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Europe and GMOs: A Cultural Challenge
By Hervé Kempf
Thursday 07 July 2005
In these times of Euro-pessimism, one could not overestimate the importance of the end-June vote that saw member States reject - by 22 out of 25 - a proposition from the Commission relative to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). This decision shows that Europe is able to agree.
At issue was whether several States could apply a "safeguard clause" allowing them to prohibit sowing certain GMOs on their soil. The Environment Ministers had confirmed this possibility, relaying the hostility of European citizens with regard to transgenic foodstuffs. They thus mark a crescendo in the ongoing saga opened in 1996, when the first GMOs, imported from America, reached European soil. The act is important, not only from the perspective of GMO and agricultural policy, but also from that of possible futures for the Union.
After 1996, an alliance of ecologists, consumers, and of some farmers convinced public opinion, leading the States to adopt a moratorium on GMO marketing in June 1999. This moratorium was subject to the implementation of stricter European rules, which were finally adopted in 2001 in the form of a new directive. The States finally, in May 2004 - without enthusiasm - ratified the lifting of the moratorium the Commission had proposed.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, since Brussels could still not succeed in obtaining the States' support for authorizing one or another transgenic plant. The Commission found itself forced to issue green lights itself, which, in spite of the process' legality, weakened it, given the Brussels administration's mediocre democratic legitimacy.
In fact, European public opinion remains unfavorable to GMOs. The Euro-barometer poll published in June shows that 54% of Europeans who were asked would "never accept GMOs or only in exceptional circumstances," 31% would accept them only if "highly regulated and controlled." This hostility is reflected in the non-violent guerilla movement in France conducted against transgenic crops, by the refusal of numerous regions across Europe to grow GMO, by the public hostility of several governments, notably in Italy. A noteworthy point: the Union's new members have shown no more enthusiasm for GMO than their predecessors in the European club.
If the Commission under the Presidency of Romano Prodi has often departed from its neutrality in publicizing a pro-GMO attitude, member governments have followed varied policies. In Great Britain, Tony Blair, although favorable to GMO, knew enough to launch a public debate and independent scientific experiments. In Germany, a law regulating the coexistence between transgenic and non-transgenic crops as well as the responsibilities of GMO producers has been adopted.
On the other hand, the French government has led a pro-GMO policy without playing the game of transparency and debate: even though France has not transposed the European directive regulating transgenic crops and has delayed the law regulating coexistence and responsibility, the government pursues dissenters and the mayors who oppose transgenic crops within their communes. Following a classic schema, Mr. Chirac has expressed a reticent attitude toward GMOs (before the Young Farmers on June 16, 2003), while his government and administration promote those crops. The government has not even known to listen to the advice given by the April parliamentary mission, which, despite its overall favorable position on GMO, recommended a pause in trials in 2005.
A Positive Political Act
These diverse policies have not reversed Europeans' repudiation of transgenic plants, which the European Environment Ministers took into account on June 24. But this vote only has meaning when considered as a positive political act: that assumes the question is not considered in an isolated way, but in the context of agricultural policy. The consistency of GMO opposition in Europe may only be understood, in fact, if it is linked to a profound cultural choice that intervened during the 1990s against the background of the crisis in intensive agriculture. From Austria to Italy, going by way of France, the same conviction is expressed that the agriculture of tomorrow depends on the maintenance of a peasantry that keeps the soils alive and on the gustative and environmental quality of products. Europe, in fact, recognizes itself in Slow Food, the movement born in Italy that promotes the excellence of foodstuffs and their convivial value, rather than in the fast food symbolized by the McDonald's company.
While GMOs, conceived by the giant agro-food multinationals, constitute a technical system adapted to extensive agriculture, European consumers and farmers demonstrate the desire for a radically different model. Political Europe initiated this turning point with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy adopted in 2003, which abandoned the objective of increasing production and seriously took respect for the environment into account. But we must go further and not hesitate to publicize the international value of this model. For the global agricultural problem is not so much to increase the quantities produced as to maintain viable peasant communities that have emerged from the poverty trap.
From this perspective, the solution is not to be found in an industrial agriculture that uses little labor, but, on the contrary, in support for small landholders - to limit the exodus towards ever more unmanageable metropolises - and in the development of an agronomy careful about stepped-up output and the protection of fragile soils. Here Europe has a technical and cultural model to promote at a global level. It remains for it to be fully realized.
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
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