BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 23, 2003 -- The European Union completed its legislative framework governing genetically modified organisms with the adoption Tuesday of two European Commission proposals. One establishes a system to trace and label these products of biotechnology, and another regulates the marketing and labeling of food and feed products derived from genetically modified (GM) organisms.
Across Europe, consumers have rejected genetically modified foods due to concerns of allergenicity, and as yet unknown dangers to human health and the environment. Some food retailers and manufacturers have pledged to produce and market only products that do not contain transgenic organisms. Six European Union countries have placed a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops.
A Eurobarometer opinion poll published by the European Commission in December 2001 showed that 94.6 percent of EU citizens surveyed want the right to choose whether or not to eat foods derived from biotechnology, 85.9 percent want to know more before eating foods containing genetically modified ingredients, and 70.9 percent do not want GM food at all.
A protest action about Genetically Modified Organisms at the European Parliament. The head of the European parliament rejected "lectures" from the United States about GMOs. (AFP/Thomas Wirth)
Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne said the new draft legislation should set all those fears to rest. “European consumers can now have confidence that any GM food or feed marketed in Europe has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world."
"Consumers will also have a clear choice of products to buy as GM food will now be clearly labeled. For the first time farmers will see labels on GM feed," Byrne said. "Europe will now have a comprehensive and transparent system of authorization and labeling that can only enhance business and consumer confidence.”
But Mauro Albrizio from the European Environmental Bureau, a coalition of 134 organizations in 25 countries, said, "The right to eat GM-free food will be severely compromised if GM crops are grown are a large scale. The Commission must accept that no one wants GM foods and that public authorities have every right to protect their consumers and environment."
The European Union has been under pressure from the United States to permit the development, import and sales of genetically modified crops and foods, most of which originate with U.S. companies. On May 20, the United States, joined by Canada and Argentina, filed a complaint against the EU over the issue before the World Trade Organization. No hearing has yet been held.
Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the new legislation "will reinforce our international credibility and will certainly help in building public confidence in new technologies."
"By ensuring that GMOs can be traced at all stages in the production and marketing chain," Wallstrom said, "we provide a robust safeguard system and the foundation for a comprehensive labeling system. In this way, we address the most critical concerns of the public regarding the environmental and health effects of GMOs and enable consumers to chose."
Traceability provides the means to track the movement of genetically modified products through the production and distribution chains. Traceability for certain products has existed for many years, but specific traceability requirements for products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or are derived from GMOs do not currently exist.
The draft law requires the labeling of all foods produced from GMOs whether or not there is DNA or protein of transgenic origin in the final product. All genetically modified feed must also be labeled.
Today retailers have to label food consisting of or containing genetically modified organisms. This also includes food produced from GMOs if traces of DNA or protein from the genetic modification is detectable in the final product, such as flour produced from genetically modified corn.
But these labeling provisions do not cover some foods or food ingredients, such as highly refined soy or corn oil produced from genetically modified soybeans or genetically modified corn.
The new law will extend the current labeling requirements to also cover such food and food ingredients produced from GMOs such as biscuits made with corn oil produced from genetically modified corn.
A farmer destroys his maize crop found to be contaminated with genetically modified (GMO) seeds. The European Commission said that it will challenge attempts by any EU member countries to establish zones free of genetically modified crops. (AFP-ANSA/File/Francesco Del Bo)
The label has to indicate, “This product contains genetically modified organisms” or “produced from genetically modified (name of organism).”
The EU will pursue its examination of new GMOs, which in accordance with European Union law, can only be authorized for cultivation and/or marketing in the EU if they present no risk for human health or the environment. A number of GMOs have been notified for authorization and are being processed by the Commission and the member states.
The new draft legislation meets some of the demands of European Farmer Co-ordination (CPE), an association of 18 farmer and rural organizations from 11 European countries, both members and non members of the EU. In an open letter to EU ministers last fall, the CPE asked for mandatory labeling of any agricultural product, animal feedstuff, seed containing GMOs, and animal products produced with GMOs, as well as food products processed with GMOs.
The coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming is seen as a problem for farmers, such as those affiliated with CPE, who wish to keep their crops free of genetically modified characteristics.
Today, as an extension of its new legislative framework, the European Commission published guidelines for the development of strategies and best practices to ensure the coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic crops.
Commenting on the guidelines, EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler said variations in national and regional or local conditions make "an EU wide one size fits all approach unworkable."
“We want to ensure that farmers are able to cultivate the types of agricultural crops they choose be it GM crops, conventional or organic crops," the commissioner said. "This is why we need measures to ensure their coexistence."
But CPE farmers do not believe coexistence without contamination of conventional and organic crops is not possible. In its open letter to the EU ministers, CPE wrote, "We refuse the experimentation in open field, because we know from experience that it is impossible to avoid the contamination."
Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the European Environmental Bureau today condemned the European Commission's recommendation on coexistence between genetically modified and non-GM crops.
Friends of the Earth Europe's GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow said, "Moves to allow organic crops to be contaminated with GM pollution are totally unacceptable, and could lead to the death of organic food and farming. Member states should reject this recommendation and bring in tough legislation to prevent genetic contamination and ensures real consumer choice."
The new guidelines on coexistence state that as a general principle, during the introductory phase of a new production type in a region, farmers who introduce the new production type should bear the responsibility of implementing the actions necessary to limit mixing of transgenic organisms with conventional or organic ones.
Approaches to coexistence should be developed in a transparent way, based on scientific evidence and in cooperation with all concerned, the guidelines say. They should ensure an equitable balance between the interests of farmers of all production types.
National strategies and best practices should refer to the legal labeling thresholds and purity standards for GM food, feed and seed, and local and regional aspects should be fully taken into account, according to the guidelines.
Measures should be efficient and cost effective, without going beyond what is necessary to comply with EU threshold levels for GMO labeling, the guidelines state.
They should be specific to different types of crops, since the probability of accidental mixing varies from one crop to another. For some crops such as oil seed rape the probability is high, but for others such as potatoes the probability is fairly low, according to the guidelines.
Measures taken on the farm might include isolation distances, buffer zones, and pollen barriers such as hedgerows. The might be cooperation between neighboring farms such as information about sowing plans, and the use of crop varieties with differing flowering times.
"The recommendations are based on the latest available research results, and provide a sound basis on which member states should build their approaches," Fischler said.
Eric Gall, Greenpeace's EU advisor on genetic engineering, said earlier this month, "Preventing genetic contamination should now be the number one priority for the EU. If nothing is done to protect conventional and organic crops from genetic contamination, the new labeling system will actually be at risk of becoming useless after a few years because it will be increasingly hard to secure GMO free supplies."
Gall said today, "Member states should make clear in their national legislation that GM producers are the ones responsible for avoiding GMO's in food, feed and especially seeds. According to the polluter pays principle GM producers should also bear the cost of anti-contamination measures."
Greenpeace maintains that the World Trade Organization is not the forum to deal with the issues raised by genetically modified organisms.
On Monday, Greenpeace activists replaced the World Trade Organization sign at its headquarters in Geneva with a new logo, "World Transgenic Order," denouncing the WTO for promoting the corporate interests of the genetic engineering industry.
At the same time, Greenpeace activists representing consumers were shoved into straitjackets by Uncle Sam, who dumped genetically engineered corn on them to dramatize what the activists believe the United States wants to do to consumers around the world.
Copyright 2003 Environment News Service