Rosenthal International Herald Tribune
Read also: Altered crops in Europe: At what cost?
ATHENS In this famously fractious country, there is one thing on which almost all Greeks agree: They do not want genetically modified crops grown, sold or eaten here.
In 2004, the Parliament passed a national ban, but the European Union rejected it as an illegal trade barrier.
Since then, all 54 Greek prefectures have passed local bans, testing international regulations and patience.
"All political parties are opposed to GMOs, which is odd because we disagree on everything else," said Theodore Koliopanos, a legislator and former deputy environment minister.
Greece and a few other EU countries that have banned genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are on the front lines of a war over the future of such food in Europe, the only large swath of the world that does not already grow or purchase such crops. Last Friday, the Polish president signed into law a similar ban, following Austria some months back.
Facing international pressure and a lawsuit at the World Trade Organization, the EU said this year that all member states must open their doors to GMOs, preparing practical and legal regulations to ensure safety for health and the environment. But five countries have imposed eight different types of ban. Many others use their votes in Europe's Council of Ministers to block the crops from entering.
Furthermore, the battle pits the United States and Canada, which produce the vast majority of such seeds and crops, against their closest European allies. The United States is not shy about enlisting its diplomats to push European countries to admit GMOs, according to European politicians. European consumers and farmers generally do not want them, leaving the EU trying to steer a Solomonic course between competing and conflicting interests.
Basically, Europeans, whose food culture has developed over centuries, balk at putting genetically modified crops in their fields or in their mouths.
"We think we have a good policy, but we have discovered extreme reluctance among consumers and many member states to move forward with GMOs," said Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the EU's Environment Directorate.
Since the EU is a common market, lawmakers in Brussels demand a unified solution - a seed that is sold in Britain has to be sold in Poland and Greece as well. But critics say that countries should be allowed to decide if they will accept a risk, however small, noting that unpasteurized milk is legal in France but not in Britain, for example.
In much of Europe, genetically modified foods are so unpopular that some main stream supermarket giants will not stock them. In surveys, consumers and many experts - not just organic farmers and environmental groups - emerge unconvinced that GMOs are safe, particularly for the environment.
"The environment minister who gives in and allows GMOs into this country will never be minister again," said Nikos Lappas, head of Greece's largest farmers' union. "For farmers, forcing GMOs would be economic suicide, since our market doesn't want them."
On the other hand, producers of genetically modified products are aggressively pursuing their cases at the WTO and with individual governments, spurred on by an untapped European market. "The first visit any new minister in Greece gets is from the U.S. ambassador saying you need to have GMOs," said Koliopanos. "The pressure is incredible."
Arguing that GMO crops have been widely planted and consumed across the world for a decade without obvious ill effects, companies insist that GMOs must be admitted in Europe. "The EU has put systems in place to deal with GMOs and now the market has to be allowed to operate," said Simon Barber, of EuropaBio in Brussels, an industry group. "If member states are breaking EU law, we expect the commission to take action."
From 1998 to 2004, the European Union enacted a de facto moratorium on GM farming while studying the issue - above all mulling ways to keep GM crops and non-GM crops distinct.
GM seeds and plants contain genes inserted in a laboratory that give them special advantages, such as resisting common pests. But pollen from GM crops can spread from field to field, intermixing with conventional crops.
Once GM crops enter a country's food production, it can be difficult and costly to keep food GM free, because there is mixing of plants from various farms in milling and in production.
Greece and other EU members say that such issues make any cultivation of biotech plants impossible because they would quickly infiltrate both agriculture and the food supply. As in much of Europe, where small farms are the norm, it is hard to create "buffer zones" between fields on adjacent farms.
"I would guess we may be able to keep them apart in the U.K., but it would be difficult in Greece because of the issue of size," said Julian Kinderlerer, of the University of Sheffield in England.
In fact, Europe's agricultural insurers will not cover farmers for liability should their GM crops harm the environment or contaminate adjacent fields.
"I started with an open mind on this, but now I think the answers are clear," said Lappas. "If our market doesn't buy it, and insurers won't insure us, how can we grow it?"
Indeed, in many areas that have blocked GMOs, such as Tuscany, small farmers survive by producing niche food, like high quality vegetables and grain; there is a premium for food that is GM free. "This is a cutthroat global market and if all we do is cultivate mass-produced GM corn, we're finished, since other nations will be able to provide that cheaper," Lappas said.
In Poland, 1.5 million farms are still farmed mostly without pesticides, giving that nation the opportunity to become an important producer of natural, non-GM foods, according to the International Committee to Protect the Polish Countryside, which has lobbied for a national ban.
From the perspective of the biotech industry and major GMO producers, the issue is simple: GM corn is just corn, GM wheat is just wheat, and there is no scientific reason to differentiate.
Industry groups argue that products should not even be labeled as GM or GM-free, as the EU proposes, because such labels are an unfair trade barrier. "Labeling has turned out to be a stigma because the public is so frightened, and retailers have become easy targets," said Barber. "Look at the Greenpeace Web site with its list of brands that use GMs. We're O.K. with consumers making a choice, but we're leery because they're scared."
Helfferich, by contrast, insisted that shoppers should know which type of crop they are buying.
Politically, the EU's 25 members are extremely divided. Five generally vote to expand access for GMOs, about 10 generally vote against, and a number abstain - not convinced that they are safe, and unwilling to suffer certain political fallout, said Philip Tod, spokesman for the EU Directorate on Health and Consumer Protection.
GM seeds are approved case by case, and once the European Commission has approved a seed for planting, the only legal reason that countries can enforce a ban is if "new scientific evidence" shows it would be harmful.
But recently, each time the commission has recommended a new product, the Council of Ministers, representing the member states, has voted against it - and some countries have taken this as a "scientific exception."
"They haven't provided any new evidence," said Dr. Michael Phillips, vice president of the Biotech Industries Association in Washington. "This is a technology that is as safe as - or safer than - traditional plant breeding."
The European Food Safety Advisory, or EFSA, commission of the European Union provides scientific judgments on such matters. But this agency's core mandate concerns food safety and even the EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said recently that it had not looked adequately at long-term effects of GMOs on issues like biodiversity.
Critics note that EFSA has approved all 11 applications it has received and rejected all appeals. In a meeting with disgruntled member states in Brussels last week, Dr. Harry Kuiper, head of the agency's GMO panel, defended its work, noting that its experts had just six months to review each submission.
"We are aware that through genetic modification there may be unforeseen and unintended environmental effects," he said. "But we think we can get a fairly good idea about these by extrapolating from available scientific evidence."
The European Union is still hoping to win over reluctant members, and so far has taken none to court. But environmental groups seek an EU-wide ban pending clearer answers to scientific questions. "The EU policy of just pushing forward with the technology is utter blindness," said Helen Holder, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth in Europe. "Genetic contamination is unavoidable and irreversible and will only increase over time."