On 13th July the European Commission (EC) approved changes to genetic modification (GM) cultivation regulations by allowing national governments to decide whether to permit GM cultivation within their borders. For the last 12 years, there has been a virtual freeze on GM farming throughout the EU. The changes are being justified by the argument that it will make it easier for states to ban GM crops on their own soil, even if this will happen in exchange for having less say over what other states decide to do, meaning easier authorisation for GM at the EU level. GM crops can now in theory be banned in individual states on the grounds of prevention of contamination, but it may take up to two years for prevention on non-scientific grounds to be implemented due to legislative processes.
The Green Party has been pushing for less centralised decision making regarding GM, because, they argue, when countries are able to decide for themselves whether or not to grow GM, it will be easier for GM critics to make national politicians accountable for their decisions regarding GM. The changes also require that any deliberate release of GM organisms into the environment would have to be adopted in co-decision between member states and the commission.
However, the reality is that these changes are facilitating the GM agenda by doing away with regulations. What could be, superficially, seen as a step forward for individual states may result in a worse overall situation as the co-called deadlock on GM cultivation is lifted and biotechnology companies are permitted to make moves into specific countries. This will make it harder for those states who want to ban GM, because biotechnology lawyers will almost certainly attempt to overturn bans. In addition, within the countries that allow GM initially, it will become harder for individual farmers who want to remain organic or GM-free, especially those within countries with little or no regulation like Spain.
The EC changes will enable quicker authorisations of GM trials, with countries placated with the promise of being able to ban specific GM varieties afterwards. These field trials are an indispensable intermediate step in gaining approval to grow and harvest as yet unauthorised varieties of GM crops in the EU. Also, it is currently unclear whether member states will be able to reject GM that is authorised at the commission level and, if they are allowed, whether they would have to justify their rejection to the EC.
These changes will enable immediate benefit to GM multinationals, which will press for greater GM plantings in pro-GM states, such as Spain and the Netherlands, which may cause illegal GM plantings in countries with inadequate GM control mechanisms, such as countries in Eastern Europe. Consequently, this could lead to a situation whereby those EU countries which do not have GM crops growing on their land are subject to massive diplomatic and commercial pressure to do so. The changes may also shine a green light to the rest of the world to loosen GM regulation in their own jurisdictions. China is currently deciding whether to adopt genetically modified strains of rice, its staple crop.
One of the Con-Dem government’s first acts was to approve a trial of GM potatoes in Norfolk, so where does this leave the resistance movement in the UK? There have been other field trails in the UK and most of them have been destroyed by activists. This led Leeds university to spend around £100,000 on security for a trial they recently conducted so that it would not be trashed. The trial went ahead, but the necessary security costs shows why commercial GM research is not currently viable in the UK.
Global opposition to GM thankfully continues. On 12th July, Activists in Catalonia, Spain, sabotaged two experimental maize trials belonging to Syngenta. The Spanish State represents approximately 80% of the surface area of GMOs harvested in Europe, sowing more than 75,000 hectares in 2009, and hosting 42% of the experimental GMO field trials in the EU in recent years. Syngenta are the third largest seed corporation in the world, after Monsanto and Dupont. In the twelve years since GM maize crops were first planted in Catalonia, there have been repeated cases of contamination of other crops, which shows that the supposed coexistence between GM and non-GM crops is impossible. The proliferation of GM crops in Catalonia has led to the extinction of some varieties of traditional wheat and a 95% reduction in the cultivation of organic maize between 2002 and 2008. Resistance, such as that in Spain, may be more important than ever since the EC policy change.
One argument that is now being used by those who are pro-GM is that GM has to be part of the solution to feed the world due to the rising global population and climate change. For example, Richard Girling (who won the Environmental Journalism of the Year award last year, which is interestingly sponsored by Peugeot) wrote an article in the Sunday Times magazine on 27th June, which argued for GM as a necessary and green solution to feeding the world. The argument that GM must play a key role in ending world hunger is based on countless falsities, not least the fact that hunger is not caused by a lack of food but by poverty, and no corporate technology is going to address that fundamental issue. In addition, GM crops do not provide higher yields. It is important that people continue to resist such false claims about GM and continue to fight for self-sufficient food production.
At the Earth First summer gathering in the UK this summer there will be action planning as to what we can do to resist the spread of GM in the UK and beyond.