Europe challenged on GM crops

Europe challenged on GM crops

Europe’s wrangling over its resistance to GM crops hit another point this month when one of the endless streams of Wikileaks reported in the media last month revealed that the US’s Paris embassy had advocated a trade war over the EU’s failure to accept GM crops.

The leak said that, in a response to moves by France to ban a Monsanto GM maize variety in 2007, the ambassador Craig Stapleton, who was a friend and business partner of the former president, George Bush, suggested Washington penalised the EU and particularly countries which did not support the use of GM crops.

The EU has been in limbo on GM crops since 1998 but has approved the GM maize. The issue has become increasingly muddied as more producers of staple crops outside the EU have embraced GM technology. And they are increasingly unwilling to install the mechanisms necessary to segregate cheaper GM crops from conventional crops in the marketplace.

Last year, in the face of these developments, the EU proposed to weaken regulation and allow national governments to make up their own minds on whether to permit GM crop cultivation.

According to Wikileaks, “Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits,” said Stapleton. “The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory.”

“Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to the EU interests, and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.”

In other newly released messages, US diplomats around the world are found to have pushed GM crops as a government and commercial imperative. Because many Catholic bishops in developing countries opposed the crops, the US applied particular pressure to the pope’s advisers, the report says.

Messages from the US embassy in the Vatican suggest that the US believed the pope to be broadly supportive of GM crops after lobbying of his advisers, but regretted that he had not yet stated his support, the leaks say.

The US state department’s special adviser on biotechnology, as well as advisers based in Kenya, lobbied Vatican officials to persuade the pope to declare his backing.

Another message read: “opportunities exist to press the issue with the Vatican, and in turn to influence a wide segment of the population in Europe and the developing world.”

It also emerges from the reports that Spain and the US worked closely to persuade the EU not to strengthen biotechnology laws. The cables show that not only did the Spanish government ask the US to keep pressure on Brussels but that the US knew how Spain would vote, even before the Spanish biotech commission had reported.

Since the date of the Wikileaks revelations, it has emerged that a group of scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences argued that there was a moral reason for backing GM technology as it offered a means to combating hunger. The document, arising from the meeting sponsored by the academy in 2009, only emerged in the wider public domain last year. Apparently around 40 scientists, including a handful of academy members, met behind closed doors to discuss transgenic plants and food security in the context of development.

The EU’s new proposal suggests that pro-GM countries such as Spain and the Netherlands can increase production, while allowing others such as Germany and Austria to maintain restrictions.

And GM crop production is increasing. In 2007, genetically modified maize was grown on a total of nearly 110,000 hectares in Spain, France, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Germany. In the previous year, GM plantings comprised just 62,000 hectares, approximately one per cent of maize cultivation within the EU.

Genetically modified maize — containing a gene from a bacterium that produces a toxin to defend it from the European corn borer (Bt maize) — is the only commercially grown GM crop. The European corn borer is present primarily in southern and central Europe, but is slowly making its way north as new corn breeds make the plants viable in long summer-daylength conditions.

Spain is the leading European country growing Bt maize and accounts for most of the EU’s crop. But widespread public opposition in the EU to the introduction of GM crops, as seen in a public demonstration in Brussels last month, is likely to make any expansion difficult and challenging.


  • National issue: Growing GM crops looks likely to be controlled more by national governments in Europe, rather than by the EU. (Photo: Douglas Doig.)
  • Vatican thinking: There are suggestions that advisers to the Catholic Church may back GM crops. (Picture: Photolibrary.)

Nigel Williams
© 2011 Published by Elsevier Inc.

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