Unapproved and unacceptable GMO
By Martin Frid
Will the lifting of Europe's "de facto moratorium" of genetically modified organisms (GMO) benefit consumers and farmers? AEC - Association of European Consumers does not think so. In this report we show that legislation in countries such as the United States, Canada and Japan differ so much that even if EU tries to implement its new rules, the result may be a nightmare. The rules are not harmonised and as long as the US and Canada will not label and segregate GMO crops, there is probably no way for European food producers to stop illegal North American GMOs from entering our food chain. Consumers in Europe find this unacceptable.
We refer to Article 153 of the Amsterdam Treaty:
"In order to promote the interests of consumers and to ensure a high level of consumer protection, the Community shall contribute to protecting health, safety and economic interests of consumers as well as promoting their right to information, education and to organise themselves to safeguard their interests."
AEC - Association of European Consumers has found troubles and disputes with all GMO crops introduced so far. This report looks at GMO corn, soy, rape seed (canola) and potatoes. The greatest problem is that unapproved GMO varieties will find its way into European foods in shipments from other countries. In addition, if more GMO crops are approved and grown in Europe, there will undoubtedly be widespread adventitious contamination due to seed mixing, wind or insect pollination. Farmers cannot make sure that new GMO varieties do not accidentally blend or cross-pollinate with non-GMO varieties. This "within-crop" gene flow is unacceptable to consumers. We demand to have a choice and want to play an active role in society, and reject the fact that our right to be informed is seriously threatened.
Consumers are highly sceptical to GMO food. Not only are we concerned about possible health problems but also environmental and ethical concerns are the course for the scepticism. European consumers are concerned about the actual GMO foods in the shops or restaurants, and also opposed to the very principle of producing food with the use of genetic engineering because it is perceived as unnatural. In our view, the solution is to keep the "de facto moratorium" as long as necessary. Europe should pursue its own food and agricultural policy, for the benefit of European consumers and farmers, and we urge the European Commission to instead promote organic and sustainable agriculture.
World Trade Rules
World Trade Organisation rules put limits on what countries can do to stop imports of food and agricultural products. The WTO only permits import bans if there is scientific evidence of harm to humans, animals or plants.
The WTO Agreement states:
No Member should be prevented from adopting or enforcing measures necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, subject to the requirement that these measures are not applied in a manner which would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination between Members where the same conditions prevail."
It also states that disguised restriction on international trade is not allowed. The goal of the WTO Agreement is to harmonise rules "on as wide basis as possible." There is no consensus about what this actually means.
For over a decade, attempts have failed to create a global legal framework for genetically modified organisms and GMO foods. The lack of harmonisation in spite of efforts by FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius or OECD have not stopped certain transnational corporations, especially Monsanto Co. of the United States, now a unit of Pharmacia, from introducing a large number of GMO crops in the US and elsewhere. Grain traders, food producers and retailers have been confronted with GMO crops as a matter of fact, without segregation. This has not been an ideal situation for creating national, regional or global rules in the area of GMO foods. Quite predictably, consumers reacted strongly against the way GMO foods were introduced in Europe.
As early as 1996 Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon pointed out in their book "The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops" that the flow of novel genes into the centers of crop biodiversity, primarily in the developing World, could "threaten the genetic base of the World's food supply. " Many development and environmental NGO's have now joined the battle against GMOs.
It took some time before North American farmers and food producers took notice of the concerns voiced in Europe and in other part of the World, including Japan, Korea and India. The revision of the European GMO Directive also took longer time than anyone could have imagined, as the European Parliament and the Council slowly came to agree on important issues like risk assessment, labelling and traceability.
Meanwhile, it became painfully evident that the US and Canadian legislation, or rather the lack of any strict rules, also created problems for farmers. As unapproved GMO varieties found their way into the global food chain, the message seemed to find its way back to farmers in North America: no one wants to buy US or Canadian food or seed contaminated with GMO, especially if they are not approved by the importing country.
