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The Wild Flower Page 
February 2000
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GM crops

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Genetically modified crops


The beginning of the end?

The international agreement on a biosafety protocol at Montreal may be the first sign that biotech is having have to admit reality. The agreement, a major victory for Europe and for common sense, covers food, seeds, animal feeds and medicine. Imports may be restricted on the basis of "sound science" and GM products must carry general labelling saying that the products 'may contain GM organisms.' The GM grain producers, the US, Canada and four other grain-producing nations had argued that such limits would break the World Trade Organisation's free trade rules but, after protracted negotiations, the 133 nations at the Montreal conference agreed that the new bio-safety protocol would have equal status with WTO regulations. 

Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr announced the breakthrough agreement just before dawn. "The adoption of this protocol represents a victory for the environment," Mr Mayr said. "But don't forget that this only represents the beginning. We have still before us a great challenge." The UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, said that for the first time the principle of caution about GM foods was anchored in an international agreement. Margot Wallstrom, the European Environmental Commissioner, said that the Montreal protocol was a victory for consumers and importers and an agreement of which all countries could be proud. 

Nations will be able to restrict imports of GM products if they fear that these products may harm human health or get into the environment and damage it. Foodstuffs, as well as seeds for farmers and feed for animals, are covered. The agreement will take effect only after 50 nations have ratified it. It also requires countries to begin negotiations on more specific labelling requirements to take effect no later than two years after the protocol enters into force. The protocol calls for further talks on an international framework for determining which parties are liable if a GM product causes environmental damage. 

"This is a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering," Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace said in a statement. "These minimum safety standards must be implemented immediately," he said. "And until the protocol has come into force all exports of GMOs should be prohibited." Friends of the Earth in a separate statement also heralded the agreement. "For the past week the United States and its cronies have been holding the rest of the world to ransom to protect the vested interests of a few companies," it said. "They have not succeeded and now we have a protocol to regulate genetically modified crops and foods." 


Britain's biggest ban GM feeds 

Sun Valley Foods and Moy Park, which between them produce 1.6 million chickens a week, have both gone GM-free. And another major poultry producer, Grampian Foods, is considering following suit. Ironically, Sun Valley is owned by Cargill Foods, which continues to bring GM soya into Britain. 

"Since last May Sun Valley have only been sourcing soya meal from Brazil which is principally non-GM soya" said Cargill. "This is their sole source of soya going into all their poultry production for all their customers. It has been done at the request of some of their customers who have asked them not to use GM soya meal in animal feed." 


Tesco reject biotest veg 

In a well-meaning, but ultimately embarrassing, move Tesco instructed its fruit and vegetable suppliers not to grow crops on sites used for testing genetically modified crops. "We need to be able to assure our customers that no material from GM crop trials could come in contact with our crops. Therefore any crop grown for Tesco must not be grown in a field that has been used for GM trial crops." 

Welcomed by GM activists, the decision was scorned by the Cabinet Office as a "marketing ploy" and pointed out that Tesco was talking to suppliers of fruit and vegetables and trial farms were unlikely to be involved in these products. 

Eventually Tesco had to backtrack, an example of just how sensitive GM policy is still.



The Swiss cabinet has decided against banning release of genetically modified organisms. GMO's will still be subject to a permit system. There is a major controversy between Switzerland's established pharmaceutical industry and environmentalists, some consumer groups and farmers. In 1998, Swiss voters rejected by a two-to-one vote a referendum which would have outlawed production of transgenetic animals and would have forbidden release of genetically altered plants and animals into the environment. 

The Vatican has confirmed its support for GM technology. "I have stopped all those who demand condemnation of these (GM) products," said Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vatican director of Bioethics and vice-president of the Pontifical Academy of Life. He emphasized that biotechnological research could resolve global problems such as hunger since it enables agricultural productivity even in arid lands. Another PAL fellow, Giuseppe Bertoni, criticized the "catastrophic sensationalism" of press reports that substantially contribute to biotechnology's current infamous image. "It's true that ethical limits must be respected but, above all, the reality of biotechnology must be known," said Bertoni. "If you know biotechnology, you don't fear it." 

In the United States farmers expect to make a major reduction in plantings of genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton this year, partly in response to a European backlash against bioengineered foods, a Reuters straw poll found. 400 farmers were surveyed and said they planned reductions of 15 percent in sowings of RoundUp Ready soybeans, 22 percent for RoundUp Ready corn, 24 percent for Bt corn and 26 percent for Bt cotton. The only exception to the overall decline in biotech plantings was a 5 percent increase in planned sowings of RoundUp Ready cotton. 

Thailand is not fertile territory for the biotech industry. Opposition to GM products in Thailand, a leading world commodities exporter, has led to import bans on over 40 Bt agricultural items. "It's one of the toughest tasks we have ever been through, attempting to convince the government on the safety standards of BT cotton," said Sanya Bhumichitra, general manager for the agricultural sector of Monsanto Thailand. "Considering the lengthy process of screening BT cotton, I believe it would take years for the government to deregulate its existing ban on BT corn," he said.


Why care about genetically modified crops? Read this

Check out these links:

ACRE on wildlife risks
English Nature policy paper
The Royal Society: Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use
BBC Link: Food under the Microscope
UK contacts for raising questions about Genetically Modified Food
New Scientist international GM coverage
Food Biotechnology Communications Network
Monsanto UK: Knowledge Centre
Nature Briefing: Assessing the threat to biodiversity on the farm
Entomological Society of America
US National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy

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