Brussels, 21 Oct 2004
'We will continue with our fight against GMOs even if we have to be punished and even if we have to go back to prison,' José Bové, a leading French campaigner against genetically modified organisms, told a conference of experts and policy makers in Brussels on 20 October.
Mr Bové was justifying a campaign of civil disobedience in France that has so far resulted in the destruction of several experimental fields of genetically modified crops, prompting condemnation by national research heads.
'Individual, local and regional democracy [in France] isn't working. If we can't work within the law, we will have to work outside it,' he explained.
Mr Bové accuses the French government of seeking to introduce GM crops without first holding the necessary public debate, and despite the fact that 'the majority of the French population has always been opposed to the introduction of GM material in their food.' He argues that even when a majority of municipal mayors and regional authorities declared their territories GM-free, the government simply pressed ahead regardless.
Given that a number of environmental organisations argue that more research into the health and environmental impacts of GMOs is needed, CORDIS News asked Mr Bové to justify his destruction of field-based trials. 'I agree that we need more fundamental research into the environmental and human and animal health impacts of GMOs, but this can be done in laboratories and more controlled environments,' he responded.
'The truth is that these field trials in France are being carried out on behalf of industry, and what they are really investigating is the industrial commercialisation of GMOs,' believes Mr Bové. He argues that throughout the EU's de facto moratorium on GMO authorisations, private firms carried on testing new varieties in order to certify them so that they could begin marketing them as soon as the moratorium was lifted.
Ultimately, Mr Bové's opposition to GMOs is based on his view of sustainable agriculture: 'There is no way that GM and non-GM can co-exist, because these two fundamentally different approaches to agricultural practice cannot co-exist, and we know that the day GM food enters the national system, there is no stopping it.'
The concept of sustainable agriculture was referred to by a number of the speakers at the event, which was subtitled 'science for a GM free sustainable Europe'. Professor Peter Saunders, from King's College London, said that modern farming should be based on the traditional knowledge that we have developed over the past centuries.
'That's not the same as doing it the old way, as we have the benefit of modern science. The problem with traditional knowledge is that companies can't patent it, whereas with GMOs, companies are able to take out patents on plant varieties,' he added.
By industrialising agriculture, Professor Saunders argues, we have removed a resource that is plentiful - human labour - and replaced it with non-renewable resources in the form of fossil fuels, 'all in the name of efficiency'. He argues that GMOs don't increase yields, they require more herbicides, and they only lead to more profits for seed producers - not for farmers or consumers.
Professor Saunders' comments were echoed by Dr Mae-Wan Ho, director of the UK Institute of Science in Society, who said: 'The model of agriculture proposed by science in the last 40 years has focused on high yields through high inputs, and has led to a loss of biodiversity. Yet biodiversity and productivity go together - farmers have always known that. Research shows that biodiverse fields are up to three times more productive than their industrial equivalents.'
Representing the policy makers was Michael Meacher, UK Environment Minister from 1997 to 2003, who launched an outspoken attack on the commercialisation and politicisation of science that accompanied the introduction of GMOs. 'The science of GM is owned by a small minority of companies, and the research they do is never even published if it conflicts with their commercial interests, which is profoundly wrong,' he said.
Mr Meacher added that when the UK advisory committee on releases to the environment (ACRE) said following field scale trials that 'there is no evidence to indicate that GM crops pose any greater risk to human health or the environment than non-GM varieties,' this is because the trials didn't explicitly look for such evidence, and the authorities continue to rely on research carried out by the biotech industry itself.
The former minister also attacked the composition of governmental advisory committees and regulatory authorities, arguing that estimates suggest that 40 per cent of the members of these bodies have financial links with the biotech industry. He called for funding for research into GMOs to come entirely from public sources, and said that contributors to scientific journals should disclose their current and prior funding sources.
Mr Meacher described US allegations in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that the EU's policies on GMOs were hindering the development of the technology and contributing to world hunger as absurd. 'The US has other motives - bullying other countries to fall into line with the interests of its biotechnology industry, but its WTO challenge will backfire.'
In conclusion, though, Mr Meacher admitted that it was unrealistic to expect an outright ban on GM cultivation and use in the EU. He argued that a new approach should be taken, characterised by a systematic programme of research into the environmental and health impacts of the technology, extension of the criteria for non-approval of novel foods to include cases that would damage the sustainability of agriculture, and a change in rules on biodiversity making it impossible to patent plant varieties.