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ENVIRONMENT-FRANCE: Hesitant Vindication of Transgenic Crops

Julio Godoy* - Tierramérica

PARIS, Aug 19 2004 (IPS) - A report by the French food security agency AFSSA that highlights the benefits of transgenic crops was received with scepticism in local scientific circles, where experts noted the ambiguity of the study’s own conclusions.

The authors of the report say genetically modified (GM) crops can reduce the need to use herbicides and pesticides in fields and prevent contamination of toxic moulds.

But they avoided making definitive statements, and couched their words saying, ”it is very difficult to state whether the positive effects would be guaranteed or widespread.”

The report was published in late July and coincides with a renewal throughout Europe of the debate on whether to authorise the imports of GM foods and allow experimental transgenic fields outside the laboratory.

Hervé Kempf, science reporter for the French daily Le Monde, says AFSSA responded with a hesitant ”yes, maybe” to the question formulated in the title of its own report: ”Genetically Modified Organisms and Food: Is it Possible to Identify and Evaluate Health Benefits?”

That response is accompanied by so many qualitative statements that it quickly turns into ”maybe not, but further research is needed,” says Kempf.

Biochemist Maxime Schwartz, director of the AFSSA research team, acknowledged the lack of conclusive results.

”In general, GM crops pose potential benefits in theory, but it has not been definitively proven. For this reason, it is essential to continue the research,” he told Tierramérica in an interview.

It is very difficult to measure ”the true impact” of the new crops, and currently there is only ”a situation of presumed benefits for health,” Schwartz said.

AFSSA based its report on studies conducted by scientific institutions in other countries about the effects of genetically modified varieties of maize, rice and beets.

”Avoiding any hurried generalisation, it appears that genetic manipulation has positive effects in two areas,” says the agency.

”The introduction in North America and the Far East of plant varieties resistant to insects has permitted a significant reduction in the use of phytosanitary products” like insecticides, states the report.

Furthermore, transgenics generate fewer mycotoxins, harmful substances produced by many types of moulds that grow on crops at certain temperatures and levels of humidity.

Apart from being a threat to health, including cancer risk, mycotoxins destroy up to 25 percent of food harvests worldwide, according to FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

One of the mycotoxins that develops most frequently in foods is ochratoxin A (OTA), produced by some moulds of the Aspergillus and Penicillium families. Another is fumonisine, which attacks corn.

AFSSA remarked that lower mycotoxin contamination of transgenic corn ”has allowed us to observe greater growth of swine and poultry” that receive it as feed.

But the French food agency also notes that new herbicides like the giant transnational Monsanto’s RoundUp (based on glyphosate) – used on the GM crops the corporation developed to be resistant to the chemicals – dissolves in water more easily than others, which makes it more of a threat to the environment, even though it is not a volatile substance and is not very soluble in human fatty tissue.

In examining the production of sugar from transgenic sugarbeets, which do not need herbicides, the agency concluded there are few benefits, because the purification processes in refining white sugar are already very effective.

”The positive results of genetic manipulation might be valid for cotton, but not for corn,” French farm leader José Bové, famed anti-transgenics activist, told Tierramérica.

”If we plant only genetically modified maize” to produce insect-killing substances, ”the result will be that the insects mutate and become resistant. That is why even the authorities in the United States, the ones most interested in generalising GM use, recommend maintaining at least 40 percent of the field cultivated with natural maize,” he said.

The United States is the world leader in transgenic crops.

According to Bové, scientists should analyse the effects on humans ”of the ‘cocktail’ of GM crops that the multinationals want us to consume in the years to come.”

The day that AFSSA published its report – July 23 – Bové was preparing to rip up the experimental crops of transgenic corn in Verdun sur Garonne, in southwest France. He was accompanied in that protest by around a thousand activists, including several members of the European Parliament.

Mayors, regional council members, and members of farmers and consumers groups have demanded a halt to planting any genetically modified crops.

Bové faces a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 75,000 euros (90,000 dollars) for his role in the destruction of fields planted with transgenics.

(* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Aug. 14 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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