North American farmers also faced another problem: Monsanto warned them against saving seed, the time-honoured practice of saving soy seeds or cotton seeds from one harvest for next year's planting. By October 1998, Midwest newspapers like St. Louis Post-Dispatch, carried stories about how Monsanto got "tough on seed pirates" by publicly identifying farmers who broke the rules. Monsanto claimed its GMO seeds could only be used once because they are protected by patents. Progressive Farmer reported in December 1998 that Monsanto was taking legal action against "seed piracy".
In Canada, Monsanto went to court and won a landmark lawsuit against Percy Schmeiser, a rape seed (canola) farmer who denied having bought Monsanto's GMO seeds. According to Washington Post Feb. 3, 1999, Schmeiser said GMO pollen or seeds must have blown onto his farm, possibly from a neighbour's land. Monsanto even started sending Pinkerton detectives into farmers' fields, which Schmeiser called "a reign of terror".
According to Reuters Oct. 21, 1999, the EU and US discussed the "thorny issue of genetically modified (GM) crops" and upcoming World Trade Organisation talks at top level meetings in Washington D.C. Between 1997 and 1999, the US claimed to have lost about $200 million of corn sales to Europe because of delays in the EU approval process for genetically modified crops. Because of EU consumer concerns that have "paralysed the EU approval process", Reuters reported, GMO varieties remained banned in Europe.
On June 16, 2000 Inside US Trade reported that US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky had raised the possibility that the US would consider a dispute settlement case in the World Trade Organization against the EU for its failure to approve GMO varieties of corn. However, the US also tried to unblock corn exports to the EU with a new proposal to certify US laboratories to conduct certain tests. These would ensure that US shipments would not contain any unapproved varieties of GMO corn. The proposal was floated informally at a meeting of the Transatlantic Economic Partnership preceding the May 31, 2000 US-EU summit.
The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue was launched in 1998. Representatives of consumers from both the EU and US issued a joint demand in April, 1999 to the European Commission and the US government that consumers must be able to make their own choices about whether or not to accept GMOs in their food, by requiring that all such foods be clearly labelled. On the other hand, the Transatlantic Business Dialogue has played an aggressive role in the debate about GMO foods, especially supporting patenting of genes and demanding that the EU and US reject any attempt to weaken the WTO Agreement.
Then the situation went from bad to worse. Washington Post reported on Sept. 18, 2000 that a form of GMO corn not allowed by US regulations in food because of concerns that the protein Cry9C could trigger allergies has been detected in US grocery store Taco Bell taco shells. The type of corn, produced by Aventis Corp. and called StarLink, was approved by US authorities in 1998 as an animal feed. Because the corn had been genetically modified in a way that makes it more difficult to break down in the human gut, the agencies refused to approve it for human use. Officials at the US Food and Drug Administration, who called the possible presence of StarLink corn in human food "unlawful," said the agency had started an investigation. The taco shells tested were manufactured in Mexico for Taco Bell with corn from the US and were distributed by Kraft Foods, a unit of Philip Morris Inc. On Sept. 20, Kraft Foods responded by voluntarily recalling all Taco Bell products sold in the US.
This was not an isolated case. Washington Post also noted that early in 2000, some unapproved varieties of GMO canola were found growing in Europe. Critics say more examples have not been found because no government agencies are charged with finding them. US politicians had so far supported the government policy, but at this point Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), said discovery of the unapproved StarLink corn showed "that genetically engineered ingredients are not well regulated" in the US.
Widespread GMO Contamination
On Sept. 26, 2000 The New York Times wrote: "What the incident does show, in any case, is how difficult it is to keep one crop from contaminating another. The problem has also arisen this year in Europe, where genetically modified material was discovered in supposedly conventional crops. Keeping crops segregated will require duplicate grain elevators, trucks and barges, raising food prices." A recall of more than 300 food products followed.
