Gene seeks farmer

in:

Left Euro-MP Kartika Liotard, of the Dutch Socialist Party participated recently in a forum discussion following the showing of the film Gen zoekt Boer ("Gene Seeks Farmer") in the Amsterdam film centre, the Cavia. The title of the film, a play on the name of a popular Dutch TV show, refers to the pressure put on farmers to endorse and use genetically modified crop plants. "After our actions against the latest permit application from Monsanto for field trials of genetically manipulated maize, we are looking at where we can go next," said Liotard. "Together with Greenpeace and the environmentalist group A Seed, we will take this if necessary all the way to the Council of State" -the Dutch Supreme Court - "to keep this Frankenstein maize out of the Netherlands."

This is the speech the Kartika Liotard gave after the showing of the film:

In the European Parliament the SP group has, since we first entered the EP in 1999, been concerned about genetically manipulated food. One of the first questions which my colleague Erik Meijer put to the European Commission nine years ago was about an American corporation, AF Protein, that had then been working for ten years on the production of a type of salmon which, through the use of a genetically transformed hormone, would grow at ten times the normal rate to a weight five times that of its natural counterparts. These salmon would have been the first transgenic animals to be made available for human consumption. According to the Commission, there was nothing to worry about, there was after all a body of law in Europe to deal with such matters, and if the salmon were to be allowed to be placed on the market this meant automatically that they represented no danger to people or to the environment.

In the meantime we have had eight years and a whole pile of misadventures. Giant salmon escaping from their cages and mating with ordinary salmon - because fish too seem to believe that 'bigger is better' - and thereby introducing new monstrosities of the deep. You might sometimes be inclined to think that Nessie is no myth of the murky past but instead a story of our future.

When it comes to crops we see much the same story. The documentary from A Seed Europe was quite clear about this: the fact that there is no need for GM crops, the dangers of contamination and monoculture, the interests of Monsanto and above all the absolute lack of certainty of the consequences for humanity or the environment in the longer term.

The SP supports the precautionary principle. Just as one does when driving, the principle to be applied is 'when in doubt, don't overtake.' As long as the health implications of GM crops for people and animals are unclear, they should not be released into the environment. The so-called buffer zones operated in Europe are completely inadequate to prevent contamination, and for this reason experimental maize does not belong in an open field. In addition, in relation to various GM maize varieties strong evidence exists of harm to human health. The French research institute Crii-Gen produced disturbing results of such harm from a study into NK603 maize, for which the Dutch ministry recently issued a permit allowing Monsanto to grow it in experimental trials in five places in the Netherlands. At the beginning of this year, we carried out actions against these and we will be appealing against the intended issue of this permit.

In my position as a Member of the European Parliament my work involves for the most part European and international legislation. In this we are confronted by conflicting interests and conflicting treaties. .

In 2003 the EU and all of its member states ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This agreement gives all parties to it the right to control the import of GM foodstuffs and crops and even to forbid such. Yet this stands, of course, in plain contradiction to the free trade thinking of both the European Union and the World Trade Organization. And as is always the case with contradictory legislation, this becomes then a question of power - and the strongest wins. To date we are seeing ever more GM crops appearing on the European market and in European agriculture. It seems therefore that our opponents are stronger than we are, at least for the time being. My attention in Brussels will therefore also be going on the development of legislation which rests primarily on the precautionary principle, and the maintenance of legislation which is to our advantage.

This can be achieved, for example, by drawing attention to each and every incident arising. For instance, the introduction of Bt-11 maize in 2004, by which the then six-year old moratorium on the import of GM crop plants was de facto breached. In the Netherlands, the introduction of this maize variety was approved by Agriculture Minister Cees Veerman. Veerman based his decision on the positive advice given by the European Scientific Committee in 2002. This advice, however, was accompanied by a reservation which stated that the argumentation in favour of the maize variety had been extremely scanty. Since then further research has been conducted, with the French food safety authority AFSSA concluding in November 2003 that unforeseen effects could not be ruled out. Even the US Food and Drug Administration does not claim that it is able to exclude a connection between allergies and the consumption of Bt-11 maize. Research into the safety of Bt-11 maize then, shows that it does not conform to the standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO). It was also no coincidence that the EU Committee of Experts at the same time could reach no agreement on a decision and was forced to pass this to the Council of Agriculture Ministers. The Council too was divided, pushing the decision through to the European Commission. The Commission turned out to be inclined to approve with ease new transgenic foodstuffs and to allow them on to the European market, under pressure as it was from the WTO which, at the urging of the US, had threatened to take action against the EU.

And here we arrive at the kernel of the debate: the introduction of GM crops is a power struggle between major corporations and their governments on one side, and on the other organisations and states which wish to apply the precautionary principle. The weapons of choice in this struggle are international treaties, national legislation, European directives and regulations and the rules of the WTO. National legislation has more or less bitten the dust, undermined by EU directives. And EU directives are most attentive to the horse-trading going on between different trade interests within the WTO. Either Europe permits the import of GM crops, or it will be stung by economic measures taken by the WTO.

While we here this evening have had an excellent and apposite debate on the pros and cons of genetic manipulation, within the European Union and the WTO trade interests are defending their corner with pistols drawn. Yet there is no reason to despair, if only because that would be no solution. We must first of all continue critically following each and every trial when GM crops are involved, keep pushing for independent research into the consequences of the introduction and consumption of such crops, and carry on the fight for the right to determine for ourselves what we will and will not cultivate and what we will and will not eat. Anything which can be brought to bear against the power of the multinationals will be of importance in this: research and debate, but also national legislation and European directives which put the precautionary principle before financial gain. Organisations such as A Seed and Milieudefensie (Environmental Defence) here in the Netherlands are working hard on this, as I promise I shall continue doing in Brussels.

Kartika Liotard is a Member of the European Parliament Agriculture and Environment Committees.