LISBON - Pressure from the president of the European Commission has not succeeded in advancing the cause of transgenic crops. In spite of the power wielded by the executive organ of the European Union, the bloc's member countries are gradually discontinuing the use of genetically modified seeds.
This is due in large measure to the difficulty of convincing European farmers to adopt the transgenic crop production model, which is being promoted by biotech giants, but also to increasingly vociferous protests from civil society, which is demanding that governments take an active role, according to an expert interviewed by IPS.
Genetically modified (GM) organisms, also called transgenics, are made in laboratories by inserting genes from other species of plants or animals into their original DNA, in order to improve their properties or confer resistance to external factors like pests or insecticides. Vectors, often viruses or bacteria, are used to insert the foreign genes.
In Spain and Portugal, which have the largest areas in the EU devoted to GM maize cultivation, people are beginning to question the benefits of sowing and harvesting transgenic varieties of maize, a crop native to the Americas which was the staple food of a number of indigenous cultures.
Maize was slow to be introduced in Europe, because the Central American areas where it was grown were colonised by the Spanish at the time when the Roman Catholic Church was conducting the Inquisition, and they believed that Europeans should not eat the same food as indigenous peoples because, in their view, the latter were not "children of God."
Widely used now as feed for animals, maize has been the subject of fierce controversy within the European Commission.
On the one hand, Commission President José Manuel Durão Barroso is in favour of significantly increasing the production of GM maize within the EU. On the other, European Commissioner for the Environment, Stavros Dimas, is dead set against it.
The European Commission works like a cabinet government and is made up of 27 Commissioners, one from each EU member state, although they must represent the interests of the EU as a whole, not just their home country.
In October 2007, Dimas opposed European Commission approval for cultivation in the EU of two GM varieties of maize, Bt-11 and 1507, because "possible long-term risks to the environment and biodiversity are not completely known, and environmental effects resulting from the cultivation of the GM maize lines are unacceptable."
"However, the majority of the Commissioners are in favour of GM maize, and the final decision has been postponed twice because a consensus could not be reached," Portuguese biologist Margarida Silva, the national coordinator of Plataforma Transgénicos Fora, comprising 12 Portuguese non-governmental organisations working on agriculture and the environment and networking with likeminded NGOs in the EU, told IPS.
Durão Barroso tried to convince Dimas to withdraw his objections in April, while simultaneously requesting an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority, "with the purpose of undermining the legitimacy of Dimas' stance," according to Silva, who is also a university professor.
Silva said that "the movement against transgenics is growing in civil society throughout Europe, and GM crops have already been banned in several countries."
"There isn't much that Europeans can do, but the power of numbers is still on our side, and we can use them to back Stavros Dimas," she said.
EU policies on transgenics are based upon Regulation 1829 on GM food and fodder, adopted in 2003, and 2001 Directive 18 on the deliberate release of transgenics into the environment. According to these rules, cultivation and consumption of GM crops can only be authorised after rigorous assessment of their risks.
Research on risks to human and animal health is the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority, but authorisation of GM plants and animals is ultimately up to lawmakers in each of the bloc's member countries.
Maize, the crop at the centre of the transgenics debate, has an annual production of 677 million tonnes, mostly for animal feed. It is one of the four staple foods of humankind along with rice, wheat and potatoes, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Fifty-eight percent of total world maize production is grown in countries in the Americas, mainly in the United States, which is also the cradle of genetic engineering technology and transgenic organisms.
The United States is the world's largest producer of maize and accounts for nearly half of global production. Large quantities of fertilisers and herbicides are used on its crops, which include hybrid and GM varieties.
Critics like Silva point out that it has been proven that the large amounts of weedkillers used on transgenic crops pollute the soil and endanger biodiversity.
Detractors of transgenics also say that pests affecting GM grains develop resistance to agrochemicals, so that ever higher doses must be applied, with all their negative effects on the environment.
The production of GM seeds for cultivation itself leads to extreme genetic uniformity between seeds, with a corresponding loss of the natural diversity of crop strains.
Environmentalists who oppose transgenics are unmoved by the argument that the higher productivity of these crops could increase food production and end world hunger.
"Feeding the world is not the goal, but rather boosting the export incomes of the big agribusiness companies that are currently involved in the GM industry," Silva said.
Defenders of GM crops say that there is no other solution. If, as expected, the world's population doubles over the next 40 years, food production will have to be increased by about 250 percent.
A huge, unified movement of people in favour of declaring a moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops has emerged in Spain and Portugal, following a similar decision taken in March by the French government that invoked the "safeguard clause" allowing an EU member state to bypass a community directive.
Silva said France based its decision "on a set of 25 scientific studies indicating risks to the environment, farming and human health derived from the cultivation of GM maize."
In the southern Portuguese region of Alentejo, which covers one-third of the country's 92,000 square kilometres of territory, "half of the farm units have given up growing transgenic crops," Silva said.
Farmers prefer "more effective technology and practices, that pose fewer risks for the environment, human health, and their own pocketbooks," she said. Although "in breach of the law, the Agriculture Ministry refuses to release statistics, the scenario in Portugal shows that a significant number of farmers first experiment with GM crops and then stop using them," she said.
This phenomenon "is consistent with a recently published EU study of three regions in Spain, which found that growing transgenic maize offered no economic advantage over conventional maize to farmers in two of the areas," Silva said.
The biologist said that GM maize has been experimented with in the Iberian Peninsula since 2005 by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed company belonging to the U.S. DuPont group, and the Swiss corporation Syngenta, both "companies with a long history of agricultural pollution in Europe."
In addition to Portugal, the products of these corporations "have already affected farmers in Germany, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Spain and Italy," she said.
"Now that France, Hungary and Poland, Europe's main cereals producers, have forbidden the use of GM maize in their territories, and Germany is in the process of following suit, the Iberian countries (Spain and Portugal) should take heed and do the same," she said.
Silva was harshly critical of the Portuguese government for allowing the two corporations, in partnership, to experiment for three years in the municipalities of Monforte and Rio Maior, in the centre of the country, and in Ponte da Barca, in the north.
The green light given to Syngenta and Pioneer "makes no economic sense, is immoral, and jeopardises the green and natural image of those municipalities and their tourism potential. Approval has been granted to apply more herbicide, in a country that already suffers from excessive agrochemical use," said Silva.