TCS Daily

Lost in a Maize

By Craig Winneker - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In the topsy-turvy, sometimes near-Orwellian world of EU politics, something that appears to be bad news can often be good, and vice versa. Consider recent developments in European policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Earlier this month the European Commission, the EU's executive body, released a report on the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops. In effect, the Commission argued that GMOs are a fact of life and no amount of legislation requiring traceability or labeling of them would ensure that some products or crops would be "GM-free". Therefore, it concluded, the burden of proof should be on food producers who want to label their products as "GM-free" to show this to be the case. The same standard is used for "bio" or organic food producers.

This was a significant change in direction for the Commission, but you wouldn't know it from most of the press coverage, which tended to focus on the issue as one of the EU leaning towards allowing "GM contamination" of conventional crops - even though the report said nothing of the kind. And even though, it has become tiresome to repeat, there is no evidence whatsoever that GMOs pose any health risk to consumers.

What accounted for the double-think?

The so-called "green" groups in Europe won the spin control on this issue by leaking a copy of the report to the press before the Commission released it. This is a not uncommon occurrence in Brussels, where nongovernmental organizations have significant policymaking power and frequently vet EU documents before they are made public.

Typical was the response of Lorenzo Consoli, Greenpeace's EU adviser on GMOs. "Coexistence is about guaranteeing that non-GM farmers in Europe can keep growing their traditional or organic products while avoiding contamination and without additional costs," he told European Voice newspaper.

The Commission, to its credit, frames the issue differently, promising "to decide on a course of action in order to ensure that farmers will be able to cultivate freely the agricultural crops they prefer, be they GM, conventional or organic crops."

In fact, despite the EU's continuing de facto moratorium on approvals of new GM products - which is being propped up by a handful of member states that continue to block efforts to lift it - the Commission has generally pushed for acceptance of biotech foods. Several key members of the institution - including Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne of Ireland, Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler of Austria and Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy of France - have indicated their support for ending the moratorium (Sweden's member of the Commission, environment chief Margöt Wallstrom, favors keeping it). Recently Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin of Belgium and Enterprise Commissioner Erkki Liikanen of Finland added their voices to the debate, calling on member states to intensify their efforts to promote biotechnology.

Still, EU environment and agriculture ministers, the ones with the real power to change policy, continue to refuse to act to lift the moratorium until unrealistic labeling and traceability rules are put in place, and there's no guarantee they'll do it even then.

There was more (unpublicized) good news for GM producers in the EU this month. The latest comes from the European Court of Justice (ECJ), where a chief legal advisor has issued a recommendation to Europe's highest judicial body in a case filed by Monsanto and other biotech companies against the government of Italy, which since 1998 has blocked the marketing by those companies of certain GM products. Those products were approved before the EU's moratorium and are on the market elsewhere in Europe. But Italy "entertained doubts as to the absolute safety" of the products and banned them. An advocate-general's report is not a ruling, but ECJ judges usually follow its recommendations.

At first glance, the report appears to be a victory for Monsanto and other GM producers. The advocate-general "considers that novel foods may be placed on the market under a simplified procedure even when they contain traces of transgenic protein, provided they are absolutely safe in terms of health." Further, the report points out, the foods in question pose "no risk whatsoever to human health."

And, therefore, it concludes, Italy can continue to block the products in question.

Say what? Yes, you read that correctly. Italy was right to ban the Monsanto products "provided it had detailed grounds for considering, as a result of new information or a reassessment of existing information, that the use of the food in question endangers human health or the environment." Even though it hasn't yet proved that and almost assuredly will never be able to, the ban can stay in place.

Forget 1984, this is Catch-22.

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