Plotting behind the fence

The barbed wire won’t keep contamination in, but it will keep consultation out

Feature story - October 22, 2002
Jim Thomas woke up to another sleepy day in Brussels, but the police were up long before. The day’s mission – protecting the powerful GE seed industry from protestors while they plot the contamination of the European food supply. Jim tells the story from this side of the fence.

Police guards and barbed wire keep out public opinion while the GE seed industry plots the contamination of European land inside.

Sometimes Greenpeace uncovers the bad guys, and sometimes they uncover themselves.

This rainy Monday morning a Greenpeace supporter in Brussels tipped us off that the European Seed Industry was meeting to discuss genetically engineered seed - not that it was difficult to tell! When we arrived to check it out we discovered an entire Brussels street had been cordoned off with razor wire. Armoured vans and over 110 police surrounded the Crowne plaza hotel with the sort of protection usually afforded to ministers and heads of states. So what exactly was going on inside?

"Its a meeting about the transgenic seeds," explained a friendly policeman handing out Belgian waffles to his troops manning the barbed wire "They are worried that Greenpeace will find out."

There was a time when the seed industry was about providing farmers and gardeners with the seeds they needed to grow the food people wanted. Today's seed industry however is another arm of the genetic engineering industry and is made to dance to their tune.

The world's largest seed companies are now either owned by GE companies (such as Du Pont's Pioneer Seeds) or are themselves GE companies such as Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. First they tried to mix GE ingredients with the food unlabelled. Then they tried unsuccessfully to convince farmers and consumers to support GE crops. Now they moving on to plan C: Contamination.

Plan C: Contamination.

"The real strategy is to introduce so much genetic pollution that meeting the consumer demand for GM-free food is seen as not possible. The idea, quite simply, is to pollute faster than countries can legislate - then change the laws to fit the contamination."

Naomi Klein, When Choice Becomes Just A Memory, The Guardian, January 21, 2001

For two years the European Seed Association has been at the forefront of lobbying for a new European Seed Contamination Directive. That regulation was due to be finalised next month.

It would allow an initial release of up to 7000 million unregulated and unmonitored GE plants across Europe by contaminating ordinary planting seed that all farmers buy. It could affect the 10 percent of EU arable land currently planted to maize and oilseed rape. It could introduce an unprecedented amount of GE contamination into the food chain.

Greenpeace and others have warned that it would add extra costs to farmers and could destroy the viability of the European organic industry which must stay GE-free.

In one respect the barbed wire was no surprise. The proposed Seed Contamination Directive has so far been characterised by closed doors and secrecy.

In an unusual move, both the European Parliament and Council of EU Environment ministers are being excluded from the decision making process on this controversial measure. Instead an unelected technical committee, the Standing Committee on Seeds, are being asked to give the final go ahead for what may be the biggest single release of GE crops Europe has ever seen. The only other body who will have any say is the World Trade Organisation. It feels like a stitch-up from start to finish.

Perhaps though the seed industry has good reason to be worried.

In the past few weeks thousands of Greenpeace cyberactivists have been emailing European ministers to alert them to the real cost of the GE Seed Contamination Directive. Last week Greenpeace and others presented an online petition signed by over 70,000 individuals and 300 farmer, environmental and consumer groups representing over 25 million members.

Franz Fischler, Commissioner for Agriculture, who received the petition seemed surprised and concerned by the scope of impact of legalising seed contamination.

Down in central Brussels police are still standing in the rain and waiting in riot vans. They have even closed down the botanical garden, a little green haven of biodiversity, so that the genetically engineered seed industry can safely plan the destruction of our agricultural diversity away from public view. An undercover detective stops me and searches my bags, expecting Greenpeace climbers and thousands of activists to arrive momentarily on the street. I smile as I think of the thousands of cyberactivists sending their concerns direct to EU ministers.

There are ways to get past razor wire.

If you live in Europe please join the cyberaction on GE seeds and send letters to your national agriculture minister asking them not to accept GE contamination in our seeds.