Britain's GM “co-existence” proposals pronounced completely inadequate

The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has become the EU member state agency to issue proposals on the coexistence of genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops and economic liability. The proposals are required because, since the introduction of a new framework of laws by the EU in 2003 and 2004, any products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products derived from them must be labelled accordingly. The good news is that, because consumers have made it quite clear that they do not trust these products, the law has ensured that they are kept off the market. The bad news is that a product may contain up to 0.9% GM material provided that its presence is “adventitious” - i.e. unintended or accidental. Even this has a good side, however, at least potentially, because it means that any producer whose wares are found to contain GM material at a lower concentration must show that every reasonable precaution was taken to keep it out. This advantage, would, however, one largely lost if governments begin to adopt definitions of “reasonable precaution” which are absurd. This is precisely what the UK government, amongst many others, is proposing. The 35 metres (about 40 yards) which is stipulated as a minimum distance between GM and non-GM crops is hopelessly inadequate: ask the next butterfly, bee, gust of wind, hiking boot or farmworker's welly that you run into.

Far from being effective, the proposals have been condemned by a wide range of environmental, farming and consumer organisations because they would lead to GM contamination of every part of the food chain.

Pete Riley of the anti-GMO organisation “GM Freeze” said that "The Government have failed to listen to the concerns of people and slavishly followed the guidelines set down by the pro-GM European
Commission. They are based on a false premise that pollen movement is predictable and human errors won't occur.” In addition to a separation distance which, in Mr Riley's words “beggars belief”, key issues such as the control of “volunteers” - plants which grow in a field from the residue of a previous crop - are left to voluntary agreements with industry. Anyone who has worked in environmental policy and whose wages are not paid by a corporation or corporate-funded source will tell you that having a “voluntary agreement with industry” is about as effective trying to reason with a hungry bear. As Riley says “The people to benefit from these proposals will be the biotech corporations – once again the Government prefers to listen to them rather than the people who buy and eat food".

DEFRA is holding a consultation process which has just begun and runs until 20th October 2006. GM Freeze and Friends of the Earth will be publishing a guide on how to respond shortly, and spectrezine will keep you informed.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, the EU Ombudsman has ruled that the European Commission was wrong to conceal documents which offered damning evidence on environmental and public health issues relating to GMOs. Finding the European Union's powerful unelected executive guilty of "maladministration", it upheld a complaint from Friends of the Earth Europe, who said that documents had been kept from the public because they revealed scientific concerns about the safety of GM foods. The Commission was obliged to defend the EU from complaints by the United States before the World Trade Organisation that EU laws on genetically modified organisms were too restrictive. It did so by pointing to health and environmental concerns which, in pro-GMO propaganda it constantly pours out to the public, it ignores or even denies.

The European Commission initially refused to release papers to Friends of the Earth Europe in August 2004, citing that the dispute in the WTO had to be "assimilated" to court proceedings and that the publication of the papers would have damaged their case. The ombudsman rejected this argument as "not well founded, and hence amount(ing) to an instance of maladministration."

The Commission eventually released the documents in February 2005. The papers outlined scientific concerns about the long-term safety of GM foods and crops. Further papers, also released to Friends of the Earth Europe earlier this year, outlined these concerns in more detail, warning that cancer and allergies caused by eating GM foods cannot be ruled out and recommending that GM crops should not be grown until their long-term effects are known.

The Ombudsman refused to accept the Commission's argument that WTO disputes should involve the secrecy levels of court cases, but even if this were a reasonable position, would it justify telling the court one thing and the public another? Doesn't that mean that one or the other statement must logically be a lie? Presumably the sort of upper class reptilian specimens that staff the higher echelons of the Commission never had mums or dads, that told them lying is wrong – but then the elites of British, French and German society did not get where they are today by paying attention to simple moral precepts. Like the British Prime Minister, they have no problem with lying at all, not even apologising when caught red-handed.

As Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth Europe said, "What we now know is that whilst the European Commission has been telling us for years that biotech foods are safe, they were arguing behind closed doors that there are legitimate scientific concerns that warrant a more precautionary approach."