TCS Daily

The Politics of Rapeseed

By Meghan Sapp - October 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Belgium is one of those countries people typically forget if they even knew about it in the first place. It's small and usually gets overshadowed by the big guys. For example, Belgium was against the war in Iraq, and though some Belgians say they had the idea before France and Germany, nobody seemed to care.


They're still ticked off here that the French get the credit for French fries, which are actually of Belgian origin. So when the US Congress and other Americans started calling them Freedom Fries as a slap to the French, they were inadvertently applying a double insult to Belgians.


Even when it comes to an issue as emotionally and politically charged as genetically modified organisms, no one seemed to notice that Belgium was on the brink last Wednesday of approving production of the first GM crop in the EU since 1998. Perhaps most people forgot to check the agenda and instead were waiting for the UK's upcoming rejection of the same GM rapeseed.


I myself heard about the meeting only the day before from some anti-GMO campaigners. But the expected swarm of protesters didn't arrive, the cops stayed in their van and the onslaught of press and paparazzi consisted of two Belgian TV stations and me.


The rumors during the previous few days would have warranted front page news if people had been listening. First, the word was that Belgium, incredibly, was going to approve the seed. A couple of days later, the story changed: the OK would come only if the UK approved it as well -- something everyone knows won't happen.


It's something of a typically Belgians political move: make a stand and say "No" to GMOs without being the bad guy.


The country's Biosafety Advisory Council (SBB) passes its approval on to the environment minister, who gets the rest of the member states to sign off on it. But even the SBB is aware that everyone would assume Belgium was following the UK's lead. Early leaks have revealed that the UK study will argue the rapeseed damages agricultural ecology.


The head of SBB's secretariat, William Moens, said after the meeting, "The report has been analyzed by the committee and they have identified some weakness in the ecological report of the dossier." Before he could take another breath, he continued, "The questions have nothing to do with the UK report."


The politics are sensitive. Friends of the Earth argues that if Belgium approves the seed it would make it a lot harder for the UK to reject it. Other enviros say that if Belgium approved it despite the UK's disapproval that they would be turning their backs on science. That's a laugh. The GM debate in Europe has never been about science.


Perhaps it's true that the ecological "weakness" allegedly detected by the Belgians is completely unrelated to what the British have found, but that seems entirely unlikely. Could it have anything to do with the fact that the president of the SBB is a former Greenpeace activist?


Equally likely is that there is some debate among the members of the committee. The Greenpeace veteran pitted against the Secretariat, who said he doesn't understand why this is such a big deal since the rapeseed has been legal in the US and Canada for about five years.


Moens is on the green hit-list for being pro-GMO -- or at least not sufficiently anti-GMO. He said after the meeting that a lot of time was spent discussing "internal matters" and not just the Bayer Cropscience rapeseed itself.


By sending the report on the rapeseed back for another review at the next meeting, which theoretically would have resolved the ecological "weakness" issue, the Belgians have bought themselves just enough time to not have to prove they were born without a backbone.


The next meeting of the SBB is November 6. The U.K. report comes out October 16.


So the Belgians have nearly three weeks to hear what the Brits say and manipulate the language so they don't sound like English copycats with French or Dutch accents. The UK report is expected to approve a GM maize, however, which will then be put to the European Union for approval, thereby beating Belgium to the punch.


Such a lost opportunity for the world to take notice of a tiny country.


Meghan Sapp is a writer living in Brussels.

TCS Daily Archives