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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

Towards a Meaningful Moratorium on GMO s

by Steve Emmott, Green Group in the European Parliament

"Taking account of the uncertainties arising from the release of transgenic plants into the environment which, like oilseed rape, carry risks of out-crossing with other species, we have decided...to apply a moratorium on all market approvals for two years in respect of each such genetically modified variety."
— Lionel Jospin, Prime Minister of France, July 30, 1998
"The industry has also made the important commitment that no insect resistant GM crops will be introduced into the UK for the next three years."
— UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher, October 21, 1998 to House of Lords Select Committee

Austria and Luxembourg have banned the use or sale of the Novartis Bt maize (which is engineered three ways to make it herbicide and antibiotic-resistant as well as poisonous to insects). For over 18 months the European Commission has been unable to collect enough support to overturn the bans and the Environment Committee has also recommended leaving them alone. Greece has used the same procedure to ban import and marketing of a genetically altered strain of rapeseed developed by Germany's AgrEvo.

In a separate development in France, Greenpeace and ECOROPA obtained an injunction against further cultivation of the Novartis maize and a ruling that the harvest had to be put under lock and key until the issue was resolved.

... 5 of the 15 EU member states are now taking action to clearly limit GMO releases.

Although the UK position is not quite as convincing as it looks-there are no current proposals to grow Bt crops in Britain-5 of the 15 EU member states are now taking action to clearly limit GMO releases. If you add to that the traditional reluctance of Sweden and Denmark to sanction GMOs, and the existence of Green Environment Ministers in Finland and Italy, it is no wonder the Commission is nervous. One more big name on the list would produce an overwhelming majority in favor of rethinking the whole business. Coincidentally, at just about the same time, the German Greens were elected as junior partners in their federal government and now hold the Environment and Health portfolios as well as Foreign (including EU) Affairs! What's more, the political direction of the EU, which is guided by the Council Presidency, passed by rotation from Austria to Germany at the end of 1998 and, will then pass on to Finland in July 1999.

What would have been unthinkable a few months ago—an EU-wide moratorium on GMO releases—is now a serious possibility and the climate has never been better.

What would have been unthinkable a few months ago-an EU-wide moratorium on GMO releases-is now a serious possibility and the climate has never been better.

What are the obstacles? The first, of course, is the threat of trade sanctions from the WTO. Any move to bring in an EU-wide suspension of commercial GMO releases would provoke an immediate backlash from the US government and North American agribusiness, who are already making increasingly angry noises about the delays and disruptions to their export markets from uncertainties in Europe.

The second is the risk of a legal challenge from the European genetic engineering industry. The Commission has already warned the French government that there is no valid legal base for their moratorium, and it is instructive to note that the more legalistically minded UK government has opted for a relatively soft voluntary agreement.

Although the Greens want to see a complete ban, this is not achievable...in the present...climate, but the political potential does exist for some form of suspension.

The Commission can therefore only move if it can provide itself with a "sound science" justification, which will let it off the hook. Existing legislation (Directive 90/220) only provides for a case-by case assessment, but does have provision for a reviewing mechanism "if new information has become available with regard to the risks of the product to human health or the environment." (Art 11.6) It would therefore be open to the Commission to propose moratoria on specific classes of products where there was at least sufficient scientific uncertainty to invoke a ban under the precautionary approach. This would require possibly different justifications for, say, herbicide-resistance, antibiotic-resistance and insect-resistance. These three categories just happen to cover almost all the consents given to date as well as all the current outstanding applications.

Although the Greens want to see a complete ban, this is not achievable directly in the present political and legal climate, but the political potential does exist for some form of suspension. We should therefore consider proposing a category-by-category commercial moratorium for five years, based on the need to conduct independent and publicly monitored long-term EU-wide studies of all the direct and indirect risks to human and animal health and to the environment. Here are just some of the questions:

Finally, here is the news from Monsanto "The latest survey shows an on-going collapse of public support for biotechnology and GM foods. At each point in this project, we keep thinking that we have reached the low point and that public thinking will stabilize, but we apparently have not reached that point." (Greenberg Consultants Strategy Report to Monsanto UK, October 5, 1998)

End Note

The Council of Environment Ministers met in December 1998 to discuss the state of play on GMO marketing, but failed to reach any serious conclusions. The fight continues...

Update on GMO Controversies in the UK

by Steve Emmott, Green Group in the European Parliament

February 18, 1999.

The print and broadcast media have been on fire with headline news about genetic engineering and GMOs. It started with a controversy over the research and sacking of Dr. Pusztai, spread into gene food safety issues including a government minister with a conflict of interests and has now moved on to environmental risks. The coverage has been mostly hostile to the industry and the Labor government. Conservatives are capitalizing (cynically) on the dramas and the Liberal Democrats, who have had a reasonably critical position for some time, are joining in the call for a change of policy.

Dr. Arpad Pusztai was a research scientist at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland and is well respected for his work on plant toxins; especially proteins called lectins. He announced preliminary findings on television last August concerning the introduction of foreign genes into potatoes, which he claimed damaged the immune systems of rats. He was sacked almost immediately and forbidden to make further comments. His boss, Prof. Philip James, who was in line for appointment to the new UK Food Standards Agency, announced that studies had not been completed, that the doctor had confused two different transgenic tests and that he had spoken without authorization. An in-house audit would be conducted to review and complete the work.

In part, the row was about whether the transgenes were from the snowdrop (presumably interesting for its frost-resistant qualities) or from the American jack bean. Either way, there appeared to be a toxic effect and the newspapers seized on this as being the first "evidence" that genetically modified food was harmful to health. The story re-awoke with the February 12 publication of a memorandum signed by 23 scientists who had reviewed Dr. Pusztai's results and supported his case. They also condemned the abuse of the principle of open scientific debate and the unfair treatment of Dr. Pusztai. A different list of scientists has now rejected their interpretation and the arguments continue. Meantime, Rowett, in the face of a public relations disaster, has lifted the ban on his speaking out.

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