s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 16 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)


Update on Gene Foods from the European Greens

by Steve Emmott, Biotechnology Coordinator, Green Group in the European Parliament


Gene Food Marketing Consents

The macabre menu of new gene foods due to arrive on the European dinner table is getting longer. The European Union has already approved Monsanto's gene soya, Novartis' Bt maize and three lines of rapeseed from Belgium's Plant Genetic Systems. More consents are expected shortly for three different lines of engineered maize, a further rapeseed line and an antibiotic resistant potato. Also in the pipeline are two Monsanto applications for engineered cottonseed oil for food use and a Dutch application for a variety of chicory (radiccio rosso), eaten here raw in salads. This would be the first living genetically modified organism (GMO) to go on the market for direct food use -- the FlavrSavr tomato has so far only been imported into Europe in processed form as tomato puree because of a patent dispute between Calgene (now Monsanto) and the UK seed and biotech company, Zeneca, although there are now plans to grow it in Spain.

Meantime, things are getting serious down on the farm. Protesters in Ireland recently dug up a test field full of Monsanto's herbicide-resistant sugar beet whilst in France several tons of Novartis' three-way engineered maize were excavated by rural farmers' activists. Three of the farmers were arrested and will face court proceedings. The NGOs intend to turn this into a trial against the gene maize itself.


The Common European Green Manifesto for EU elections to be held next year is likely to include a call for a complete ban on genetically manipulated foodstuffs.

Although what follows is a summary of the present state of play on EU legislation on GMOs, we should not lose sight of the fact that we (the European Greens and all the main consumer and environmental NGOs) maintain our principled opposition to the marketing of gene foods of no proven safety for human health or the environment and of no proven socio-economic benefit-so far that means all of them! The Common European Green Manifesto for EU elections to be held next year is likely to include a call for a complete ban on genetically manipulated foodstuffs. Regulation and labeling are therefore only "end-of-pipeline" solutions, not a real answer to our concerns. Incidentally, an official EU-wide opinion survey based on a representative sample of nearly 16,000 recently found that 61% considered that the least useful and most risky application of genetic engineering was for food production and 74% wanted gene foods to be specially labeled. The most reliable sources of information on biotechnology were seen as being consumer organizations (58%) and environmental NGOs (56%). Industry and political organizations ranked at the bottom of the list with 6 or 7% each.

Revision of GMO Release Laws

We have had in place since 1990 an EU Directive to regulate the "Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Organisms into the Environment," known by its number as Directive 90/220. This covers risk assessments and approval procedures both for field trials and for product marketing. Sustained pressure from industry has led the European Commission, which is responsible for the legislation, to decide that it's overdue for revision. The new document is a curious blend of deregulation mixed with some apparent concessions to the Greens and environmental NGOs about the obvious shortcomings of the original legislation. For example, the Commission acknowledges that marketing consents should be subject to an initial seven-year time limit and a broader range of assessment criteria but at the same time it proposes new short-cut approval procedures where there is (undefined) "sufficient knowledge of safety."

One apparent gain is that for the first time risk assessments will cover indirect health and environmental concerns. This will enable the scrutiny committees to look at things like the build-up of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the food chain and the wider impact of the use of herbicide-resistant crops-both are controversial issues which are currently outside the scope of the assessments. However, these appear to be hollow gains because much of the jurisdiction of the Directive is to be removed to other legislation which does not carry the same safeguards or transparency.


Because of the huge outcry here over the importation of genetically manipulated maize and soya into the EU from the USA, the European Commission set out to design specific rules for products derived from these two crops, as a precedent for future labeling laws.

Despite an Orientation Paper published last July which insisted on full labeling from "the plough to the plate" for all products derived from genetic engineering, the revision document still fails to provide an integrated, coherent and comprehensive scheme and we will end up with a mish-mash of rules which in reality will help no-one.

No GMOs in Organic Agriculture

The Commission has recently accepted Green proposals to keep genetic engineering out of Organic Agriculture and if, as is most likely, this is confirmed by the Council of Ministers it will become law soon. This means that consumers of products labeled as being derived from organic production methods can be certain that they are buying gene-tech-free food. This should have profound effects on discussions going on elsewhere about gene food labeling because organic farmers will need to be sure that their inputs (seeds, animal feed etc.) are gene-tech-free.

GMO Seeds Will Need to be Labeled

Amendments to existing directives on Seed Marketing, agreed to be the Parliament after strong pressure from the Greens, look like requiring labeling on the seed packet for genetically modified varieties. This is not too surprising-farmers need to know what they are sowing-but it could provide the basis for a certificate of origin for use in labeling decisions further along the food chain.

Novel Food Regulation and Gene Food Labeling

Because of the huge outcry here over the importation of genetically manipulated maize and soya into the EU from the USA, the European Commission set out to design specific rules for products derived from these two crops, as a precedent for future labeling laws. This row has been compounded by the deliberate policy of shippers to mix gene-tech crops with conventional produce to avoid pressure for segregation and to destroy the possibility of meaningful labeling. However, the Commission has failed to get the agreement of the statutory advisory committees to its proposals to label either modified proteins or DNA where detectable in the final product-the final vote was 21 for, 21 against and 45 abstentions, which gives a fair measure of the disarray on this subject. In the meantime, food processors and retailers are pressing on with voluntary schemes to label on modified protein content only. The Greens want to see a certificate of origin scheme (as will be the case with organics) rather than a technocratic and arbitrary system of trying to find something in the end product that can be traced and measured (or not), particularly as proteins can readily become denatured during heat treatment.


...the concept of mutual recognition agreements means that if the U.S. says it's safe and doesn't need labeling, the EU will have to accept importation without further question. Monsanto is one of the proponents of this idea.

In the context of trade manipulation, it is interesting to discover that the US and EU governments, together with the big players in biotechnology, meet regularly under the name of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue. One of the items on their agenda is the concept of mutual recognition agreements. Loosely interpreted, this means that if the US says it's safe and doesn't need labeling, the EU will have to accept importation without further question. Just in case you wondered, Monsanto is one of the proponents of this idea.

National Bans on Novartis Gene Maize

Austria and Luxembourg have invoked their rights under one of the articles of the Deliberate Release Directive to impose national bans on the import or use of Novartis' genetically engineered maize, which contains a herbicide-resistant gene, an antibiotic-resistant gene and a built-in insect poison. Despite efforts by the Commission to overturn these bans, they have so far failed to persuade sufficient member states to back them and there remain enough concerns over risks to human health and the environment for the bans to remain in place. A further round of scientific assessments is under way. In addition, both France and the UK have recently announced that they will suspend approval procedures on a range of different genetically engineered crops whilst they review the state of the science regarding risk assessments and undertake further public consultations.

GMO Labeling Summary

On the basis of the above analysis, we look like we could end up with a whole bunch of non-integrated GMO labeling laws. Consumers could soon be faced with the following scenario:

Now you see why labeling is not much of an answer!




Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | Synthesis/Regeneration 16 Contents