Stop the import of GMO foodstuffs

From 1999 until 2004, when I worked as an environmental adviser to the United Left Group (known as the GUE from its French initials) in the European Parliament, I participated in the battle to establish the most stringent laws possible to control the cultivation and marketing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products in the manufacture of which they had been used.

What we really wanted was a GM-free Europe, but politically that was not on the cards. Expediency meant we had to go for laws which would offer the best possible protection for the environment, the consumer, and conventional and organic farmers. We won some, we lost some.

Although a coalition of the GUE, the Greens, some Liberals and almost the whole of the centre-left – our own dear Labour Party being the exception - succeeded in ensuring that the European Union had the strictest code of laws governing GMOs in the world, loopholes remained.

The likes of Monsanto complained that the obligatory labelling of GM products would be tantamount to putting a skull-and-crossbones on the packaging. We agreed, though we were surprised that they admitted it. And they were right – you will be hard pushed to find such a label in any supermarket in Britain or most other EU countries. Food retailers don't want to know, and as we hoped they would, have preferred to source non-GM alternatives.

The loopholes come in four major forms.

Firstly, products may contain up to 0.9% GM material before they have to be labelled, provided its presence is “adventitious”- meaning, in plain English, that the producer or distributor has taken every precaution to keep the stuff out.

Secondly, although very few GMOs are approved for commercial cultivation within the EU, and only one member state, Spain, actually grows any, experimental plantings of other crops have been allowed, leading to contamination of conventional and organic crops.

Thirdly, because products from animals fed on GMOs do not have to be labelled, and because Europe suffers from a shortage of high-protein animal feed, GM soya continues to flood in from the United States.

Finally, because the EU authorities do not inspect shipments before they leave port, products coming from countries where GM crops are widespread are highly likely to suffer contamination at source.

Last month traces of a strain of GM rice which is not authorised for import into the EU were discovered in rice shipped into Rotterdam from the United States.

Earlier in the summer, GM maize was detected in Slovenia, where it had apparently originated in an experimental site. These are only the most recent of a number of incidents, and are likely to represent the tip of a very big iceberg. The only way to prevent a recurrence is to suspend both experimental trials and commercial imports until further research has shown conclusively that GMOs can feasibly be kept out of conventional products.

Since the legislative package governing the cultivation and marketing of GMOs in the EU was finalised, evidence has accumulated that they represent a serious danger not only to the environment but to public health.

You don't need to take my word for this. Astonishingly, the very body which, in the service of the multinationals whose bidding it is invariably inclined to do, is as aware as I am that legitimate fears exist that GM products may pose a variety of dangers to the health of those eating them.

I am speaking of course of the European Commission. The unelected EU executive continues to assure the public that GMOs are safe, but was caught out telling a completely different story to the World Trade Organisation disputes panel when it was required to defend its controls on importing them. In connection with this duplicity, the Commission was found guilty by the EU Ombudsman of wrongly concealing documents which Friends of the Earth and others had asked to see.

As FoE campaigner Andrew Bebb 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."

The papers at issue were official studies which Brussels presented in defence of import controls. These documents outlined scientific concerns about the long-term safety of GM foods and crops.

Further papers, which were also later released to Friends of the Earth Europe, described 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.

In view of these concerns, the import of foodstuffs that might contain elements of GMOs should be subjected to inspection and control in any exporting country where GM crops are grown. At the same time, experimental trials should be suspended.

Only if and when an answer has been found to the seemingly intractable problem of contamination, and growing concerns over health have been addressed through serious and sustained research, should any consideration be given to relaxing such measures.

Steve McGiffen is editor of spectrezine. He is the author of Biotechnology: Corporate Power versus the Public Interest (Pluto Press, 2005) This article first appeared in the Morning Star.