New Scientist pointed out on Oct. 7, 2000 that if biotech companies and the US FDA are unable to keep an unapproved variety like StarLink out of the human food chain and contained in restricted farm plots, what are they going to do once the next generation of bio-pharm plants begin to be commercialised, plants containing vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs, crops that could harm and poison unsuspecting consumers? The magazine warned: "We can't ignore the taco fiasco... The food industry needs to get its act together before the new generation of modified plants arrives. Next time, the consequences could be serious."
In October 2000, the No! GMO Campaign/Consumers Union of Japan identified illegal StarLink corn in snack foods and animal feed, while Reuters reported that an entire 55,000 ton corn shipment to Japan was rejected because it contained the unapproved GMO corn. American elevators started going public with the stories of processors rejecting StarLink, forcing the elevators to sell to ethanol and animal feed makers. This offended poultry giant Tyson, which did not want StarLink concerns to spill over to chicken buying consumers. So, Tyson promptly declared that it was not going to buy any more StarLink for chicken feed. According to an Associated Press story Oct. 25, Japanese authorities warned the United States not to export StarLink corn to Japan. The Consumers Union of Japan and allied consumer groups in South Korea called for a moratorium on the importation of all GMO foods into their countries.
To help limit the production of corn containing StarLink so that it would not be planted and then later enter the human food supply, the US Department of Agriculture announced in March, 2001 that it would purchase seed corn containing StarLink and also contacted 288 seed companies. According to ProFarmer Washington Watch, in June 2001 USDA said it had completed purchase of corn seed from 63 small- and medium-size seed companies. USDA said it was making these purchases, estimated at $12.9 million, to ensure a safe supply of corn for human use and so that seed companies are not adversely affected by the presence of StarLink in their seed corn.
Other Unapproved Corn
In 1998, Swiss authorities turned back two consignments of corn from the US, according to reports in Financial Times. According to Greenpeace, two Rhine barges were taking the rejected corn back to the Netherlands where they would be returned to the US. The loads contained both approved and unapproved GMO corn mixed with conventional varieties.
Farmers Weekly (UK) reported on July 2, 1999, that after US corn buyers Archer Daniels Midland and A.E. Staley announced they would no longer purchase GMO corn which was unapproved for sale in the EU, up to 20% of US corn farmers in some areas returned their unapproved GMO corn seeds back to their seed distributors.
Again, according to The Independent Nov. 6, 2000, two different unapproved GMO corn types were found in British tortilla snacks. Four supermarkets launched investigations after tests commissioned by Friends of the Earth detected banned genetically modified corn in the stores' own-brand tortilla chips. Friends of the Earth said its tests found GA21 Roundup Ready corn, developed by Monsanto, in three products including Safeway's and Asda's own-brand tortilla chips. Traces of another GMO corn, DBT418, were found in tortilla chips sold by Sainsbury's and Tesco. GMO traces were also found in two types of Phileas Fogg chips. Both corn types are grown and sold in the United States but are not approved in Europe. Earlier in 2000 the UK Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes decided Monsanto had not provided sufficient information on whether GA21 could lead to allergic reactions.
On March 9, 2001 Greenpeace found traces of an unapproved GMO corn in a Kellogg's line of corn products in the US. Kellogg Co., which owns Morningstar's parent company, Worthington Foods, had assured customers in letters and e-mail messages that the product line was free of GMO ingredients.
US-based agriculture commentator Alan Guebert wrote in Oct. 2000: "A weak federal regulator and a powerful industry lobby. In fact, the monitoring of biotechnology within the US government is so scattered - and the push for new biotech products by industry so strong - that the current system almost assures distrust." On Dec.11, 2000 The New York Times commented: "But with increasing scepticism among consumers in Europe and Japan about bioengineered food, and in some cases new requirements for labelling, the need to separate bioengineered and conventional crops has grown."
