When the US government makes its influence heavily felt in the international forum to prevent the principle of precautionary action from prevailing in the context of anxiety over public health or the preservation of biodiversity, it can only be assumed that it is protecting the multi-million dollar interests of the powerful American agricultural chemistry industry, which intends to invade the world’s markets with genetically modified foods.
But when the Spanish government is the first to make itself available as the way for the large biotechnological multinationals to enter Europe, it jeopardizes its own agricultural image (which invests in quality), and that of its tourism industry, enormously important for the Spanish economy, and places the health of citizens and ecosystems at serious risk. The only possible interpretation of this action is that the decisions concerning such matters are taken by an irresponsible few, and that the lack of clarity and participation surrounding said decisions are transforming Spain into a “back door” of the EU through which industry can obtain approval of decisions which are unpopular with citizens.
In the other EU nations, informative publications regarding the environmental and health risks deriving from the cultivation of genetically modified foods have led to the imposition of moratoria and extremely strict monitoring of experimental areas practically everywhere. Spain, however, has already entered transgenic varieties in its National Varieties Registers (which makes it inevitable that these varieties will be grown ) and the number of authorized experimental crops has undergone exponential growth.
Spain is an experimental field
Despite the fact that the Spanish biotechnological sector is of insignificant size compared to other EU nations such as Germany, Holland or France, in recent years the large agricultural chemistry multinationals have transformed Spain into an experimental area for new genetically modified products. The total increased in two years from 36 experiments which were authorized, or being assessed, in December 1996, to 124 experiments on genetically modified organisms taking place in open fields, taking Spain to fourth place in the list of countries with the greatest number of experimental fields in the EU. . Moreover the number of experiments has recently undergone another rapid increase.
Of the 124 experiments declared by Spain to the European Commission in January 1999, only 17 were run by universities or public institutions, while practically all the others were divided between the large multinational companies in the sector: Monsanto, Novartis, Rhône-Poulenc, Afrevo, etc. By examining the type of experiments carried out it has been discovered that the trend in the biotech sector is definitely research into technological solutions to increase sales of chemical farming products – with consequent damage to the environment – rather than developing research into possible solutions for the problems faced by farmers and consumers. Indeed, more than a third of the active experiments (42 to be precise) are concerned with growing varieties resistant to chemical weed-killers. Especially worrying is the fact that, in some cases, tests of resistance to weed-killers have been carried out on beetroot, which is related to wild species considered as weeds. Biological contamination of the beetroot could, by cross-pollination, cause the development of weeds resistant to weed-killers in nearby fields, which in turn would create serious problems in weed control and a consequent increase in the use of more powerful weed-killers.
Equally numerous insecticide experiments are under way, all based on the implantation of a gene of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacteria which produces a poison deadly to many larva and insects. Many scientists have warned the public opinion about this kind of experiment, which concentrates its research on a single gene (the BT toxin): the proliferation of plants genetically modified with the BT gene must logically cause the very rapid adaptation of harmful insects, the appearance of populations immune to the toxin and consequent loss of efficacy of the natural BT toxin, which is useful in organic crop-growing. Experiments focusing on the qualitative improvement of crop varieties, meanwhile, concentrate mostly on improvement criteria concerning distribution (delayed ripening of tomatoes, for example), while the food transformation industry and only a few public entities focus their attention on improving nitrogen absorption or other topics which are interesting from an agronomical point of view.
In any case, as already repeatedly and emphatically reported, the Spanish Biosafety Board – whose task is to monitor the safety of experiments in open fields – has no representative from ecological movements, unlike other European nations. The Board only releases information about the experiments it has authorized on specific request, and there is no routine circulation of information to the public before the experiments begin (which there is in Britain, Ireland, and Germany, for example). Thus farmers and farms can unwittingly find that their fields are alongside GMO experimentation fields, and therefore exposed to all possible risks of contamination, without prior warning or consultation.
Agriculture and breeding in Spain: threatened quality but the approval of transgenic crop-growing
Spain was the first EU country to authorize the cultivation of transgenic crop varieties. On 26th March 1998 the Ministry of Agriculture published in the BOE (Boletín Oficial Español) a ruling which sanctioned the addition of two genetically modified BT varieties of corn (950242 COMPA CB, and 950243 JORDI CB by Novartis) in the Commercial Varieties Register; from that moment on both these varieties of corn could therefore be grown in Spain. According to information circulated by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1998, about 16,000 hectares of Spanish land were sown with this variety of transgenic corn. In subsequent years the number of hectares sown with these varieties increased, although only marginally. Most of the transgenic corn grown was destined for farm livestock fodder, enabling the DNA and transgenic proteins to pass directly into the food chain without intermediary stages, or warnings on the labels (as no ruling exists concerning genetically modified products for animal feed), therefore implying an increase in health risks. Authorization to grow Novartis corn on Spanish territory is already an absurdity which is diffcult to understand. On the one hand, all of Spain’s ecosystems are placed at risk, and on the other, it is a terrible blow to the image of quality associated with extensive animal farming and agriculture in general, which places prestigious products like Iberian pork and Avila veal on the market.
The ruling which allowed the varieties of transgenic corn to be entered in the Spanish Register established a monitoring program for possible negative effects, which was to last two years, after which a risk “prevention” plan was to be presented. During those two years, therefore, the Spanish countryside was transformed into a large-scale experimental area. More serious still, the required “prevention program” is still conspicuous by its absence.
The Spanish federation of ecological associations, Ecologistas en acción, Amigos de la Tierra and a platform of environmentalist NGO, farmers and consumers, have petitioned the government to withdraw authorization for the cultivation of transgenic corn, and impose a moratorium for growing this type of crop throughout Spanish territory, according to the principle of precautionary action. The government rejected this petition but some independent MPs (the representative for Andalusia, for example) ruled in favor of a moratorium for transgenic crop-growing which should come into effect during this year.
Let’s hope it serves as an example!
Isabel Bermejo is is a representative of “Ecologistas en Accion”, the Spanish Confederation of Environmental Movements, and Genet, the European Network for Genetical Engineering Issues Information and Diffusion
(translation by Ailsa Wood)