TCS Daily

Green Weak

By Craig Winneker - June 3, 2003 12:00 AM

Kermit the Frog's famous refrain notwithstanding, in Europe, it is actually easy to be Green. Citizens here do believe the hype - and most of the national governments as well as the European Union institutions act accordingly, treating environmental policy as a religion.

This week Europe holds its annual "Green Week," a celebration of the environment sponsored by the EU that is always accompanied by lots of glossy folders containing printed material no one ever reads and plastic jewel cases containing CD-ROMs that go right into the trash.

What is the message? Well, yes, the environment is a good thing. I think we can all agree on that. But everything you need to know about how the EU approaches it from a political standpoint can be summed up in the title of the environment commissioner's press release kicking off the festivities: "Behaviour change the key as Margot Wallström opens Green Week."

And it's not just the EU that wants to effect "behavior change."

Consider a daylong conference held last week in Brussels on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The event, sponsored by the Green Party group in the European Parliament, was standing-room-only, attended by everyone from Austrian organic farmers to Flemish free-range activists to the inevitable Friends of the Earth do-goodniks.

Even the title of the conference, "GMOs: Coexistence or Contamination?" betrayed the real agenda behind the event. Speakers regularly referred to GM "contamination" and GM "pollution"; the idea that bio-engineered crops could co-exist with other crops was considered loony - despite the lack of any meaningful discussion of why co-existence would pose a threat to the environment or to consumers or even to those ubiquitous "stakeholders" in the first place. In fact, it was practically a given that GMOs would "contaminate" or "pollute" the environment, even though no scientific or even anecdotal evidence supports claims that this would cause irreparable harm.

But I have to give some credit to the Greens who organized this conference because, unusually for a Brussels event, they actually invited someone with an opposing viewpoint. In this case, it was Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit of EuropaBio, who ended up playing the scientific equivalent of Daniel in the lion's den. He could hardly get through his prepared statement, which came, incidentally, at the end of an entire day's worth of speakers lamenting GM technology and blasting "big multinational corporations" that want to "shove GM crops down Europe's throat."

Barber calmly tried to point out the benefits of the EU devising a scheme to regulate co-existence of GM, conventional, and organic crops so that farmers and consumers would have the greatest choice. He pointed out, acutely, that most of the conference participants and audience members were "looking for ways to stop things going forward." And he repeated, over catcalls from the gallery the arguments in favor of GM technology, including one you'd think Greens would appreciate: the ability to reduce pesticide and herbicide use.

But there was another joker in the deck - this one unexpected and, even though it was unintentional on the part of the conference organizers, perhaps more effective than Barber, who was billed as the only pro-GM participant.

In this case, it was another scientist, brought in to consider whether GM crops will infiltrate other conventional and organic crops and what would be the effects of co-existence. Brian Johnson of the U.K. group English Nature, gave a thoughtful and complicated presentation in which he showed that for some crops with highly mobile seeds (oilseed rape, for example), there would be no way to keep GM crops from interacting with other crops. He didn't portray this as some kind of impending ecological horror, just as a scientific fact.

One of the potential results of this, Johnson noted, is that plants engineered to become more herbicide-resistant could spread these characteristics to other plants, including weeds. So far, so green. But, he quickly added, this might not be such a bad thing. And, he said, increased herbicide-resistance through transgenic mutation - whether the result GM farming, conventional farming, or other factors - is in his view "a step forward for biodiversity."

As a farming friend of mine from Virginia used to say, "Come ag'in?" Then Johnson delivered the coup de grace. "Organic farmers," he said, could actually benefit from this and "should not rule that out entirely on a technological basis."

Johnson is a scientist but apparently has enough political savvy to realize that he'd just stepped into what my aforementioned friend would have called "sheep dip." He rather sheepishly joked that given what he'd just said he might have to forfeit his travel allowance to the conference organizers, who were laughing nervously just to the side of the dais. Nobody else in the audience - except for perhaps Simon Barber and me - thought the joke was in the least bit funny.

The rest of the event was boilerplate anti-GM rhetoric from the usual suspects: a parade of Green party MEPs and environmental activists urging, more or less, a return to Stone Age farming methods in the name of biodiversity and - of course - consumer choice.

Fortunately this message was "contaminated" by a few stray spores of scientific information courtesy of Messrs. Barber and Johnson. The question now is whether any sort of genetic mutation will take hold - and spread. It's the only way to build up resistance to the Green Party line.

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