More than 60,000 bags of GMO rape seed had been recalled from the Canadian market in Aug. 1997 when the seed was found to contain "the wrong gene", as Western Producer reported. Farmers Weekly commented: "The timing of the mistake could not have come at a worse time for the North American chemical giants who are trying to convince European consumers that GM products are completely safe."
This incident turned out to be a warning signal for seed traders, who rely on Canada for rape seeds farmed in Europe. In 2000, a batch of Canadian oil-seed rape was grown in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK that contained approximately 1-2 % GMO seed, which the EU so far has not approved for cultivation. Officials in Sweden and France ordered the destruction of the contaminated rape in the fields while Germany allowed it to be processed and used for non-food products.
French authorities chose not to destroy fields of corn containing unapproved GMO varieties in 2000 because of concerns over liability. However, Greek officials moved swiftly to destroy fields of GMO cotton that had not received approval for planting. Reuters reported March 30, 2001 that the Italian agriculture minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, ordered checks on 21 Italian seed companies after seizing soy bean and corn seed imported by the US company Monsanto on the grounds that it might contain traces of genetically modified material. Mr Pecoraro Scanio also asked the regional authorities in Milan to suspend Monsanto's seed import licence.
"The possible illegal emission of genetically modified organisms in the fields could cause very serious environmental and economic damage," said Mr Pecoraro Scanio, a Green party member and an opponent of GMO foods. "To prevent is always better than to repair damage."
Rape Seed (Canola)
Reuters reported May 3, 2001 that the US agricultural industry - from farmers to food processors - is "bracing for the latest and possibly most far-reaching repercussion of the introduction of bioengineered foods: lucrative export markets closed to unapproved crops grown in North America." The article reported that Monsanto Co. had announced that it was forced to recall "hundreds of tons" of GMO canola seed from Canadian farmers because the shipments may have contained genetic material not approved for consumption in Japan, one of the leading export markets for Canada and the United States.
The Western Producer reported Feb. 10, 2000 that triple-resistant canola had been found in Alberta, Canada. Volunteer canola plants were found to be resistant to the herbicides Roundup (Monsanto), Liberty (Aventis, Crop Science), and Pursuit (BASF). Norman Ellstrand at University of California, Riverside wrote in the scientific journal Plant Physiology, April 2001: "It is interesting that little has been written regarding the possible downsides of within-crop gene flow involving transgenic plants."
E. Ann Clark, professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, has analysed the situation in Canada, focusing on rape seed (canola). She writes in CropChoice May 14, 2001 that the emergence of "volunteer" canola in subsequent crops is nothing new in western Canada - but what is new is that the volunteer plants bear proprietary (patented) genes and are tolerant to one or more common herbicides. Farmers can also bring GMO canola into their land inadvertently, as an unavoidable contaminant in the sown crop. Cross contamination of seed crops with GMO seed is now so pervasive in Canada that seed companies will no longer guarantee "100% GMO-free" even in the seed they sell to farmers, for any field crop that has been subject to genetic modification.
You Say Potatoes...
Food recalls used to be caused by microbiological contamination or high pesticide residue. The introduction of GMO in agriculture has changed the way the food industry must handle its production. Reuters reported May 25, 2001 about a nationwide recall of potato snacks by a Japanese food maker. The Health Ministry of Japan on ordered Osaka-based House Foods Corp. to recall some of its snack products, called O'Zack, after the ministry found traces of unapproved GMO NewLeaf Plus potato in the products.
The potato snack recall was Japan's first after the imposition of stricter rules for imports of GMO foods in April 1, 2001, when the government also introduced checks for unapproved GMO crops in food imports at unloading ports and in food products on the domestic market. The Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry of Japan sent a 17-page document to local quarantine offices and authorities, including details of sampling and testing for StarLink corn. The new rules establish zero tolerance for imports containing unapproved GMO products and require mandatory labelling for approved GMO products.
