FORUM – Save Our Seeds!

06 Mar 2003

If you can’t get in through the front door, try the back. That seems to be the approach of some transnational seed and pesticide companies, that have vainly tried to convince European consumers and farmers over the past decade to accept genetically modified organisms (GMO) in their food and on their fields. Nobody needs GMOs and nobody wants them, except those few who hold the patents on their seeds and sell the pesticides some of these GMOs have been engineered to resist.

Presently the European Union is strengthening its labeling laws to require labeling of animal feed and highly refined products such as starch, oil and sugar, should they be derived from GMOs, and is lowering the thresholds for so-called ‘adventitious and technically unavoidable’ presence of GMOs, which need not be labeled.

At the same time, however, the EU Commission has come forward with a dirty little piece of legislation that could open a dangerous backdoor for GMOs in Europe, which, at that point, would be hard to ever close again. Between 0.3 and 0.7 percent of GMOs, the Commission proposes, should be accepted as ‘adventitious and technically unavoidable’ contamination in all seed varieties on the market. These thresholds may sound small at a first glance, but they would actually amount to more than 7 billion GMOs (just maize and oilseed rape so far) per annum, which could grow all across Europe without the farmers, who plant them, even knowing they do. It would be virtually impossible to avoid GMO planting any more for conventional as well as organic farmers. And the contamination could legally occur even with no GMOs being planted and approved officially.

Already today food may contain some minute unlabeled traces of GMOs, say in the soybean-derived lecitin used to make it stick together. That is not nice, but will be the end of those GMOs after the chocolate, for example, has been consumed. However, while chocolate, as we have all learned the hard way when we were kids, does not replicate, seeds do. When GMOs grow in the fields, they spread their pollen to neighboring fields, wind and bees can carry them over quite some distance, they may lay dormant in the soil for years, and they may even outcross to wild natural relatives. Rape seed for instance has many weedy and wild relatives in Europe. It would only take a few years of continued contamination of the seeds for farmers to be unable to even stay below the food thresholds and adaptation of the laws to this reality would be unavoidable. And that exactly is the plan.

“You cannot stop nature,” commented an industry representative at a hearing on the subject in May 2002, when the Commission first presented the contamination directive, intended to be adopted by a handful of seed-specialists in the EU’s Committee on Seeds. No nasty discussions in the European or even national Parliaments, not even a decision to be taken by the Ministers of the Member State, just a minor technical directive behind closed doors—that was the idea of David Byrne, the Commissioner in charge of consumer protection (sic!).

You cannot stop nature, but you can stop industry and Commissioners. And that is what a European initiative called ‘Save our Seeds’ has managed to do so far (to find out more and to sign the petition, click here). The directive got stuck after 80,000 petitioners and over 300 organizations representing 25 million Europeans vigorously protested against the ‘license to contaminate’. The petition demands that all seeds must stay clean on GMOs, and the Austrian government has paved the way for what industry claims was impossible. Since the beginning of 2002, all seeds in Austria must be proven to be GMO-free. This works fine and there have been no problems so far, save for the fact that David Byrne sent a letter to the Austrian government claiming that this regulation was against the laws of the Common Market. The Austrians simply ignored him, but agriculture ministers then started asking questions and the Commissioner for Agriculture, Franz Fischler, announced that he would hold a round table on the co-existence between GMO, conventional and organic farming at the end of April.

‘Co-existence’ is now the new buzzword, and it is used by GMO-proponents as a demand for the right to choose whether to use GMOs or not. What they do not mention is that their right to plant GMOs will eliminate the right of other people not to plant them. If nature does not provide us with the option to draw one of the typical political compromises, we will have to make a choice: GMO or non-GMO. There is still time left to close this backdoor and to keep our seeds pure and clean. But we have to do it now and we have to do it in public. Today’s seeds are the heritage of roughly 10,000 years of agriculture. While they re-grow every year, they are also older than any cathedral or pyramid on this planet. For the sake of future generations, it is well worth protecting this treasure from some backdoor merchants.

Benedikt Haerlin, a journalist, former Euro MP and Greenpeace campaigner,
works for the Foundation on Future Farming in Berlin and coordinates the
‘Save our Seeds’ campaign

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