Defend The Right To Not Eat GMOs

Steve McGiffen, adviser to the European Parliament's United Left Group when the laws governing the cultivation and distribution of GMOs in the EU were adopted, calls for a campaign to ensure that the products of this dangerous technology are kept out of our food shops and restaurants.

Reading the mainstream press over the last few months you could be forgiven for concluding that the controversy over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture has gone away. The European Union has provided us with the world's most restrictive laws, we are told, which will nevertheless allow the industry to develop its products under conditions guaranteeing the protection of the environment and the safety of the consumer. Meanwhile, the Biosafety Protocol enables countries to choose whether or not they wish to take the road to biotechnology down on the farm.

I do not wholly disagree with this assessment. Though it paints a rather more rosy picture than is justified by the facts, it would be hypocritical of me to say that the EU's laws are wholly inadequate, or that the Biosafety Protocol is not up to the job. As an adviser to the United Left Group in the European Parliament at the time these measures were introduced, I helped the Group's MEPs - members of Communist and other Left parties from most EU countries - along with those of the Greens and most members of the Socialist Group (the major exception being our own dear Labour Party) to thwart plans by the European Commission to impose what amounted to an agribusiness corporation's charter. Instead, we got a law which demands labelling of products which contain GMOs, or in the manufacture of which GMOs have been used. Products must be followed from farm to plate, carrying with them at every stage documentation showing that they contain, or do not contain, GMO-based materials. Now, in theory at least, if a product does not say on the label that it contains such material, it does not.

In the end the European Commission accepted this law, and not only because they had little choice. Their hope was that, though it was more restrictive than they believed was necessary, a measure in which people could have confidence would end controversy.

We accepted it for precisely the opposite reason. We believed that, despite its weaknesses, it would provide people with a new weapon in the struggle against the corruption of our food and pollution of our environment through the products of a poorly-understood and therefore potentially dangerous technology. It is now up to people to use this weapon.

The law itself has great weaknesses, and will not completely eradicate GMOs from the food supply. This is emphatically not because it requires only labelling. Food manufacturers and distributors know very well that people do not want these products, and have gone out of their way to find reliable sources of GM-free alternatives. This is the law's major achievement and our confidence that this would happen was one reason why we accepted it, warts and all.

However, provided a marketer can demonstrate that every reasonable precaution against contamination has been taken, the law allows products containing up to 1% GMOs to go unlabelled.

Contamination is highly likely to occur, moreover, especially as, having imposed a centrally-determined set of laws covering every other aspect of GMO distribution, the European Commission then, bizarrely, refused to add rules on so-called "co-existence", rules which would protect conventional and organic crops from contamination.
Aside from the problem of genuinely inadvertent contamination, unscrupulous manufacturers will undoubtedly try to evade the rules, packaging GM material without the required label.

Though we should always demand that progressive laws for which we have fought are enforced, we clearly cannot rely on the government, still less the EU authorities, to look after our interests. We have to do it ourselves.
This means keeping the pressure up on manufacturers and distributors, particularly supermarkets and mass caterers, to keep GM products out.

It means demanding to know how they can be sure that their GM-free products really are made from wholesome food produced by methods which rely on 10,000 years of human ingenuity, rather than two decades of profit-driven hit and miss.

It means demanding that manufacturers and distributors go further than the letter of the law demands. For example, meat and other products from animals fed on GMOs need not be labelled. We should use our power as consumers to ensure that it nevertheless is, and that no premium is charged for the wholesome alternative. Under the rules of the EU and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the British government cannot legally ban meat or cheese of this kind, but Tesco's or Burger King most certainly can.

People need to be informed of the risks of GMOs through leafleting campaigns and any other available means. Where supermarkets or restaurants will not listen, boycotts can be organised. Experience from other countries has shown that the loss of only a very small percentage of customers can focus the mind of retail industry corporations.
Groups such as Greenpeace should use their resources to establish a policing system, checking at random, or where there are grounds for suspicion, that GM-free products really are uncontaminated.

Pressure should be kept up, also, on parliamentarians nationally and at European level to ensure that there is no backsliding, and to try to bring about much-needed improvements. Laws, however, are just words on paper, and that is never more true than when they go against the interests of major corporations. Only we can make this one work.

Steve McGiffen's latest book, Biotechnology: Corporate Power versus the Public Interest, has just been published by Pluto Press. Read more about it at

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