The maize in Spain: an uncontrolled experiment

Feature story - 26 August, 2003
Spain is the only country in the European Union that tolerates the release of genetically engineered (GM) crops on a commercial scale. Though only cultivated on relatively small areas, the potential impact of Syngenta's GE maize on environment, agriculture and health and the total lack of information and precaution are of serious concern.

New report from Greenpeace slams the genetic experiment on maize in Spain

The GM maize (corn) contains a genetic construct called Bt 176, consisting of a gene from the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis that encodes an insecticidal toxin able to kill the European Corn Borer. It also has a gene that confers increased tolerance to a herbicide and a gene conferring resistance to the antibiotic ampicillin.

Syngenta's (formerly Novartis) Bt176 corn was first grown in the USA in 1996. The European Commission approved the placing on the market of the GE crop in 1997, with a decision that was ignoring the negative recommendations of the EU's own scientific committee and the Environment Ministers Council. Several EU member states, among them Austria, Luxembourg and Germany, prohibited the growing of Bt176 maize due to concerns over detrimental environmental and health effects. The Spanish authorities, however, approved the commercial growing in 1998. While they are still on sale in Spain today, the Bt176 varieties were already withdrawn in 2001 from the list of approved varieties in the USA, a country known for its support for GE crops.

The Spanish government not only ignored concerns over environmental and human health risks, but also the fact that a majority of Spanish consumers, as consumers in many other countries around the world, say 'no' to GE foods and prefer non-GE products, even if the genetically modified foods were much cheaper.

A new report, "The impact of GM corn in Spain," has been prepared by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. It reveals the scandalous sloppiness around the planting of Syngenta's genetically engineered maize in Spain. While the Spanish administration acted irresponsibly in largely passing on responsibility for safety standards to the GE company, Syngenta failed to meet even the lax requirements that the government did impose. Five years after the approval of the GE crop, the monitoring / prevention plan has still not been made public. No official data is available on the exact area planted with GE crops or on where they are planted; nor is there an independent analysis of GE crop results in agronomic terms, of the possible appearance of resistance in pest, of the unwanted impacts on non-target species and soil ecosystem, or of the effects of antibiotic resistance genes on animals and humans.

It has not been proven that the GE varieties cultivated in Spain give better results than conventional ones and are necessary and useful for pest control. The low incidence of the corn-borer pest in Spain does not justify taking the high risk of introducing Bt maize.

In the meantime, the first cases of GE contamination have already occurred in Spain. In 2001, organically grown maize in the Navarra region was contaminated by Bt176 maize and, as a consequence, farmers suffered losses since the crop couldn't be marketed as organic produce. This illustrates how the 'polluter-pays' principle is turned into a 'contaminated-farmer-pays' principle.

Co-author Juan-Felipe Carrasco of Greenpeace Spain said: "Spain has become a big experimental field, where GE crops have been cultivated for the last 5 years without any agronomic advantage compared to conventional varieties and where no measures have been adopted to prevent their negative impacts."

The Spanish situation highlights the need for measures to prevent the

genetic contamination of conventional and organic crops and should serve as a warning for the other European countries. No new authorisation for growing of GM plants should be granted and, most urgently, Member States should oppose the plans of the European Commission to legalise the contamination of seeds by setting up thresholds of authorised GE contamination in conventional seed lots. Allowing contaminated seeds to be put on the market would lead to a creeping and unmonitorable contamination of all European farmlands by GMOs that would make it impossible to sustain a GE-free supply after a few years. GE companies should instead be made legally and financially liable for the environmental and economic damages their products can cause.

Preventing genetic contamination and other negative effects of GE crops should now be the number one priority for the Spanish Government instead of actively promoting GE agriculture in Spain. We call on Spain to apply the precautionary principle and to stop the growing of GE crops. The Spanish example should be a warning signal to other European countries not to allow GM crops.