Special report from Italy - tough coexistence bill passed despite Berlusconi and GM lobby (12/11/2004)

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Roberto Pinton of Italy's excellent Green Planet - www.greenplanet.net - provides GM Watch with a special report on the tough coexistence bill the Italian Government has just passed - a bill Berlusconi tried to block as restrictive and illiberal with regard to the growing of GM crops, but which in the end he and his ministers had to pass because of the popular outcry.

Roberto reports, 'Only one minister voted against the ban: Mr. Castelli (the Attorney General). But he is not a GM-campaigner, on the contrary: "I am against to the coexistence decree as I am strongly contrary to GM's: no coexistence is possible. My ideal law about this matter has only a short article: "GM's are not allowed in Italy", I am a taliban...'

After several postponements, the GM foods decree based "on the coexistence between genetically modified cultivation and organic" was approved yesterday by the Italian Government.

In the past days both the "Tavolo agro-alimentare" ("agro food table", a Commitee made up by the food industry, farm federations and Consumers' Unions) and the State-Regions Commitee passed the decree.

An open letter promoted by Mr. Veronesi, a former health minister (and a leading oncologist) said that no-GM corn is carcinogenic because of aflatoxines and that activists against GMOs were taking an "ideological" and "demonising" stance without basing their convictions on sound scientific basis.

Green party Senator Loredana De Petris said she was surprised that an "authoritative physician and former health minister had said such a bunch of silly things."

Veronesi's appeal signed by about 40 scientists and journalists, didn't convince Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno: "I read the letter and I get the impression they didn't read the decree, they're going on about a totally different thing. The mix up research with agricultural production, I'm dazzled. However, there are many other counter-appeals. This one is rather ideological and dogmatic".

Adding his voice to the debate, Slow Food President Carlo Petrini stated: "We want the world of gastronomy to send a clear message to the government to approve the decree to regulate GM foods.Farmers have already protested against the careless liberalization of GM crops, as have the populations of Italy's regions".

Petrini urged the world of gastronomy to fight back against claims made about pesto (according to Mr. Sala, a biotechnologist supporting Mr. Veronesi's appeal, a pesto produced from basil leaves less than 10cm long can contain a carcinogenic substance, a claim which Petrini judges groundless and "verging on the ridiculous")

"It comes as no surprise that the world of science plays on the confusion between genetic selection, practiced by farmers all over the world, and transgenic modification, skating over the crucial issue of patents which is at the very center of so many interests."

Fuelling the protest against GM foods, Slow Food invited restaurant owners and chefs to put polenta and pesto on their menus. On November 11, while official discussions took place among ministers, many unofficial ones were underway over plates of polenta and pesto in more than 500 restaurants all over Italy.

Euro-Toques (an europea community of chefs) and the Italian office of Jeunes restaurateurs d'Europe supported Slowfood initiative. Coop (the leading Italian supermarket chain) exhibit posters with the claim, "More bioversity, less GM foods" in its points of sale in Liguria (the region of pesto)

The decree bans GM crops up to December 31, 2005.

Regions are asked to pass their own laws not later than the same date. Laws have to set coexistence criteria, aimed to avoid contamination of no-GM crops .

It has to be noted that in the last time 13 out of 20 regions have passed laws declaring GM-free their territory, showing the grass-roots support for the bid.

Minister Alemanno said that on the agricultural use of GM "science is divided", due to which the Agriculture Ministry has started a series of projects in favour of biotechnological research.

The decree bans the cultivation of GMOs in open fields, in a bid to prevent the contamination of traditional crops. But it will not outlaw restricted and protected testing of GMOs. "Experimentation will continue. It will not be endangered by this decree," Alemanno has said.

Alemanno recalled that "There are 1,319,938 farms potentially involved in GM in Italy. Thus, the problem of coexistence is more serious in Italy compared to larger countries like the USA, Argentina, Canada, Brazil and Chile".

From here comes the need to regulate the coexistence both to protect high quality "Made in Italy" foods and the appeals from society and the country, besides 13regions, 27 provinces, 1,486 municipalities have put forward rules to be defined as GM -FREE. "This has also happened because there is no national law to refer to".

Mr. Enzo Ghigo, chairman of the conference of regional presidents, said that Italy's 20 regions want the right to decide whether GMOs should be allowed on a local level and expected the government to provide guarantees on co-existence between traditional and biotech agriculture.

The government postponed the measure several times last month, and was constantly being sidelined by the cabinet (because the pro-GMO lobby is very strong right now) fuelling the ire of opposition MPs, enviromentalist organizations and farmers' associations.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi objected that it was "too restrictive" and infringed on farmers' freedom of choice, Alemanno says his measures take an "extremely prudent" stance on GMOs in a bid to "defend made in Italy products and the agricultural sector." Biotech agriculture has met with particular resistance in Italy where organic and 'traditional' produce are growing money-spinners. In fact, Italianorganic farming is leader among the EU nations both for number of farms and organic surface (48,473 farms and 1,052,002 hectares at December 31, 2003)

Within 3 months the decree has to be turned into a law.

Mr. Paolo Scarpa Bonazza Buora, Alemanno's vice-ministry (but a rich pro-GM landowner) said: "Let's wait and see if the Decree will met the majority in Parliament's discussion".

It has to be noted, in fact, that even if all Mr. Berlusconi's party's ministers approved the Decree (after such a popular movement, they cannot act otherwise), they are still convinced that the ban is restrictive and illiberal.

Only one minister voted against the ban: Mr. Castelli (the Attorney General). But he is not a GM-campaigner, on the contrary: "I am against to the coexistence decree as I am strongly contrary to GM's: no coexistence is possible. My ideal law about this matter has only a short article: "GM's are not allowed in Italy", I am a taliban..."

Greenplanet's staff have been frenetically engaged in these days and were invited as guests to half a dozen broadcasts and telecasts.
For Marina Littek of Green Planet's interview with GM Watch's Jonathan Matthews about how GM Watch exposed Monsanto's dirty tricks campaign against its scientific and environmental critics:
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