NewLeaf Plus, developed by Monsanto, has not been approved in Japan or in Europe. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency's only audit of pre-market genetically engineered field trials, in 1998, indicated that most farmers under contract with Monsanto were not trained to follow the minimal rules of field separation and pesticide use in the trials of GMO potatoes. Monsanto's GMO potatoes were then fast-tracked in 1999 for market approval, without further trials in Canada. The Toronto Star reported in detail about the strange approval history of GMO potatoes on Jan 23, 2001 and the confusion surrounding the field trials.
According to Ontario Farmer March 6, 2001 Monsanto decided to get out of the genetically modified business for potatoes. Starting with the 2001 season, the company will no longer market its NatureMark potato. There was concern about consumer reaction, which was heightened when one major Canadian processor, McCain, decided it would no longer buy GMO potatoes.
Whether or not GMO wheat will actually come to market is still up in the air, the US newspaper The Oregonian wrote on Dec. 11, 2000. The international debate about GMOs is fierce, and the international trade climate is "downright hostile" to such foods, according to the article. It also warned that Oregon could see key farm exports shrink. About 85 percent of the wheat grown in Oregon and the Northwest is exported. Some of Oregon's big wheat trading partners - particularly Japan - strictly regulate or ban genetically modified products outright. Farmers "don't want to be left with bins full of unmarketable grain."
"The Pacific Northwest is not prepared for general introduction of GMOs in the wheat industry," said Mark Hegg, a farmer from Palouse, Washington to The Oregonian. The article also noted: "Even those who don't plant genetically engineered wheat worry that their products will test positive because of accidental blending or cross-pollination - and they worry about who will be liable." In early 2001, American growers have asked Monsanto, the developer of the crop, to create a special distribution system to make sure GMO wheat does not contaminate other crops. Also, Japanese flour millers have already stated that genetically modified wheat in the US would lead Japan to stop buying American wheat.
Consumers have not asked for genetically modified foods. US soy and corn with novel genes were first placed on the European market in 1997 in a way that made labelling and segregation almost impossible. As indicated by the case stories so far, there have been a number of problems also in the US, Canada, Japan and elsewhere since the first introduction of GMO crops. Approvals in one country create difficulties for food exporters if the GMO is not also approved simultaneously everywhere else in the World. This situation will probably not improve even if the European Commission decides to lift the current "de facto moratorium" and introduce new legislation. Food recalls and trade problems due to GMO are caused by transnational corporations like Monsanto, Aventis and others, not by governments, famers or consumers.
AEC - Association of European Consumers believes the European Union and its member countries should continue its current policy of not allowing GMOs in the Community. There are not many benefits from GMO foods, especially not for consumers, that can outweigh the enormous difficulties that the introduction of this new technology has created. The precautionary principle, while useful, is not necessarily sufficient to stop harmful GMO foods from entering our food chain, if it is applied on a case-by-case basis. Labelling will also not be very effective as long as Europe's trading partners refuse to segregate GMO crops from normal crops. Rather than further escalating this unsustainable development, a "de facto moratorium" should be maintained as long as necessary.
Protection of the European consumers is - in the opinion of AEC - best left to the Community and not to any third country. Allowing non-Community approved GM-food even in small quantities to be placed on the European market would be to weaken the protection of European consumers. As a minimum, European consumers have a right to be informed via special labelling which GMO foods contain non-Community approved genetically modified material. Because this would be difficult to enforce, we are left with the sentiment that GMO foods are not compatible with the over-all goal of European consumer protection legislation and Article 153 of the Amsterdam Treaty.
International alignment of food law due to the World Trade Organisation obligations will be increasingly controversial if a trade dispute is filed as an attempt to open up the European market. AEC - Association of European Consumers is of the opinion that a WTO dispute settlement case relating to GMO foods would seriously harm the World Trade Organisation, as details of the debate would hit the front pages of newspapers and TV news all over the World. We urge all stakeholders to exercise restraint and take a more responsible course of action.
Association of European Consumers
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