Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Anti-GM Movement Spreads Across Europe

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Apr 22 2004 (IPS) - Europe’s largest grassroots environmental network is stepping up its campaign against the European Union over genetically modified organisms.

Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) is increasing the pressure on the European Commission, the EU executive body, to provide better legal protection for areas within European countries which want to ban genetically modified (GM) crops.

FoEE says that the number of regions in Europe that want to ban the growing of GM crops is rising, but adds that the European Commission is not taking concrete action to provide legal instruments for such areas.

Launching the new initiative, ‘Campaign for a GMO free Europe’, FoEE coordinator Geert Ritsema urged the European Union (EU) to respond to what he called the “unstoppable” anti-GM movement within Europe.

“The European Commission must come up with legislation that allows regions within EU member states to go GMO-free,” Ritsema told media representatives Thursday.

Ten European regions from 7 countries – Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece and Spain – declared themselves ‘the network of GMO-free regions’ last November.

Coordinated by Upper Austria and Tuscany, the agriculture ministers of the ten regions signed a document asserting the right of regions to forbid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) within their territories.

Since then, initiatives against GM crops have started in at least 22 European countries, both inside and outside of the EU.

In France over one thousand town mayors have issued declarations of GMO-free status of their municipality and in Britain over 44 regions have called for special protection in their areas.

More than 500 cities in Italy have also taken a position against the use of GMOs in agriculture. Also 39 communities in Flanders, the Flemish area of the Belgium, and 81 communities in the Walloon, the French speaking part of Belgium, have declared themselves GMO-free.

In January the Commission said that GM-free zones were possible “if farmers decide to produce without GMOs on a voluntary basis” and acknowledged that it would “be difficult to reject these attempts at establishing GM-free zones, which are driven by strong public local concern and economic considerations (such as protection of local traditional agriculture)”.

However, FoEE says that since then the Commission has not done anything to respond to the growing movement.

“Local people, politicians and businesses are demanding the right to stay GM-free. This is the beginning of an unstoppable movement that Governments and European Institutions would be stupid to ignore,” Ritsema said.

“The public says no to GM foods and the only way to prevent the contamination of both our crops and countryside is to ban the cultivation of GM seeds,” he added.

The EU adopted a moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified organisms in 1999. GM crops have been kept out of the EU market since then.

Opinion polls and public debates show a massive and constant rejection of GMOs by the European public for safety reasons, and due to wider concerns about the environment and about corporate control of the food chain.

Boris Fras, president of USOFA, the Union of Slovenian Organic Farmers Associations, whose country will join the EU in May, says that he wants his country to remain GM-free.

“If GM crops enter our country they could destroy everything. Slovenia is only a small country so the pollen from GM crops could spread easily,” he said.

FoEE is particularly concerned about the problem of “co-existence” where GM crops, traditional farming and organic farming exist side-by-side.

The environmental group says that non-GM crops could become contaminated under co-existence and points to research carried out by the British government, which says that pollen from GM crops can travel some 26km.

“Regions should have the legislative competence to clearly define methods of contamination around a scientific view based on the co-existence between traditional, GM and organic farming,” said Gerald Lonauer from the European network of GMO-free Regions.

Ritsema echoed this view: “Co-existence sounds like a good idea in principle but it simply won’t work. The Commission has no answer to this problem either; so the only solution is GM-free zones.”

But the European Commission says that as co-existence “deals only with GMOs that have been authorised in the EU – and are therefore considered to be safe from the environmental and human health point of view, a blanket ban of all GMOs that could not be justified in terms of protection of human health and the environment would not be in conformity with EU law”.

The FoEE initiative also aims to call to action thousands of local activists around Europe who want to campaign for GMO-free regions and a new website highlights the different GM-free initiatives from the regions.

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