Thursday, November 10, 2011

Little appetite for genetically modified foods

How do you know you aren't consuming genetically modified foods? By looking at the labels on the vegetables and produce you buy? Does the labeling tell you if that hamburger you just bought was made from cows that were raided genetically modified corn?

10 November 2011

European consumers who have little appetite for genetically modified foods are indirectly eating the crops anyway through imported feed crops, say members of the Greens group in the European Parliament who are calling for a shift in trade and farming practices.


In July 2010, the European Commission adopted a "package" of proposals overhauling the EU policy on GM crop cultivation, hoping to draw a line under years of controversy regarding GMO approvals.

Under the proposal, EU member states would be able to ban GMO cultivation on their territory.

The discussions are still ongoing.

The 2010 package included non-binding guidelines on co-existence between GM and non-GM crops, which replaced the 2003 Commission guidance on national co-existence measures.

According to the EU executive, the new guidelines on co-existence enable member states to adopt measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in conventional and organic crops below the labelling threshold of 0.9%.

"When co-existence measures are not sufficient to prevent the unintended presence of GMOs in conventional or organic crops, member states may restrict GMO cultivation in large areas of their territory" if the restriction measures are proportionate to the objectives pursued, the Commission said.

In July 2011 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of plans to let member states choose whether to ban the cultivation of GM crops on their territory.

The Greens yesterday (9 November) urged the European Commission to rethink its trade ties with Latin American nations in the Mercosur trade bloc that grow a large part of the protein plants used in animal feed in Europe.

The political group also wants the Commission to strengthen agricultural policies that promote diversity and reduce imports of such plants.

“Our impression is that in the process of the Mercosur negotiations there are only the economic interests that are in the foreground on the side of the European Union and it can't be in the interests of agriculture of South America and of Europe,” said Martin Häusling, a German Green MEP and member of the Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

“There are no social and environmental criteria being observed,” he said, adding the trade deal would have “disastrous effects on agriculture”.

The European Commission is in the midst of proposing changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that will take effect in 2014 and is involved in long-running negotiations over a free-trade agreement with the Mercosur countries that account for nearly 20% of EU farm imports.

The Greens/European Free Alliance group contends that cheap imports of protein plants such as soybeans have undermined European markets and that domestic production has tumbled because duty-free imports allowed under international and regional trade obligations mean that European farmers can no longer compete with cheaper imports.

Some 40 tonnes of protein plants are imported into the EU annually, accounting for 80% of the market, says a study released by the Greens/EFA. Europe also relies on imports of soy, palm and other plant oils for its growing biodiesel demand.

In many cases these plants are grown from genetically modified seeds.

Soil problems cited

But consumption has other consequences than on the diets of Europeans wary of consuming GM produce. Walter Pengue, an Argentinian agricultural engineer, says growing export demand for feed plants creates other problems, including:

  • Deteriorating soil quality;
  • Deforestation do to land clearing - the country's forested are plunged 14.1% since 2010, nearly double the regional average, according to a United Nations report;
  • Growing corporate investment in agriculture at the expense of small farmers;
  • Rising levels of nitrogen in the soil from single crops that could eventually damage Argentina's fertile plains, or pampas.

Some 17 million of the country's 80 million hectares of agricultural and commercial forestry lands have been sold to foreign investors, Pengue told EurActiv, with much of the land locked up for soybean and biofuels production and sheep farming.

“We are facing a very, very complex problem [of] food production in the future,” he said of rising nitrogen levels, “we are not going to have the possibility of production of food.”

Pengue, an engineer and plant geneticist at the University of Buenos Aires, addressed his concerns as the Greens/EFA released a study calling for EU policies that promote promote the growth of animal feed domestically while considering the impact of trade policies on farmers in other countries.

He urged European policy-makers to use trade negotiations with Mercosur to ensure there are export standards, but said his own government could do more to protect farmers and land.

Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş told the the Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development on 7 November that sustainability and incentives to diversify croplands are at the heart of the CAP overhaul.

But some national agricultural ministers attending the same meeting expressed concern that proposed requirements on crop rotation and diversification could create more paperwork for farmers, undermining efforts to make the next CAP more simple.

Next Steps

  • 23 Nov.: Debate on CAP with farm organisations at the European Parliament in Brussels.
  • 7 Dec.: Scientists to discuss CAP reforms with the European Commission.
  • 2012-2013: Debate on the proposals in the European Parliament and the Council.
  • By end 2013: Expected approval of the different regulations and implementing acts.
  • 1 Jan. 2014: New CAP expected to enter into force.


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