The European Union has traditionally been more cautious of genetically-modified (GM) foods than the rest of us. They require more scientific study than other food safety organizations before approving individual seeds and ban a significant number of GM seeds as well. This stands in stark contrast to U.S. policies that encourage GM crop growing through subsidies. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, 92% of Minnesota’s 2007 soybean crop and 86% of its corn crop came from GM seeds.
Now, mounting pressure from both Europe’s farmers and global food aid organizations have caused the high courts of various EU countries to reconsider.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) wants to collect upwards of $20 billion from member nations to help the world’s famine victims, particularly those in Africa. Many food aid workers believe that restricting GM seed use is harmful to relieving the hungry and see seed integrity as secondary to their cause of hunger relief.
On the other end of the spectrum, the farmers of Europe are watching their North American, South American and Asian counterparts clean up in the booming grain market, using the highly prodigious GM seeds. Nowhere has the struggle between profit-minded farmers and opponents of GM foods been more visible than in the high courts of France, where farmers sued to use a banned Monsanto-created corn seed in March. When the courts upheld the ban, proponents of biotechnological intervention warned that such legislation could exacerbate rising food prices and economic difficulties for small-scale farmers.
France is Europe’s largest agricultural economy and has maintained one of the stricter oppositions to GM seeds and the biotechnology companies like Monsanto that bring the seeds to market. But recently, France’s National Assembly passed a hotly-contested bill by a single vote that will allow genetically-modified seeds that have been previously approved by the E.U. health commission to be grown in France. The E.U. – while restrictive by global standards – still approves more GM seeds than many of its member nations.
But what’s so bad about a seed that resists pests and draught through genetic modification, thereby reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides? GM seeds can cause a whole host of problems, but little research is conducted to ensure their safety before they are brought to market. In many instances, undertested GM seeds have wreaked havoc on the indigenous landscapes, animals and people that came into contact with it. In one example in 2005, Monsanto’s BT Cotton was banned in India after it killed livestock and contaminated indigenous plants. The cotton had been injected with some material from bacillus thuringiensis, a bacteria that kills boll worms – a cotton parasite.
But more than quarrels over particular seeds, opponents of GM crops articulate their discomfort with the commodification of food staples that allows a few multinational conglomerates to have control over all of the basic crops that feed humans. In other words, a GM corn seed is not nearly as dangerous as the patent that allows Monsanto to control who grows it and for what purpose.
In the heated debates across Europe, this issue seems to have gotten lost amid the discussions of farmer rights, humanitarian aid and the doomsday predictions of economic and crop failure.
Image Credit: Charles Platiau for Reuters