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France's Green Revolution

Diana FongOctober 27, 2007

France is the latest EU country reluctant to use genetically-modified crops with President Sarkozy suspending their cultivation. The issue remains a subject of heated debate in the EU's largest agricultural producer.

Sun shining on corn in a field
Many skeptical European nations have red-flagged GMO cropsImage: dpa

France lags behind its European neighbours on environmental issues such as recycling and using renewable sources of energy. But this week environmentalists were full of praise for French President Nicolas Sarkozy for saying no GMO crops would be planted in France until the government had received the results of an evaluation by a new authority on GMOs set to be launched later this year.

Green campaigners have long warned of the dangers of GMO crops, saying they are potentially toxic since the seeds have been genetically modified to resist pests and weeds.

“Instead of spraying pesticides and herbicides, the toxins are produced in all of the plant’s cells,” said Geert Ritsema, a Greenpeace International anti-GMO campaigner in Amsterdam, who attended a high-profile environmental submit convened by Sarkozy.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy and US vice president turned environmental crusader Al Gore
Sarkozy is supported in his green campaign by Al GoreImage: AP

The conference, attended by former US vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore and head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, was in keeping with Sarkozy's election pledge to put green matters at the top of the French government’s agenda.

Sarkozy stopped short of an outright ban on all GMOs, which would have contravened EU agricultural rules, and stressed that his move does not call for halting biotech research.

Critics say GMOs unsafe and toxic

The future of GMOs has long been the subject of heated debate in France with powerful farming lobbies and environmentalists at loggerheads over the safety and viability of using GMO crops.

In the EU, the MON810 corn variety, which is produced by US-based biotech firm Monsanto, is the only GMO maize that has been approved for cultivation.

field harvest of wheat or barley
1.5 percent of France's cultivated maize land has been sown with GMO maize this yearImage: AP

Although the GMO share of total maize production in France, the EU's largest agricultural producing country, is barely 1.5 percent this year, maize growing increased fivefold from only 0.3 percent in 2006. Some farmers have urged greater use of GMO crops to boost yields.

Green lobbyists say GMOs contaminate conventional crops and create imbalances in the ecosystem where wildlife has to coexist with farming.

“You have a built-in insecticide that is part of the plant's genetic make-up, which not only kills pests,” said Adrian Bebb, a GM food expert at the Munich-based Friends of the Earth Europe. “Pollen from maize falls into streams and impacts on ecologically useful or harmless insects, such as butterflies,” he explained.

Greenpeace says that even though GMO maize is primarily used as animal feed in Europe, the toxicity of such crops could have unforeseen longer term health implications for humans. When one type of maize was fed to rats in a laboratory study at the University of Caen, their immune system was weakened.

Agricultural lobby pooh-poohs claims

Still, GMO soya, corn and oil seeds have been widely planted by farmers all over the world in the last decade or so, with more than 90 percent of the global supply coming from the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

Multi-national companies that supply the seeds argue that health risks have not been scientifically proven and biotechnological processes are kinder to the environment since they reduce the need for fertilizer and chemical killers.

Pascal Ferey, vice-president of SNSEA, a union which represents big industry agriculture interests in France said that environmental groups are using scare tactics by misrepresenting the hazards of GMO crops to the public, which are unfounded in his view.

GMO advocates say Europeans consume GMO traces in cheese without even knowing itImage: AP

“We consume GMO traces everyday in our meat, cheese, mayonnaise and ketchup without even knowing about it. How many shoppers truly read the labels down to the last detail when they buy groceries?” he asked.

Maiz Europ, an association of French maize growers was also critical of how ecological groups have manipulated public opinion and health studies to support their views.

“Do you think Brussels would have authorized GMO seeds if they were so dangerous?” asked spokesman Pascal Hurbault, who pointed out that gene techniques have been the best defense against two particularly voracious rootworms that have ravaged maize crops in southwest France.

European GMO skepticism in stark contrast to US

France becomes the latest European country to voice doubts over the use of GMOs. Several European Union countries have dug in their heels on whether their farmers may grow MON 810 maize.

Hungary, one of the EU-27's biggest grain producers, banned the planting of MON 810 seed in January 2005. Germany earlier this year decided that maize produced from MON 810 seeds could only be sold if there was an accompanying monitoring plan to research its effects on the environment.

Austria too could face an attempt by European Union regulators to force it to lift bans on two GMO maize types.

This past Wednesday, the European Commission authorized three more corn varieties and a sugar beet to enter the market, but the GMO crop seeds will be imported, not grown in Europe.

The raging debate over the future of GMOs in Europe is in sharp contrast to the United States, where GMO technology is much more widely accepted.

Genetically modified ingredients have found their way onto supermarket shelves in the form of cooking oils and processed foods, said Bebb of Friend of the Earth Europe.

“Since GMO labeling is not required in the US, consumers don’t know what is in their food,” he said.

woman in supermarket
European consumers are much more aware about GM foods due to labelingImage: Bilderbox

Campaigners agree that there is more awareness in European nations about the dangers of genetically-modified food partly due to the fact that food producers are required by the EU to label products containing GMO ingredients. Various opinion polls show that at least 80 percent of the French public are against GMO foods, which are viewed as unnatural and unhealthy.

Despite the strong passions evoked by GM crops among both advocates and critics, most have welcomed Sarkozy's push for a leadership role on environmental issues that has long been neglected by his predecessors at the Elysée Palace.

Some point out that France's policy shift on GMOs will also have implications for the rest of the EU.

"Earlier the government was under pressure from industry groups to be pro-GMO," said Bebb. "So the precautionary shift now in Sarkozy's tone is a seismic one."