Hamara Beej

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Zero tolerance for GM foods in Europe

Mohan Murti

Food is to European culture what free speech is to American culture. There may not always be a good scientific reason for concern, but to consider eating something that has resulted from some laboratory manoeuvring is felt by many Europeans as a kind of refutation of the true self.
Whether judiciously or not, most Europeans are frightened to death of genetically modified food. And, this is not entirely a matter of Europeans’ falling victim to protectionist propaganda or frenzy. Trying to force genetically modified food down European throats is the surest way to guarantee that they swallow neither the potatoes nor a lot of the tactics to dump GM foods.
More than ever today, Europeans are talking about where their food comes from. Food scares push people towards farmers’ markets and more home-cooked fare made with fresh ingredients.
The Atharva Veda 12:1:62, says
O Mother Earth,
Let thy bosom be free
From sickness and decay
May we through long life
Be active and vigilant
And serve thee with devotion
In most of Europe, this Atharva Veda concept of manipulation-free, local-food movement has been gaining momentum in recent years.
Right Decision
Europeans applaud the recent Indian Government’s pronouncement to postpone its decision on the approval of genetically modified Bt aubergines. There are compelling reasons, Europeans feel, why India cannot afford to ignore the environmental and health risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In Europe, regulations are being imposed in the Parliament, individual European nations, and some stores themselves have all imposed restrictions on GM foods.
There is virtually no market for GM foods in Europe as consumers and farmers have overwhelmingly rejected them. EU labelling and traceability regulations also give consumers better information to decide.
Several European retailers have a policy of not selling, under their own brand name, any product requiring a GM label in their markets. Most have put this policy in place years ago, and all have quality-control tests and audit systems to exclude GM ingredients. Countries that have planted GM crops on a large scale have seen their exports to Europe crash.
European Scenario
European farmers are rejecting GM crops and turning to ecological farming. They do not want to be at the mercy of bullying multinationals which are threatening to take control of food.
Most of the 27 EU nations are opposed to GMOs because of risks to the environment and the kind of cross-pollination, of which the Spanish farmers and others have complained. They have been calling for the EU’s agreement on authorising such crops, and the evaluation methods used by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to be beefed up, notably to put more emphasis on the risks of cross-pollination.
Only a handful of GMOs have been approved for cultivation in the EU; of them, only Monsanto’s MON810 maize, approved in 1998, is so far being grown.
The MON810 case has become a source of transatlantic friction. The US has warned Europe against using environmental issues as an excuse for protectionism.
In Germany, the federal states are responsible for official food surveillance. Each of the 16 states has established at least one laboratory for analysing foods for their content of GMOs and, thereby, for their compliance with labelling regulations. Each year, thousands of foods are tested.
The individual results vary from state to state and year to year, but there is a clear trend.
Foods derived from unauthorised GM crops are usually picked up by the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and turned back at the borders. This system prevents unauthorised products from reaching the European market.
GMO-free label
Since May 2008, it has been possible in Germany to apply the label “without gene technology” to food products. Its primary application is in the identification of foods such as milk or meat, derived from animals for which no genetically modified plants such as maize or soy were used in feed.
The criteria are stricter for other foodstuffs: Neither the application of additives obtained through genetic modification nor the accidental admixture of genetically modified plants is allowed.
The standardised logo is making it easier for consumers to choose food products without gene technology in an informed manner.
No more soy shipments are reaching European shores from the US. After several ships were turned away due to traces of Bt maize MON88017 and MIR604 being found in the cargo, all importers are shying away from the risk of such imports.
Europeans are convinced that contamination of the food-chain with GM ingredients and GMOs would create serious and possibly irreversible economic impacts on farmers.
The resulting economic losses — together with patent infringement lawsuits by the biotechnology companies — are likely to lead to a veritable Pandora’s box of legal actions.
Genie in the Bottle
For Europeans, genetic engineering of plant life is ‘sinful’
Europeans believe that the science of genetic engineering is unpredictable and that this ‘Golden Goose’ of industry is laying some stale, mouldy, rotten eggs.
(The author is former Europe Director, CII, and lives in Cologne, Germany.blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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