Spain's GM controls attacked (30/10/2003)

Spain's GM controls attacked
Environmental groups say the country has allowed GM farming with too few controls
By Jane Burgermeister
The Scientist, Oct 30 2003

Environmental groups in Spain have criticized the government for expanding the production of genetically modified (GM) crops without carefully controlling and monitoring their impact on the environment.

Spain is currently the only country in the European Union that allows GM crops to be grown on a commercial scale. Also, Spain imports millions of tons of corn and soy from countries that grow large-scale GM crops.

Liliane Spendeler from Friends of the Earth in Spain, who has written a report on the impact of GM crops in the country, criticized the government for failing to keep a central register of all GM crops.

"The government does not give us exact figures," she told The Scientist. "The only figures we can get are the sale of the GM seeds from companies."

Helen Groome from the Union of Basque Farmers also criticized the government for failing to control the spread and impact of GM crops.

"There is no map showing transgenic cultivation in Spain today," she said in French newspaper Le Monde. "Even the authorities do not know the geographic spread of this type of cultivation. The only statistics available are those from industry."

According to those industry sources, the area planted with GM crops this year is expected to amount to 32,000 hectares, or 5% of the country's total production of maize.

To address the issue of whether genes escaping from GM crops are pollinating non-GM crops, the Institute for Food and Agricultural Research and Technology, IRTA, a state-owned scientific research company of the Catalan government, is preparing to start field trials partly funded by Syngenta, which makes GM crops. The first results expected at the beginning of next year.

Agusti Fonts, deputy manager at IRTA, rejected the idea that the Spanish authorities had not done enough to monitor GM crops.

"There is a national commission that oversees all GM field trials," Fonts told The Scientist. "Only when field trials meet strict criteria are they given the green light. We are very concerned to protect biodiversity."

Liliane Spendeler said that she welcomed more testing, but said that it should be done by independent research bodies that are not funded by biotech companies. "I'm afraid that the companies will use the results to try to show that GM crops do not cause any harm," she said.

In contrast to the United Kingdom, which is adopting a cautionary approach on the new technology, the Spanish government is pressing for the European Union to allow commercial growing of GM crops.

Spendeler accused the Spanish government of being "on the side of big companies and farmers and not caring about small farmers and the environment."

Referring to the results of the UK GM farm-scale evaluations which aimed to examine whether there are any damaging environmental consequences to growing GM crops, Spendeler expected the government to seize on results showing that the GM production of maize was less harmful to biodiversity in weeds and insects than the non-GM crop.

The UK tests of three biotech crops found the cultivation of two - beet crop and an oilseed rape - to be more harmful to many groups of wildlife than their non-GM equivalents.

Environmentalists in Spain raised the alarm recently when transgene pollution was confirmed in the Navarre region of the Basque Country in Spain.

Traces of transgenic material were identified in three organically grown cereal crops by the Navarre Organic Agriculture Council, which monitors crops to prevent transgene pollution of the organic food chain. Further tests on one of the maize crops revealed that the polluting agent was the Bt176 variety of GM corn, currently cultivated in the area.

Links for this article

Friends of the Earth, Spain

L. Spendeler, J.F. Carrasco, "The impact of GM corn in Spain," Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth report, August 2003.

Union of Basque Farmers

S.Foucart, "Espagne a cultive des OGM sans avoir evalue leur impact" Le Monde, October 22, 2003.

Institute for Food and Agricultural Research and Technology

Genetically Modified Crops: Farm-Scale Evaluations, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

R. Walgate, "Mixed results in GM crop trial," The Scientist, October 16, 2003.

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