Tougher European GMO legislation

Slap in the face to US, Corporate interests

Feature story - 2 July, 2003
The European Parliament has adopted the world's toughest rules on the labelling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), despite intensified pressure from the US and the GE industry. The new rules bring great news for EU consumers, farmers and food producers - all food and animal feed containing GMOs must now be clearly labelled. (In the US and Canada all such freedom and information is currently denied.) It will also now be possible to trace products from the field to the fork.

Tougher EU GMO regulations mean consumers will know what they are eating.

The new rules are a slap in the face for the US, which is doing its best to forcefeed the world genetically engineered food after heavy lobbying from biotechnology multinationals like Monsanto. The Bush government's bully-boy tactics include waving the WTO stick - the US is challenging the EU's policy on GMOs under the WTO's dispute resolution process, thereby also threatening to undermine the Biosafety Protocol. The Biosafety Protocol is the first legally binding global agreement that allows countries to reject GMOs.

The EU public has been massively opposed to genetically engineered food, since the first shipment of GE soya arrived in Europe in 1996. And it shows no signs of decline, with European consumers consistently rejecting GE food. Until now though, EU labelling rules had too many loopholes to really keep GE products out of the shopping basket, since thousands of products, such as oil, starch, and animal feed, didn't have to be labelled. This is about to change.

Although the new rules are certainly a huge step forward, there are still some significant loopholes. These include the fact that EU consumers still won't be able to tell whether meat or dairy products come from animals fed with GMOs.

Another concern is that EU member states will not be obliged to act against the contamination of conventional or organic agriculture with GMOs. They "may", rather than "shall" take action to prevent neighbouring farms from being contaminated.

The GE industry is continuing to play around with exactly how much contamination would require labelling. They want an upwardly creeping threshold that will undermine the reliability of the label and keep the doors open to further invasion of GE crops in the future. We're therefore calling for measures to prevent any genetic contamination in seeds, with legally binding anti-contamination measures.

GE producers like Monsanto should also be financially liable for potential losses that farmers suffer as a result of genetic contamination. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? But in the US and Canada, it's the producers who are suing the farmers! In once case, Monsanto sued a Canadian farmer for failing to enter into an agreement to pay royalties when pollen from a neighbouring farm drifted and propagated on his rape (canola) field.

"Preventing genetic contamination should now be the number one priority for the EU. If nothing is done to protect conventional and organic crops from genetic contamination, the new labelling system will actually be at risk of becoming useless after a few years because it will be increasingly hard to secure GMO-free supplies," says Eric Gall, Greenpeace's EU Advisor on genetic engineering.

Consumer antipathy towards GMOs remains entrenched in the EU and will determine the market. Only recently the British Retail Consortium (BRC), representing 90% of high-street shops in the UK, made clear that 'supermarkets are not going to give shelf space to something that doesn't sell.' A recent Greenpeace survey among food companies in Germany showed that 170 out of 216 companies asked for produce without any GE ingredients. Only 18 companies do not want to exclude GE food.