GM policy shift in Europe
Agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel wants new rules for genetically modified crops
By Ned Stafford
The Scientist, January 26, 2005
Newly installed European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has signaled a major shift in European Union policies toward genetically modified (GM) crops, telling a German newspaper last week that she believes the European Union should issue guidelines for acceptable distances between GM and non-GM crops.
Currently, the European Union leaves it up to member states to regulate sowing of GM crops so they do not contaminate adjacent non-GM fields with GM pollen. Coexistence of GM and non-GM farm fields is so controversial in several EU nations, including Germany, that Fischer Boel's predecessor, Franz Fischler, simply avoided the issue.
In an interview with the daily Berliner Zeitung, Fischer Boel said that GM and non-GM fields must be separated to avoid GM contamination. However, she said: "Regulations must not be so hard that the producers of GM crops have no chance to come to market."
Some German political observers saw Fischer Boel's comments as a veiled reference to Germany's new strict GM law, which holds planters of GM crops liable for economic damages to adjacent non-GM fields even if they followed planting instructions and other regulations. Many GM crop supporters see the law as an indirect attempt to stop GM planting in Germany. The law was spearheaded by German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast, a member of the Green party, which is a junior coalition partner of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, SPD party.
Schroeder's main opposition parties, the CDU/CSU and the FDP, both issued statements applauding Fischer Boel's initiative while at the same time criticizing Künast's "ideologically conditioned go-it-alone" law.
In an interview with The Scientist, Michael Mann, spokesman for Fischer Boel, acknowledged that there were issues with the new German law in terms of "whether it was proportional" to the legitimate needs of co-existence.
"We have asked for a clarification," Mann said, adding that the requested study will also look at current GM planting regulations in other EU nations.
Based on that study, expected to be completed by the end of the year, Fischer Boel and her fellow members on the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, will decide what sort of coexistence regulations would be feasible for Europe, Mann said.
When asked whether Fischer Boel in general supports GM crops and research, Mann said: "She does, if GM crops are kept separate [from non-GM fields]. She believes GM crops are a reality; they are with us and need to be properly regulated."
Christoph Then, a GM expert for Greenpeace Germany, which supported passage of the new German law, told The Scientist that Fischer Boel's comments mean that "the issue of coexistence has returned to the EU level."
But Then declined to speculate on the significance of her comments to the anti-GM crop movement. "This is a change of policy in the European Union, but it is too early to know what it means," he said.
Then said that however the issue develops at the European Commission level, Greenpeace's goal will continue to be a total moratorium on GMOs in Europe, especially for rapeseed and corn.
The organization will continue to push its theme that unless it can be definitely proven that GMOs are safe, they should be considered unsafe, Then said. "And with the evidence we have now, we believe they are not safe."
To that end, Greenpeace Europe this year plans to issue two reports, Then said. The first, which might be issued by late February, would be a concrete Europe-wide "risk assessment" of the effect of GM crops on non-GM fields.
The second report would be a "more abstract" study of the basic question of the overall safety of GM organisms. It would be designed to spark a major "scientific discussion" in Europe on the use of GMOs, Then said. "We think we need to come back to the basic scientific question of what we really know about the safety of GMOs," he said.
Links for this article
Mariann Fischer Boel
"Obligatory standards for the gene crop farming," Berliner Zeitung, January 20, 2005.
N. Stafford, "GM law 'a blow for science,'" The Scientist, December 1, 2004.
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